propositional density – a helpful steer on writing and revising

Yes, it’s another post on terminology, on naming. Being able to give something a name is important – a name is shorthand for a lot of information. When we name something we can then discuss it, and this is of course what we frequently do in scholarly work. But sometimes learning a new name for something familiar can also help us to see that something differently. And being able to de-familiarise what you’ve written is pretty well always helpful in academic research and writing.

So to today’s term – propositional density. My design dictionary puts it this way. A proposition is a simple statement, a statement that cannot be made simpler. So The cat sat on the mat. Now take, Schrödinger’s cat sat on the mat. Ive added something much more than the name Schrödinger. Ive added a reference to a famous “thought experiment’ in quantum physics. The statement now has serious propositional density.

Propositional density refers to the amount of meaning that is conveyed in an image, web-page or text through the relationship between its various information elements. A statement has both surface density – the meaning is immediately apparent, it is visible, the cat is on the mat – and deep density – meanings that come along with each of the elements, meanings that can be inferred.There is something important in the seated cat example about this very particular cat. So far so good.

High propositional density of the good kind occurs when there are multiple and interesting meanings to be made from an apparently simple surface proposition. A pun is an example of a proposition that you can read and understand at its most literal, at the surface level. However, the pun becomes amusing, appealing and memorable because of its double meaning, because of additional deeper embedded meanings that can be inferred. 

Designers suggest that a good design is one where the number of deeper propositions exceeds the simple. When this happens, viewer/readers/users are engaged, delighted, stimulated. If you want to know more about how designers think about propositional density, try this blog post by David Knell who looks at logos, character design for films and the use of symbols. 

However, designers caution, high proportional density can be mis-handled. High propositional density of the not-so-good kind happens when there are so many possible meanings that the reader/user/viewer loses sight of the surface proposition. Too  much noise. Just too many possible interpretations and wrinkles to think about. The viewer/user/reader has so much to consider that they cannot work out what is going on. They are confused. The point contained in the surface reading is lost. As designer Stephen Bradley puts it, “Contradictory propositions will confuse your message, nullify the benefits of a higher propositional density, and work against your concept and theme”.

Still with me? OK, let’s move on. Propositional density can be a helpful complementary idea in academic writing. It particularly helps us to examine our syntax and paragraphing. to get granular with our writing.

We often hear about the problems of propositionally dense academic writing. When supervisors write “unpack this”, they usually mean that the writing is propositionally dense, but not in a good way. When people complain about academic writing being clunky and hard to follow they usually mean that the writing is propositionally dense, but not in a good way. When I say that reading something is like chewing cotton wool, I am referring to propositional density, but not in a good way.

Scholars typically work with high proportional density. We deal in complex ideas. Our key disciplinary terms are concepts that have extended histories. But there are often debates about key ideas and multiple interpretations. This is why we always explain what we mean when we use categories and labels. We don’t let our readers assume what we mean when we use particular terms – we try to steer their reading so that they can follow our argument.

We can’t avoid scholarly propositional density. Just look at your key disciplinary terms – those complex ideas with long histories and debates – they often take the form of abstract nouns. So in my branch of social science we routinely speak of democracy, class, society, media etc. (Sometimes these disciplinary terms get very multi-syllabled and very very complex — democratisation, classification, socialisation, mediatisation. ) These are important terms and we/I need to use them.

However, when we use a lot of complex ideas in a short space of time it can get very difficult for readers. This is not just because the words we are using have a large number of syllables. It’s the sheer weightiness of the ideas that they carry that matter – and because they make our text, the overall statement, propositionally dense. But not in a good way. There’s just too much going on for the reader to make sense of what we are trying to say. Too many possible meanings jostling for attention.

Academic writers, just like designers, have to carefully manage propositional density. They/we want sentences and paragraphs where the surface meaning is clear, but there are also layers of meaning for readers to consider and enjoy. But too many complex ideas jammed in all together, in just a few words, and the reader will lose their way and lose sight of the point the writer is making. 

Now this might all seem obvious. And it is. Really. But my point here is that having a term like propositional density gives us a useful academic writing tool. We can for example simply put propositional density on our list of reminders to ourselves when we write. And when we revise. 

When we revise our writing and find statements with high propositional density of the not so good kind, we need to ask whether the overall surface density can be made clearer by removing some of complex elements. By making the statement less propositionally dense.

When we write we can consider the propositional density of our text by asking ourselves these questions – 

  • Have I put enough nuance into the draft? Is this work propositionally dense in a good way?And perhaps more importantly
  • Is this work too propositionally dense? Is this sentence propositionally dense in a good or not so good way? Have I jammed too many ideas with too many potential meanings into one small sequence of words? Will the reader get lost working their way through all of the potentially deeper meanings? Does this paragraph hang together because the overall surface meaning is clear to the reader? Or are there just to many ideas crammed into this one sequence of sentences? Is there too much going on here for the reader to grips the overall point that I want to make?

Looking for sentences crammed full of multi-syllabled words can often be your key clue to finding propositional density. As can lots of titles, quotes, multiple phrase and clauses jammed tightly together. But what you are looking for when you find these tell-tale signs is whether the reader can see the surface meaning, and have enough of the deep to understand, learn from and enjoy your point.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Posted in nominalisation, nouny, propositional density, revision, revision strategy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

using the progressive disclosure principle in academic writing

I work a lot with artists and designers. Because I’m a bit of a magpie, I have a habit of collecting – and then using – their principles and approaches. A lot of them are interesting, because they make you – well, they make me – stop and think a bit.  I reckon that visiting concepts out of your usual neighbourhood can be pretty helpful. As is the case here.

This week I’ve gone back to think about the progressive disclosure principle. A term common in design. As the name implies, it’s about the way in which information is presented. The basic point is this – the provision of information needs to be staged in order to prevent information overload. Overload happens when the user/viewer/reader has so much information all at once that they really don’t know what to think/do/believe. A managed flow of information allows the user/viewer/reader to deal only with what is necessary and relevant. Because designers know the progressive disclosure principle, they organise their webpage/book etc so there is step-by-step guidance.

I am sure we can all think of examples of the progressive disclosure principle in action. Thinks of web design interface for instance – those buttons that say click here for more information are a classic PD principled approach to limiting overload. The designer has made sure to support users/viewers/readers to access what they need, when they need it, as well as offering more for those who want it. Hyperlinks forwards and backwards, and new windows that open to reveal more, also offer additional information. But the PD principle means that people who just want the narrative through-line and the bare bones information get it straight away. They can choose not to go further. Not to click or follow the link. Those who like to know all the stuff have the option of following up then and there, or later. 

I am equally sure we can all think of times when the progressive disclosure principle wasn’t adhered to – I suppose there must be someone who hasn’t had to struggle with flat-pack instructions that seem to be simultaneously too much and not enough. Those surplus screws… User error you say? Well maybe, but more likely that the right information wasn’t given in the right order in a way that the user/viewer/reader could understand. 

Anyone who teaches or writes instructions thinks a lot about progressive disclosure. Or they ought to. What do people need to know first of all and get a grip on before they can go on to the next step? Do they need to know what the point is and how the whole activity proceeds? Or are they happy to have things unfold?

I guess by now you can see how the progressive disclosure principle might be of use in thinking about academic writing and communicating research. 

One of the issues that is critical in constructing an academic text is order – what has to come when. What do readers need to know at the start of an academic text? What needs to be discussed in detail before the information is put to use? These questions are really important.

PhDers are often highly vexed about what goes where in their thesis text. Am I talking about my results before I have explained how they are produced? Am I using an idea to explain my results that I ought to have introduced earlier? These are key questions in drafting and also revising a thesis.

The progressive disclosure principle sits behind a supervisor’s suggestion to put the research question or hypothesis early on so the reader/examiner knows what the rest of the text is about. And its the PD principle lurking behind a supervisor comment like – you don’t have to say this all at once. Not the kitchen sink!! And of course the p. disclosure principle is implicit in supervisor feedback that the PhD writer needs to do more signposting of what is to come.

All academic writers have to think about the sequencing of information. We have to think about pacing too – how much time we need to spend with a particular set of “stuff” before moving the reader on. We generally have to consider how to present highly complex ideas without totally confusing our readers. We not only have to think about order and quantity of material but also how to offer nuance and access to further pertinent information

Of course it is harder in a linear hard copy written text to do the equivalent of click on this button for more information or use this hyperlink to access more detail. The hard copy text traditionally used different tools – we write (see p. x), ( see Appendix z), or we use footnotes or endnotes. Sometimes hard copy academic texts are accompanied by a DVD with instructions given in the relevant place of the text. But these days, with the proliferation of digital PDFs and e-books, including the digital thesis, there may well be hyperlinks added. When this is the case, we can use some of the digital tools available to us to manage progressive disclosure.

There is more opportunity now for academic writers to think like web designers. And because of this, it is perhaps also important for academic writers to understand and name the principles that underpin the design of their/our work.

I don’t know that we academics talk a lot about progressive disclosure as a principle. We work with it all the time. I suspect that our academic writing and supervision practices might benefit from being able to use the terminology of progressive disclosure. It’s a neat encapsulation of something familiar. The word ‘principle’ suggests that there is something common writers need to attend to, it’s not just me/you. But it also suggests an element of choice, it’s a principle, not a rule to be blindly followed. It’s something to think about and apply as it applies. Using the PD term might thus help our writing conversations – and our learning and practices.

Photo by Julia Kadel on Unsplash

Posted in drafting, progressive disclosure principle, revision | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

anonymisation – what’s in a name?

Many researchers find themselves inventing names because it’s standard ethical procedure to anonymise the people we’ve talked with and the places we’ve been. And naming is of course a simple and straightforward process. Well, maybe. Well, not all the time. Perhaps hardly ever. Names can be very troublesome and researchers can spend surprising amounts of time working out what to call things. 

Sometimes it is possible, and desirable, to get people to choose their own research name, their pseudonym. Sometimes it is not possible or desirable – people can’t see the point and/or they’ve already spent enough time on your research thank-you very much and/or they don’t care what they are called as long as they won’t be recognised and/or there just isn’t the relationship between you and/or there is no time or, or, or…  If your research is one of the or, or ors, then you will likely find yourself faced with a decision about what to call people and places.

Now first off, a warning. It is possible to get too-clever-by-half with names. Once upon a time, long long ago, a colleague and I decided to give the schools we were studying the names of English trees. We’d done a study of one school that we called Hollytree so we decided to stick with an arboreal convention. So we had Elder and Hawthorn and Oaktree and Plumtree and so on. We allocated these tree names randomly to our thirty case studies. We didn’t need to do this. The tree names told us nothing about each school. 

Hollytree had been a fine anonymisation. It was one school and we’d spent two years researching it and we wrote a lot about it. But this wasn’t the case here. We had thirty schools, our interest was in identifying patterns across them and we didn’t write much about about each of them individually. We would have been a lot better off if we’d just stuck with numbers or with something that combined region and school type – Primary Midlands, Secondary Northern for example. But no, we went with trees. The names had zip, zilch and zero benefit for analysis but did mean we always had to have our naming key to hand whenever we did any writing. Lesson learnt! 

Don’t be us. In order to avoid the too-clever-by-half option, it’s helpful to have a bit of a handle on the choices you have in naming. There are some predictable options. 

There are simple, descriptive choices:

The name is relevant to the kind of person or place selected for study e.g. University 1, University 2 etc. 

There are more descriptive choices – where the name bears some relationship to the research question and analysis: 

  • The names uses chronology e.g. university ( new), university (old) 
  • The name is relevant to demography e.g. academic (female), academic (non-binary) academic (neurotypical)
  • The name is relevant to location e.g. university ( south) university (London)
  • The names is relevant to size e.g. faculty (small), faculty ( medium) 
  • The name is relevant to the organisation  e.g. academic ( temporary), academic (tenured) academic (senior) administrator, clerical staff
  • The name is relevant to magnitude e.g. academic (most cited) academic (least cited) 

There are descriptive choices of names which aim to humanise the person so that the reader will see the words and get an idea of the person speaking e.g. people are given new names – Maria, Fred. Re-naming can be tricky. Researchers of course need to take care not to use a name or nickname of anyone in the study. But they also need to consider class and cultural questions. Are they stereotyping people by giving them particular names? Are they steering readers’ expectations – for instance, what would you assume about an undergraduate called Rainbow, or one called Tarquin? ( Apologies to any Rainbows or Tarquins reading this.) And it is always important to consider whether naming is going to be confusing – do readers really need this person to have a name, or would a number or some other less human name be just as good and potentially less risky? 

And places and organisations can be given names that carry information. e.g. Royal Livery University (probably old and posh), University of the Southern Islands (possibly remote and involved in distance education with a community focus). But the researcher has the (often difficult) question of what information gets carried with the name. How would you respond to a Midlands Entrepreneurial University or Northern Trades College? If names are central to the analysis carried out, then they might be apt. Or they may skew the readers’ impressions. And of course if there is only one organisation which fits the name, then apparent anonymity might give away far too much. What would a google search of Midlands Entrepreneurial University produce for example? 

Yes, this is not all there is to say about naming and anonymisation but I hope, dear anonymous, this is an answer of sorts to your question. Use the categories listed above as a starting point to think through what kind of naming you will do. And do remember, naming is often a lot more complex than it appears at first glance. It’s worth spending that extra time thinking about it.

Photo of a hollytree by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Posted in anonymisation, anonymity | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

everyday annotation

Last week I stumbled across the book Annotation, written by Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia. As the title suggests, the book is all about the history and practices of annotating texts. And probably because the book is from the MIT Press, the authors don’t stop at books and papers – they also tackle how digital technologies offer new possibilities for annotation. They consider how annotation might be used in the interests of open scholarship and open government.

Kalir and Garcia see annotation as one way that readers respond to texts. Not the only way of course, as copious memo-makers can attest. They say “Annotation is a way that readers talk with their texts, to their texts, about and beyond texts and within and through and through texts” (p. xii). The authors offer a generous take on annotation – seeing it ranging from underlining, and redacting to making extended commentary in the margins. Annotation “binds reading and writing together”, they say. 

Annotation is a particular genre, according to Kalir and Garcia, a “synthesis of reading, thinking writing and communicating” (p. xiv). It is about the reader making meaning of and with the text. “Annotation connects together people, texts and ideas, enabling shared insights, engaged dialogue, and new understandings and knowledge”, they suggest. (p. xii) As a genre, annotation serves five purposes – “providing information, sharing commentary, sparking conversation, expressing power and aiding learning” (p. xiv) All of these are of course of interest to people engaged scholarly activities.

Kalir and Garcia see academic work as continually engaged with annotation. They take up the notion of academic work as a Great Conversation. Kalir and Garcia explain the Great Conversation this way –  “Scholars have participated in an ongoing an iterative process whereby an author references another colleague, ideas are built on prior insights, and intellectual inquiry refines the cumulative progress of learned societies” (p. 100). This explanation of scholarly practice as conversation obviously underpins my positive response to the book – I am always banging on about writing as being in conversation with other scholars. And on focusing on exchange and contribution rather than deficit and gap-talk.

According to Kalir and Garcia, annotation is an inextricable part of ongoing scholarly dialogue. “ As this Great Conversation continues it propels forward an ever -expansive network of annotation – including endnotes, interlinear glosses, in-line citations, and recent advances like hyperlinked texts and open data sets – that provides intellectual lineage to substantive claims relevant to skeptics and stalwart researchers” (p. 100).  Yes, absolutely. 

As you can probably guess, Kalir and Garcia are not judgy about people who write on their books. This is not necessarily everyone’s view. I’ve seen lots of scolding social media about the horrrors of writing on the pristine page. But K and G do present a persuasive argument about why writing on and in your books is good practice – and they point to lots of historical examples. They see book-marking as the reader engaging productively with the writer’s ideas. As we read we make a mark to, for example, signal important information or to ask questions about what is written or to add information or to challenge an interpretation. Rather than defacing the book these are, K and G say, signs of engagement. (Of course if this is a library book, then annotating a text might be problematic. But if it is your own book, then annotating is a way to make sense as you read.)

Kalir and Garcia are also fans of footnotes and endnotes. As am I. Some scholarly publishers try to dissuade their authors from using footnotes and endnotes. I am not sure why. It is as if these publishers think that authors must make their main text cover everything. It’s neater. Perhaps they think it is easier for readers. But footnotes and endnotes can add nuance and supporting information and/or refer out to other discussions which make the text richer. And you don’t have to read the footnotes and endnotes if you don’t want to! Of course, I was partly trained as an historian and am well disposed to footnotes. I don’t see it as problematic to spend time away from the main text.

This book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. If you are looking for something that offers practical, tips on note-taking and annotating, then this book is not for you. There are no immediate handy hints. The authors don’t cover how to annotate. They do however offer leads to follow up – they point to software that supports annotation and projects where the software has been put to use. I’m going to chase some of these up.

And Kalir and Garcia do discuss social annotation – when people annotate together – and how this can be part of a pedagogical process. They give examples where groups have used annotation to support close reading of a text. They also address questions of power and knowledge – who has the capacity to annotate, when and where – and thus speak to current discussions about whose knowledges count in scholarship. And, very importantly, Kalir and Garcia point to the possibilities for annotation becoming part of a more democratic and open information infrastructure. If you are interested in open scholarship but don’t know where and how to start, this book might be one place to get into the topic (and conversation).

And in case you were wondering, yes, the authors did make their draft text open and they invited annotations, some of which are in the book. And you can talk with them, and other people interested in annotation, on twitter on #AnnoConvo.

Photo credit; Shelley CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Posted in annotation, footnote, marginalia, note-taking, reading | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

my supervisor expects me to keep revising – why?

I often hear doctoral researchers asking this question. They’ve sent their supervisor some writing. It’s come back with feedback and suggestions and maybe actual corrections. The doc. researcher has attended to all of these and sent the revised text back to the supervisor. And then it comes back again with yet more feedback and suggestions and maybe actual corrections. The doctoral researcher is crushed. Or perhaps angry. Or maybe just feels like whatever they do isn’t going to be good enough. Or they think that they clearly didn’t understand what was being asked. Or that their supervisor is an unreasonable so and so who will never be satisfied. Or perhaps that their supervisor didn’t know what they actually wanted and told them to do the wrong things.

Now, while any of these things might be true, the odds are that they aren’t. So let’s assume for the rest of this post that the supervisor isn’t mean or stupid and neither is the doctoral researcher. Let’s start by assuming that what the doctoral researcher is experiencing is a developmental writing-thinking process in which both the supervisor and they are involved.

Try thinking of these asynchronous textual interactions as an iterative conversation.

A key point here is that in this iterative conversation the doc researcher’s work is not being marked. The writing is not right/wrong. The conversation between the doctoral writer and the supervisor reader is intended to clarify meaning and interpretation. To make the work stronger and more defensible.

The supervisor’s starting position is that the text will be refined through various and multiple versions, generally called drafts or revisions. But this iterative text writing and response process may not be what the doctoral researcher expects, or has experienced in any of their work leading up to this point. They may have done one or two rounds of revisions up till this point, but not the multiple versions that seem to be the norm in the doctoral process.

It’s important to understand that serial revising is the scholarly norm. Scholarly writing typically goes through several versions before it is let out of the closed circle in which it is being written. And feedback – both written on the text and given through conversation – is the most common supervision pedagogy used to support rewriting.

An example. Right now I’m part of a group writing a text. I’ve first of all worked with a doctoral researcher just trying to make sense of data – we used a collaborative writing process to sort out what we had and what we didn’t. I then took on the job of wrestling the text into some kind of shape. Finding the argument. Finding the point. Working out what data definitely needed to be included and what didn’t. 

I am now on the forth draft. Each draft has been sent to other members of the group and they have provided some comments on the text, asked questions, made suggestions about literatures to include, challenged interpretations. We’ve also had two team meetings where we discussed the text and the process we would use to bring the text home.

It was only in this fourth version that I was able to write a succinct paragraph about what the text says. The structure and key points have become quite focused. But I will have another go at the text – version 4.1. – before it goes to another team member to do more of the refining work. And none of us imagine that the fifth draft will be the last. One of our team remembers a similar text written a few years ago which went through thirteen drafts. None of us will be surprised if this is the case here too.

The reason that we are taking so long to get our textual act together – and it’s also the reason that the doctoral researcher has to write several versions of their work – is that we often don’t entirely know what we have to say when we start to write. And even when we do have a sense of the overall argument and our point, we still need to work out the strongest and most persuasive and interesting way to present it. The ongoing authoring, or composing, let’s call it what it is, the rewriting is where we sort out how to construct the best possible version of the “stuff”. We are doing writing and thinking at the same time. And feedback helps.

Just as the team I’m part of is doing this writing thinking job together, the supervisor-supervisee relationship also does that sorting out and sorting through work together. The reading and response conversation via text feedback is (intended to be) a dialogue which allows the text message and form to become clearer with each draft.

Supervisors do approach the conversation around revising quite differently. It’s as well then for supervisors to clarify their approach. I always work on meaning, argument and structure first of all, and leave finer textual points till later, and I think many supervisors do this. Sometimes I point out a persistent writing tic that the writer can sort out as they go along. And often there is additional reading for the doctoral researcher to do in order to sort out their argument. And often I can’t see more reading is necessary or some kind of structural change is needed until we are some way on in the writing process, and the doctoral researcher has got clearer about what they want to say.

But this conversational approach always means there are a few versions of a text needed to get the “right amount” of the “right” material in the “right” order – “right” always being a/my/supervisor’s judgment call. Once you have a rough text stuff-order sorted, then it can be polished and refined.

Alas. My fourth draft hasn’t yet reached the stage of the “right amount” of the “right” material in the “right” order. I’m afraid my colleague doing the fifth draft is going to have to work particularly hard on one section where I have only just managed to group the material together but not yet wrestle it into shape. Yes, we’re all a bit worried about how long it’s taking. But we have faith in the process. We know the process will get us there. Along the way we just have to deal with any feelings of inadequacy or frustration any of us have and focus on the productive changes happening with the text.

Yes, there’s always feelings. Who secretly doesn’t want this revision to be the last? Well, maybe some one. But it is only human to get tired of iterative revisions. It’s not necessarily easy to put your own feelings about yourself as a writer to one side during revising. That’s true for all of us, but particularly the case for doctoral researchers who are moving from the right-wrong culture of previous academic work to the could-always-do-more reality of scholarly work.

So as you can see, and already know, the process of getting feedback on writing is not just about improving the text. Revising is also about learning how to deal with the emotional side of writing. It is also crucially about seeing both the writing and the writer as benefiting from feedback and multiple versions of the text. Despite wanting the writing to be over, we know that feedback is useful. The emotional dimensions just need to be managed.

Support is helpful. Ask for support. That’s what doctoral researchers are doing when they ask questions about supervisors and revisions. They need a big metaphorical, or perhaps actual, hug and reassurance that this apparently endless revising process is not unusual and it’s OK to feel a bit out of sorts with it.

As long as that doesn’t stop the writing and revising process. And who knows, they – and you – may even get to see revising as pleasurable – at least some of the time!

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Posted in doctoral experience, doctoral pedagogies, revision, supervision, thesis revision | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

why journal articles get rejected – #3

Every journal article is expected to make a contribution. The writer has to say something that adds to the conversation about the particular topic in the target journal. And through this addition, they participate in the discussion in the field. If a journal article does not offer a contribution, or if the contribution is not new or is not significant, then it runs the risk of being rejected. New and significant, that’s the thing to note today. Editors say that a common reason for rejection is that the writer has nothing new or significant to offer.

The novel contribution can be of many kinds. It might be the application of a new method to an old problem. The contribution could be new results from research which uses the same kinds of methods as previous research. It might replicate an existing study. It might use a new data base to examine a long standing question. It might bring new theories to a problem. It might offer a different interpretation. It might analyse the field for trends and challenges. The contribution might offer new “evidence” about a taken-for-granted issue. New location, different participants. You can keep adding to this list, because there are a lot of ways in which contributions are made to a discussion in a journal. 

It is obviously important then to look at your paper asking yourself what the contribution is – what am I adding to the conversation in the journal? Then ask yourself if it is new and significant. What am I saying that is new to the field?

Perhaps an example will help think about new and significant. Let’s imagine that you have a study which looks at supervision and doctoral completion. You’ve looked at the stats for completions in your country and in the university where your study is situated. You’ve also looked at completion rates across disciplines, and over time. (This data is generally available within universities and is routinely used for audit purposes). You’ve also interviewed 15 dyads  of supervisors and recently completed doctoral researchers across three disciplines (n=30, five dyads in each discipline). And you’ve managed to chase up a few people who dropped out while you were doing your research. You interviewed their supervisors too (n=6). You wanted to do a survey of doctoral researchers and supervisors informed by these interviews but well, you just ran out of time. And your supervisor said you had enough data for now. And when you look at the data you do have, the biggest thing that leaps out at you is the importance of the supervision relationship. 

So you write a paper which has precisely this sentiment as its conclusion, and as its contribution – Supervision matters in completions you confidently write. You send the paper off to a well-known higher education research journal. You feel good. Your paper fits the journal. You know that readers are interested in supervision. You have a clear point to make – supervision matters. But your paper is almost immediately desk rejected with the reason given as “no contribution”. 

Well, you can probably see from this example why this would be the case. Everyone who reads the well-known higher education research journal already knows that supervision matters in relation to completions. You do too. You only have to be doing or have done a doctorate to know that supervision can count, a lot. Or be on the socials for just a minute to hear countless stories about the importance of supervision. So not only the readers of the journal but also anyone only marginally informed about doctoral research don’t care that you have found out that supervision matters. They already know that. Now if you’d claimed out that supervision doesn’t matter … but you didn’t.

The readers of the well-known higher education research journal are much more likely to be interested in associated questions about supervision – they aren’t asking whether supervision matters but how, why, when, where, for whom, how much… 

Now imagine that you are advising the person who has written the desk-rejected paper on supervision. You’re sympathetic. You’ve administered tea and a big hug.  Now. I am sure you are now going to ask questions to the disappointed writer such as: Is there anything you can say about supervision practices that lead to dropping out? Is there any variation across the three disciplines that you can talk about – and if so, how do you account for it? Are there particular issues that these supervisors seem less well equipped to deal with that appear to be linked to dropping out? Are there particular themes in the supervision practices where your doctoral researchers have completed? Are there any things in common about the non-completing doctoral researchers that might suggest an area(s) in need of improvement in supervision or institutional support? Can you say anything at all about the importance of supervision compared to other things like institutional practices, higher education in general, or life circumstances? And so on. I am also sure you can add lots of other questions about different angles that might be taken, and that could be taken, on the data and analysis from this sort of research. 

Let’s get real now and forget the imaginaries. This is about you writing your paper wanting to avoid a quick desk-reject. 

There are two obvious strategies that you can use to minimise the risk of the no-significance rejection. It’s a no brainer. Put simply,

  • you need to think hard about what would count as a contribution to this particular scholarly community. Perhaps confirming and replicating is important in the journal and your discipline. But perhaps it isn’t, as in the example above. If it isn’t you have to think about what you will add. You have to ask yourself what is already known about the topic and what  is taken for granted. What else you can say about it? Is there anything that asking how, why, when, where, for whom, how much might point to? Ask yourself – Does everyone already know this?
  • you need to tell the reviewers what the contribution is going to be in the introduction where you establish the problem and address its significance. Don’t use this sentence but try it on when sorting out your argument. Everyone knows that supervision is an issue in completion (references) but there is still more to be understood about ( the topic of your paper) because… And then you need to revisit the contribution and significance in the conclusion when you talk about the implications of your results for policy, practice and/or research. 

Yes of course.  I know what you’re thinking. Whether the contribution is significant or new is ultimately a judgment call by peer reviewers. And, as we know, peer reviewing can be feral territory –  your very best efforts to clarify your contribution might still not be enough. (I’m going to say some more about feral territories in another post in this series.) But your odds are certainly improved if you’ve thought carefully about the existing knowledges in the field and in the journal, and the expectation that you’ll add something. 

Remember the questions – what is already known about the topic and what  is taken for granted? What else can I say about it?  Is there anything that asking how, why, when, where, for whom, how much might point me to?

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finding debates and discussions in the literature

Working with literatures? One of the things you’re advised to do by people like me is to identify debates and discussions. That’s because you are very likely to want to contribute to a discussion. And to do this you will probably need to position yourself in relation to different lines of thinking. So you may now wonder – what’s the difference between a debate and a discussion? And how do you get to know where there is a debate and what it’s about? I’ve been asked both of these questions recently and this post offers some leads to the answers. 

Debate and discussion. Well. Lets take them one at a time. Dictionary definitions of discussion suggest that it is an exchange of ideas, a conversation about a topic, or a process of talking in order to reach a decision. These apply to academic discussions – sort of.

Academic discussions can be thought of as exchanges of ideas, conversations and processes of talking. But the point of academic discussion is not necessarily to reach a decision. The point is to build, and to make contributions to, scholarly community understandings about a particular topic. And maybe wider public understandings too. Scholars involved in a discussion might offer, for example, new empirical work, different applications, a novel theoretical application or a different interpretation of an existing line of thinking. An academic discussion doesn’t mean there is agreement, because academic discussions build knowledges through talking about points of similarity and difference. Over time ,the various contributions to an academic discussion become a discernible line well actually, a braid of thinking. 

When you survey the literatures on a particular topic, you usually look for discussion braids because these are the things that people in your field are focusing on and think are important.  You can locate braids by either asking someone more knowledgeable about the field and/or

  • Reading the Idiots or Introductory Guide to your topic, if there is one
  • Consulting an international handbook, if there is one
  • Consulting an edited collection, if there is one
  • Locating “state of the nation” talks or papers that are given by senior leaders in the field, if they exist.

And you can look for intertextual references – the texts which appear in more than one paper. As you read the texts you have collected together, you ask, which works in your readings are referred to and which appear frequently and might be seen as more foundational than others?  These days, you can get help in locating intertextual references – finding the braids, by using citation tracing software* – for instance –

You’ll want to look beyond what each paper says about your topic to get a view of the history and development of the braid. You’ll read to see what’s been talked about and what hasn’t, what methodologies and methods are popular and which aren’t, which theories are used and which aren’t. All of these details give you a sense of the braid, and what you might draw on and where you might make your particular contribution.

An academic debate is still a discussion. Dictionaries usually suggest that a debate is an argument or discussion around a contention.and that a debate can be quite formal.

In academic circles, a debate may be a discussion where very polarised positions are taken. These days many academics tend to conduct such polarised debates relatively politely, taking a more appreciative stance towards the work of colleagues. However, the “this work is crap because it doesn’t do this” position still exists. There are two main reasons for dismissive dealings with the work of peers:

  • The first is to do with the long and persistent hangover from the highly competitive masculinist academic environments of the last century. Academics found/find it necessary to viciously attack others in order to establish their own work – and their own importance. (This aggressive mode of scholarly combat is why I fled from academia the first time around.) I count snark and passive aggressive behaviour in this category too.
  • The second reason is the existence of an intellectual polarisation. Profound and likely irreconcilable differences of interpretation (and perhaps values and epistemological politics) which are of the yes-it-is and no-it-isn’t variety. My field of education for instance does have a few such very stark debates. The one which most often appears in public is around how to teach children to read. But there are other issues where researchers in my field are very deeply divided. The divisions are so defined that each “camp” has its own journals and conferences and people are known by their membership of a particular view. If and when conversations are orchestrated between the various parties – and this does happen – it often takes the form of a formal debate, and often requires an adjudicator.

But there are of course loads of academic debates where positions are very differentiated but where a conversation can be in the same metaphorical room. When this coming together happens, the debate focuses in part on the relative merits of each position. Sometimes there is adjudication of the discussion, but very often this is not needed. There might also be scholars present who attempt to bring what appear to be deep differences together or move beyond them, often in interesting ways. You often see this kind of debate in special issues, edited collections and in bibliographies made for teaching purposes. You also see it in deliberately constructed forums, where there is one paper or book and a variety of responses to it.

And quite often scholars with quite different positions in an established debate can just rub along – even though they know there are significant differences there are still enough areas of overlap for them to be able to work together on specific tasks. And talk about particular topics without getting unduly rude and point score-ish when they do open up the conversations. 

There is of course much more nuance about academic debates and discussions, but I hope this is enough of answer for now, enough to get you started on finding them in the literatures  🙂

*Thanks to Nottingham colleagues for putting this list together

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Posted in citations, debates in the field, literature mapping, literature review, literature reviews, literature themes | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

why journal articles are rejected #2

Here’s the thing. Journal Editors say that one of the major reasons that papers are rejected is when the writer is not clear about their point, and their argument. Accepted journal articles have a point to make. They work with a single idea and the writer has a distinctive take on it. The top line of the paper is an argument which leads logically to the point. 

The muddy, obscure and out of focus paper reads as if

  • the writer didn’t know what point they wanted to make
  • the writer wanted to make two or three arguments and hadn’t decided which is The One
  • the writer was distracted by interesting ideas and had followed them all to the point that the top line argument disappeared altogether
  • the writer was reluctant to make a choice – they were afraid to let some things go
  • the writer used a free writing approach but had not revised the work sufficiently to refine the top line and point – the work still reads as a brain dump
  • the paper was based on a report or thesis and the writer was afraid to choose one clear point from all of the possibilities
  • the writer had an outline with a set of headings that they wrote to, but they were unclear about the point and the argument 
  • there was a point in the conclusion but it bore little relationship to the start of the paper or the process of the argument . 

You see it’s not uncommon to not know the point. And the reality is that all of the reasons above may be wrong. Completely wrong. Maybe the writer doesn’t know their point – yet. They may still be working it out, working up to it. Learning what it is that they can say. Sorting out the big picture.. And trying to get a paper written is a step in the refining process. However. Rather a lot of people do send their papers in before they are ready, before they have their point sorted out.

It is not surprising then that some journals offer structures that they hope will help the writer make their point clear. Here’s two strategies drawn from journals that are trying to tackle the lack-of-point problem. You might think about how you could use these to help make sure you don’t fall into the point-less trap.

1. The structured abstract

Many Emerald journals require a structured abstract which follows a format: Purpose, Study design, Findings, and Originality/value. In order to provide the information for the last of the four – originality/value – writers need to have a clear idea about their contribution is. That is, they need to know the point they want to make and what it adds to existing understandings. Point + significance. Emerald also suggest that the last section should also address Research limitations/implications, Practical implications and Social implications.

 Here’s an example I’ve chosen relatively randomly. The paper is Harris. B, Childs, B A, Axe, J, and Gormley, C (2022) Developing a university learning, teaching and research framework through practice conversations. Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education. 

Purpose

This project engaged faculty, students, alumni and staff in re-visioning their university’s learning, teaching and research framework. An extensive consultation process allowed participants to explore, discuss and critically reflect on effective practice.

Design/methodology/approach

This action research project provided a process for university community members to engage in practice conversations. In phase 1, focus groups and campus community discussions elicited the diverse perspectives of the community. The design-thinking process of discovery, ideation and prototyping aligned with the action research cycles to help a working group create a learning and teaching framework prototype based on the findings. In the second phase, surveys were used to elicit community members’ responses to the prototype, which was then refined.

Findings

The prototype was organized into three overarching categories, each containing several attributes. The attributes of the “Applied and Authentic” category were: interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary; experiential and participatory; flexible and individualized; outcomes based; and openly practiced. The attributes of the “Caring and Community-Based” category were: inclusive and diverse; community-based; supportive; team-based; co-creative; and place and virtual space-based. The attributes of the “Transformational” category were socially innovative; respectful of Indigenous peoples and traditions; impactful; and reflective.

Originality/value

This article should interest higher education institutions seeking to engage faculty, staff, students and others in practice conversations to develop a learning, teaching and research strategy. This research demonstrated that fostering practice conversations among diverse community members can be a powerful process for creating a common and integrated vision of excellent learning, teaching and research practice.

I’ve outlined in bold the point that the writers want their readers to get from the paper.( I note that the Emerald structure follows a report format which doesn’t really help writers construct their argument, they have to sort that out themselves. Nor does it allow for any context to be offered at the start. Just saying Emerald.) However, the advantage of the structure is that it does require the writer to get really clear and succinct about the point they want to make. For this reason it’s not a bad structure to play with as a development tool because it requires you to not only get to the point, but also express it very economically. 

2. Highlighted features

Another example of a journal helping writers to get to their point is the recent move by the British Educational Research Journal to ask writers to write and abstract as they normally would be, but then to draw out key features. The writer must answer two questions: 

  • What is the main issue that the paper addresses?
  • What are the main insights that the paper provides?

Don’t be fooled by question two – it is not an invitation to have two or more points in a paper. Nope. The Editors expect that writers will state a point and then one or two key aspects of it which have implications for research, policy or practice. 

Again I chose this paper relatively randomly – it is simply the most recent ( at the time of writing this post) about higher education. 

Dockery, A and Koshy. P I (2022) Parental expectations of children’s higher education participation in higher education. British Educational Research Journal

Here is the Abstract:

The role of parental expectations in determining children’s higher education participation is important in understanding both participation and potential policy responses. Using a nationally representative longitudinal survey of Australian households, providing repeat observations on expectations for individual children, this study extends the literature in several respects. First, it examines the adaptation of parental expectations over a 4-year time frame. Second, it looks at how parental expectations for school children are associated with actual higher education outcomes in the future. Third, the longitudinal aspect of the dataset permits more robust analyses of factors that shape parental expectations. The findings indicate that parental expectations of their children’s attendance at university are generally stable across time. Perceptions of children’s academic achievement at school are shown to be the key influence in shaping parents’ expectations, and behavioural issues at school adversely affect expectations. Australian parents from non-English-speaking backgrounds were more likely to form positive expectations of university participation by their children, consistent with studies from other countries. A more nuanced picture of the formation of expectations for sole-parent mothers is also presented. Positive effects of parental education and children’s enrolment in a private school on parents’ expectations, over and above any effect on school achievement, highlight these socioeconomic factors as potential causal channels for the intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic outcomes.

When you read this abstract, you may not be entirely sure what the big point is, But you can clearly see the point in the writers’ answer to the two questions.

What is the main issue that the paper addresses? This paper examines the role of parental expectations in determining children’s higher education participation. It uses longitudinal data from Australia to examine key determinants of parental expectations and the extent to which expectations change over time and affect eventual higher education participation.

What are the main insights that the paper provides? The main insight is that Australian parents’ expectations of their children’s attendance at university are generally stable across time. The key influence on expectations is parental perceptions of children’s academic achievement, moderated by factors with positive (e.g. non-English-speaking background) or negative (e.g. school behavioural issues) effects.

There is an important explainer attached to the big point and these are key to the ways in which we understand the big point. It is also these “modifiers” which may have significant implications, these are not requested. 

The addition of the key features, insights, has three benefits. First, the questions act as a guide to writers to this journal – they must make sure that the insights and their paper and its abstract are one and the same. Writing the insights may be an important aspect of their planning process and revision. Second, the insights section is a boon for anyone doing a very initial cull of literatures. A reader can see very easily at a glance where the paper will be of significance to them and if so how. If it is, then they can read the paper in more detail. 

Third, and finally, the exercise of answering these questions may be of help to you as you are writing. Even if you are not submitting to this journal, and I’m sure a lot of you aren’t, the exercise of answering the two questions can really help in getting your big point sorted out when you begin to write your paper. Alternatively, answering the two questions could be a good way to move from a brain dump to a paper proper, or to help you as you revise a paper that doesn’t yet seem to be quite on track. 

P.S. The tiny text is also good for sorting out your point.

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why journal articles get rejected #1

Some journal articles never get sent out for review. They are rejected at the outset by the Editor. Why is this? Well, there’s a short and a somewhat longer and a very extensive answer to this question. The short answer is that the paper “doesnt fit the journal”. But this post give the somewhat longer answer which explains a little more what “fit” actually means. 

First of all, let’s consider the journal. Any journal. Academic journals plural.

Even if they come from the same discipline, academic journals vary. Some are very general and publish papers from a wide range of perspectives and locations within a discipline. In my field the British Journal of Education Research is this kind of general journal. It started out as a British journal, run by a learned society, whose aim was to bring together researchers from within the United Kingdom. The journal not only provided an outlet for British educational researchers but helped to establish education research within the county. Over time, the mission of the journal changed and it now sees itself as an international journal. Other education journal with a country or place in front of their name may also be international in focus, or they may publish work that speaks to the specific country context and/or are mainly by researchers from that location.

Other journals are much more specific and have what we might understand as a sub-disciplinary interest. This interest might for example be a particular theoretical approach, a focus on methodology, or a particular topic. However even journals which appear on the surface to be general may also have a particular focus or take on things. And journals which appear to have the same topic interest may vary a lot. There are for instance in education a number of journals which all appear to be about leadership. Yet these are on a spectrum – at each end are journals which have very different approaches to leading and managing. 

These differences are important. If you send something in to a journal which doesn’t sit with the particular purposes and existing body of publications then your paper may well be rejected. If you submit something very local to a journal which is international in its orientation you may well not fit. If you submit to an educational leadership journal which has the “wrong” take on leadership you may very well not do well.

You may not even get past the first post and find your paper sent back to you very soon after it s been submitted. That’s generally because of a decision made by the Editor. Or Editors – because many journals have a number of Editors. The Editors’ job is in part to sort through the papers and allocate them to reviewers. But sorting through papers is always first of all a check to see whether the paper fits with the journal. if the paper doesnt fit the the Editors send it back – this is often called a desk reject.

Why is this? Well. The presence of a journal around a particular topic is an indication that there is enough ‘critical mass’ of people to justify starting a journal. Once started, the job of the journal is to simultaneously build the community of interested scholars and also to bring together their research, to establish the research as a worthy area of study and to encourage conversations within the community. We can think of journals as knowledge-building communities. Editors thus usually see their journals as serving a particular community – general or specific – and having a strong knowledge-building role.

Journal Editors are generally chosen – often via competition – because of their status in the field and their interest in the knowledge-building aspects of the journal. Editors can be conservative – they want to preserve the journal community and so they vigorously police its boundaries. Or they may be interested in taking the journal somewhere new – and they select an Editorial Board, reviewers and write Editorials that signal change. Or Editors might be interest in a knowledge building community which is open and takes risks – and again this is signalled through the Editorial Board, Editorials and choices of reviewers. 

So back to the rejection question. When a paper comes across the Editor’s desk they approach it asking first of all “ Is this topic something that is likely to interest some of our readers? Does it potentially add to our knowledge base and the ongoing conversations in the journal?”  If the answer is no, then the Editor sends it back to the author(s). It is a desk reject. 

Now it may seem surprising that I am saying this. it’s obvious isn’t it?  But journal editors often say that people sending the paper to the wrong journal is the single biggest reason for rejection. (There are other reasons as well and I’m going to talk about them in future posts). As a former journal editor of a methods journal I can attest to the wrong choices made. Even though the particular method that the journal focused on was in the title of the journal, and the mission statement clearly said that papers had to be about the method, the editorial team were constantly astonished by the number of papers that were submitted that used other methods. These were just returned with the comment that they weren’t about the method.

So the first step to avoid rejection is to make sure that you submit your paper to a journal where it might find a home. And this means doing a bit of homework about the journal to see what kinds of papers they actually publish. Look beyond the mission statement. Have a look at the Editors and the Editorial Board to see if you know their work. Read some Editorials. Look at past issues to see if you can see resonances with your work.  Look at the topics that are written about. Find the papers that are like yours and see where there are points of connection. Look at your reference list and see if this a journal that you read and refer to – a sure sign there is some points of contact between your work and the journal.

And do seek some guidance if your’e not sure. Ask people who are well published in your area which journal they would advise. Ask them to explain the journals and their particular interests. Ask them which journals you might avoid, where your work might not fit.

Doing your homework about a potential journal and its knowledge building aims and practices is important if you are to make sure that you avoid the initial Editorial cull. Getting past the Editor, having them see your paper as a fit with the journal, is of course no guarantee you’ll get published. But you do want to avoid falling at the very first hurdle if you can. 

(You can find the extensive answer to the why journal articles get rejected question in Thomson and Kamler (2013) Getting published. Strategies for writing for peer reviewed journals. Routledge. There are also other patter posts about rejection, written a long time ago, if you search.) 

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what’s a post PhD research plan, or research agenda?

You’ve passed the PhD. You’re past the PhD. Congratulations. And I hope that you’ve taken some time to celebrate and that you’ve got over– or are dealing with – the post PhD slump. You’re now applying for jobs and post-doctoral positions. And you notice that these teaching or a post-doc positions (inside and outside of a university) ask you about your research plan. What’s that, you wonder?

Of course you had a few future research options in mind when you finished the PhD. You’d spelled them out in the conclusion to your thesis – the implications for further research. There were probably at least one or two of those that you thought you might like to do yourself, given half a chance.

But this project, or even one or two of the projects you identified in your PhD, is not what the job and postdoc panels usually want to hear about. When they say plan they are signalling that they want to see something longer term. Interview panels often signal this interest by asking you what you hope to achieve over the next few years. They ask what you are going to contribute to their department or organisation. When they ask this question, they are not looking to see whether your next research project fits in with them. They are looking for you to talk about something longer term, and something bigger than a single project.

One of the challenges for new Drs is to move past thinking about the next project that they can do, a project that they can conceptualise as being something similar to the PhD. A singleton researcher working on a boundaried project with discrete publications and associated activities.

However, job and postdoctoral panels are looking for you to dream of doing something different, something more ambitious and bigger than the doctoral style of project. And the challenge the panels set is tricky. Even though you may still well need to be engaged with the PhD – publishing from it , you are being asked to move past the thesis and the immediate following project which you haven’t yet done.

The panels and organisations want you to develop a plan which has at its heart a broader area of concern. An area to which you can make a contribution through several projects and publications.

What do I mean by this? Well, I can say what this means for me- just as an illustration. I’ve had a long term interest in academic writing. Now, I’m not a linguist, so I’m not going to be able to contribute much to understandings about how language and texts work. But I am an educator, so the kind of contribution that I can make is – or ought to be – in learning and teaching. My particular interest in academic writing is educational – it is in the pedagogies of academic writing. My academic pedagogies research agenda – and that’s what I have, an agenda not a project – means that I generally take “stuff” from linguistics and build on work from writing scholars, and think/research/write/teach about how the “stuff” can be taught and learnt.

I’ve been working with this agenda for more than twenty years. I’ve sustained it through practitioner research and through various forms of publication. And there have been a few discrete research projects in there (abstracts, advice books, blogging, bio-notes) . I’ve not addressed this agenda on my own – I’ve often worked with other people, sometimes with colleagues from disciplines other than my own, and who work in other places. And I’ve had to learn a load of new stuff in order to develop the pedagogies agenda. And I hope I’ve made some kind of contribution.

So to abstract from my process a little – my writing research agenda has involved an ongoing and substantial line of inquiry. It’s involved strategically winning some funding, publishing a lot, collaborating, engaging with a wide range of people beyond my institution and developing my ideas and skills.

And it’s this range of activities that people are looking for when they ask you what your plans are in the longer term. Post-doc panels and employers who are offering real work (not Mcjobs) want you to think about running your own lab, your own research team, or building a platform. They want you to think about your development as a scholar and the contribution you will make. They want you to go beyond the project you identified at the end of the thesis. They want to know what your thinking about publications and public engagement. They want you to “profess”. They want you to finish the sentence…

(your surname here)’s work on (your long term agenda) shows that….

And they want to know how you will get from where you are now to that point.

And yes, there are real down-sides to dreaming beyond the single project. In these times it can be tough to dare to think that you might get to have an agenda, given the current lack of jobs and funded post docs compared to the number of people applying. An exercise in cruel optimism, to steal an idea and term from the late Lauren Berlant. And probably unrealistic, given then twists and turns of life. But if you decide to put yourself into this postdoc and job race, then spelling out your agenda and your plans is what’s expected.

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