Month: April 2020

Avoiding some early errors in academic writing

Avoiding some early errors in academic writing

By chance, I’ve done a lot of mentoring lately about academic writing. Earlier I posted about rejection. This post is just a collection of random n00b-type things that I’ve found myself explaining to students a lot. Now I can just direct them here bwahaha

Disclaimer: My experience with academic writing and publishing is primarily within applied social science journals related to public health, social work, medicine, psychology, systems science, disability, and engineering. I can’t speak to how to write an effective paper in other fields such as philosophy or the humanities.

I. Pick a journal before you start

Before you start writing, the single most important step to take is to pick your journal. DO NOT just sit down to write something. Every journal has specific types of articles they will take, specific formats for those articles, and a specific scope or spin that they are interested in publishing. Not only will this give a structure to work within which makes things easier, it will save you time because you will not need to rewrite the article after you pick the journal.

To consider when picking a journal:

  • Where do you want the paper to be published?
  • Who do you want to have read it?
  • Where do you think it will have the most influence / do the most good?
  • Which journal scopes fit your aims?
  • Which journals publish the type of paper you want to write?
  • Which journals publish papers on the type of research you have conducted or the type of methods you have used?

Pick the highest impact journal that you have a chance of getting into.

II. Understanding an article type and writing to its format.

After you pick a journal, look at what that journal lists for article types. Find the one that matches what you want to write, and then read the instructions very carefully. For the journal Autism in Aduthood (AIA) which I edit for, these appear in a table under the heading “Manuscript Types and Word Limits.” AIA includes short descriptions of each article type and word limits in the table. After the table, AIA provides highly detailed specific instructions for each paper type, including specific internal structures. Many journals provide this information in their “For Authors” sections. If you are not sure which article type would fit what you’re interested in writing, it’s okay to contact the editor and ask.

After you pick an article type, go to the currently published issues of the journal and read other articles of that same type. That will help show what, exactly, the editors mean and are looking for in those types of articles. Again, you can also contact the editor for clarification if the examples don’t help.

III. Academic writing style

A. Don’t use clichés and colloquialisms. For example, “paint a picture” or “It can be seen…”

B. Don’t use language that makes assumptions about the reader. For example, “clearly,” “obviously,” “easily,” “it stands to reason,” etc.

C. Don’t use overly complex language, which can obscure meaning or hide clarity. Bigger words are not always better words. Flowery language will also steal from the word count you will desperately need to report your work and makes your points, and it make the paper hard to read. (Disclaimer again: some fields may be more agreeable to flowery, complex language–applied social science and health literature is typically not).

D. Do not under-state or over-state things with your use of language. Own your own work with strong verbs. “We did this” not “We attempted this.” Do not make strong statements about the world without a citation. “All people do this.” Really? ALL of them? You know this how? “Most people” is a much more accurate statement unless you have a citation that backs up the strength of the statement. Likewise, your findings, though they may be powerful and compelling, are never absolute because science is not absolute. And there are limitations to every study. Unless it’s a mathematical proof, the findings are never “This proves that people…” but “This shows that people like those in our study…”

E. Write in active voice unless the journal explicitly instructs you not to. Passive voice obscures the actor, and makes things harder and more boring to read. DON’T say, “The interviews were conducted.” DO say, “Our research assistant, who is also a member of the community, conducted the interviews.” See how much more important information is given in the active voice! Using active voice does not “bias” the science; it gives greater transparency to the science.

IV. Writing for an academic audience

A. Know your audience. In the case of AIA one is writing to autism researchers. The audience knows basic research methods, they are used to reading academic papers, and they expect particular structures to those papers. They know what autism is and, while they may not have a nuanced view of it from inside, they understand its nuances better than researchers from other fields. Some of readers may be autistic themselves. Some may be autistic-rights and strengths oriented. Some may be heavily medical-model. They are interested in learning something new in the field of autism and adulthood, with which they are already familiar. This will greatly influence choices about where to spend time explaining things in the paper. Other journals will have other audiences–if I’m writing for a systems science journal I may need to spend more time describing what autism is than if I’m writing for AIA, but for AIA I will need to spend more time explaining systems science concepts.

B. There is a difference between writing for teachers and writing for academic journals. When you write for teachers, you need to prove your knowledge–you’re trying to demonstrate that you learned the things they wanted you to learn. When you write for an academic journal, you can assume that your audience already believes you know what you are talking about, and is already familiar with basic research methods and ideas. For example, we all know the implications of a convenience sample on the generalizability of a study. It doesn’t need to be explained. You just need to say, “we used a small convenience sample” and the reader goes oh, okay, results could be different in a large, random, population-based study where people who have no interest in the topic are participating. The places to spend word count and provide deeper explanations are novel ideas. For example, my study on autistic burnout had to spend extra time discussing what that term was and why we were studying it as it previously was not represented in the literature.

IV. Use outlines and standard structures. Seasoned readers expect certain structures. It helps us more easily read and absorb the meat of the article. Some paper types have pretty consistent structures no matter what journal they’re for, like original research papers or reviews (maybe I’ll post those structures later). Other academic paper types, including theoretical papers, are a bit more fluid but not tons. Most start with necessary background to understand why the topic of the paper is important and why the work reported on in the paper needed to be done (gaps in the current state of the science), then they get at the meat of the new work that’s being reported on, and then conclude with a summary of what was learned followed by an in-depth look at how it changes the state of the science. AIA’s Insight pieces are an exception, and, as more literary works, do not have a set structure. Use structure to make your writing process easier, and also to increase your chance that the journal will be interested in the paper. We want to see novel findings and ideas, not experimental writing (tho that may not be true of a literary journal–or of our Insight pieces!–but knowing the usual rules will help you know when and where to break them).

REJECTED! What academic paper rejections are about from both sides of the process

REJECTED! What academic paper rejections are about from both sides of the process

Academic papers are a lot of work. Your research is dear to you. You’ve loved this study enough to see it through, to write it up, to find a home for it. And then you get rejected—perhaps without any indication as to why.

What’s that about? Are you a bad researcher? Was your paper bad? Your research stupid? Should you just give up? Particularly students and others who are new to the process can be devastated by a rejection.

But–really!-there is no need for devastation! Even senior researchers with hundreds of publications are regularly rejected. But it’s easier to deal with rejections when you have had some successes and, importantly, understand better what rejection can mean.

I spend a lot of time on all sides of the academic publication process. I’m an active researcher with studies and papers of my own. I’m a peer reviewer for multiple journals. I’m the Associate Editor of Autism in Adulthood. As an author I’ve been rejected and accepted; as a reviewer I’ve made a full gamut of recommendations; and as an editor I’ve rejected, accepted, and been tormented by decisions for the papers I adjudicate. Here’s the insider scoop on the process and what the rejections could mean.

DISCLAIMER: Science is large. I am a social services intervention researcher working with disability communities. Perspectives from another field (e.g., physics or biology) may vary.

Step 1: Administrative Review

When you submit your paper the first type of review it hits is administrative. This is the check to make sure it’s been formatted properly and it isn’t missing pieces. Often if it doesn’t pass administrative review, the author will get information about what needs to get fixed to resubmit but there’s no official guarantee to that. Bottom line: This is the one part of the process you can control; be sure to follow the instructions for authors carefully.

Step 2: Editorial Review

The journal’s editors read everything that’s sent in. That may be hundreds of articles in a year. They make a decision about whether or not to send the paper to peer review. A lot of things are considered in that decision. Does the topic of the paper fit the journal’s scope? Does the format of the paper fit the types of articles the journal publishes? Is the science sound? Does the paper have the appropriate level of academic depth? Is this reporting on something new; does it advance the science in some way, whether it’s findings or theory/ideas? Do we think it’s worth reviewers’ time; in other words, would we want to publish this in our journal assuming it can be perfected in the review process?

A rejection at this stage is sometimes called a “desk reject.” There are a lot of reasons why this might happen. Some may be because the science is bad, the paper is poorly written, or the ideas are stale. But others may be that it’s just not a good fit for the journal’s scope, the editors were reading too fast and missed how cool it is (hey, we are people who make mistakes like anyone, and we read a lot of submissions!), or it’s a good start to a paper but needs more mentorship and development than we feel we can ask reviewers to provide.

If you get a rejection at this point, don’t get upset. If there are comments given, they could be useful, but more often it’s just a form letter. When I get one of these, I assume that the editors felt it was not a good fit for their journal and re-do the paper for a different journal.

The majority of rejections I have gotten were at this stage. It’s a little irritating because I just want the thing DONE and off my to-do list, but meh. There are a bunch of other journals out there and given the number of considerations going into editorial decisions, there’s zero reason to assume it’s because I suck.

Step 3: Peer Review

If you get to the peer review stage, congratulations! As editors we’re not keen on sending stuff to peer review that we wouldn’t want in the journal, assuming peer review can clean it up.

That said, the whole point of peer review is to go over the paper in excruciating and expert detail to make sure that every part of it is sound before adding it to the literature. Sometimes the reviewers do find fatal flaws in the piece that were not evident on the editors’ quick read. Sometimes it takes an expert to notice a deeper problem.

The journals I work with have an editor in charge of making a final adjudication on the paper, and–if the editor-in-charge decides they want to work with the paper–between two and five peer reviewers. Peer reviewers are selected because they offer specific expertise relevant to your paper. The reviewers give their detailed feedback and assessment of whether to reject, ask for revisions, or accept. The reviewers don’t always agree on if the paper should be accepted. The editor in charge of the manuscript makes the final call.

It is possible to get a rejection from the editor only; this means they did not feel like they could work with the paper in its current state, so they did not engage peer reviewers.

It is possible to get a rejection along with a full set of peer reviewer comments.

It is also possible to get a revise-and-resubmit letter. This might seem like a rejection because it will say something like “…unfortunately we cannot accept the paper in its current form.” HOWEVER, if you are being invited to address reviewer comments and resubmit, you have not been rejected. This is just the next stage of the process of revising the article based on reviewer feedback.

I have never had a paper accepted outright, and I know only a few cases where my colleagues were given “conditional acceptances” (accepted if you make these changes). Most often I am asked to make “major revisions.” Sometimes “minor revisions.” This is totally normal. Note though, that while your chance of being rejected goes down significantly with each of these stages you get through, there is no guarantee you won’t be rejected until you get an official acceptance message.

Reviewer feedback can be annoying, harsh, misinformed, or otherwise painful. The editor in charge may provide guidance if there’s feedback you should ignore, like if there’s a reviewer who just doesn’t get something (like saying that qualitative findings can’t be generalized due to small N, which is a methodologically ignorant statement). The editor-in-charge comments should take precedence over the reviewer comments.

If you are invited to revise and resubmit, as an author, you get a chance to decide if you want to self-reject (or pull). If you feel addressing the reviewer comments would compromise your work, or don’t want to deal, YOU can decide not to submit a revision and take your paper elsewhere. You can also decide to completely re-do it and resubmit it as a new submission to the same journal. While I have never done this, I have considered it before. Or you could address the reviewer comments carefully and submit the revision.

If you are rejected by the journal at any time during the peer review, take a cold look at the comments. They will help you even if they are harsh. Even ignorant comments (like quantitative researchers who don’t understand qualitative methods) can be useful. I keep using that example because it’s one that I’ve gotten repeatedly. It’s taught me to always put a sentence in my papers that says something like, “As a qualitative study, we were not seeking to generalize to a population, but to gain an in-depth understanding of a wide range of individual experiences.” I stopped getting bad reviews about my N for qualitative studies after doing that.

It is true–your paper might suck. Your research idea might be flawed, your work might have been done before and you just hadn’t found the papers already written on it. BUT!

  1. That does not mean you suck and should give up. It means you learned something and can move on with better knowledge and skill.
  2. It also means that you are saved the embarrassment and damage of it getting published and then getting huge backlash from the rest of your peers in the field when they see it. Better to know before it is made public than after.

It is also true that your paper may have been just fine and the peer reviewers sucked. Instead of getting upset, ask yourself some critical questions:

  1. Was the writing unclear? It may be your technical communications skills that need to be honed, not your scientific ones. Becoming a better writer is a win. Or maybe the reviewers were poor readers.
  2. Were the reviewers ignorant or coming from the wrong paradigm for your work? Reviewers aren’t always right, or don’t always support the kind of work you do. If this is the case, you can try the paper elsewhere. It probably wasn’t a good fit for the journal and you probably don’t want your paper there anyway. (I have recommended rejection of papers on ethical grounds before, even if the science was rigorous.)
  3. Are there actually major problems? Truly? I’ve knee-jerked to reviewer comments before, dismissed them, and then a day or two later had a long, hard think and realized that even though the comment was written pretty brutally, the reviewer had a very good point.
  4. Do you need to find a mentor / get a second opinion? The papers I have to reject most often come from students who have written wonderful student papers that lack the depth of a publishable academic paper. My role as a reviewer or editor is not to mentor them on their science, even though my heart breaks sometimes stumbling over that boundary. Consider going over your review notes with a more senior scientist, or a peer in your field. Not just for students–I go over review notes with my mentors and peers too. Others can help put things in perspective.

Last Thoughts:

Rejection happens to everyone. Think of it as part of your scientific journey, life-long learning, and intellectual challenge. Also think of it as your initiation into the club of every other researcher in the whole world ever ’cause we get stuff rejected too, all the time 🙂

Good luck <3

Work from Home Tips

Work from Home Tips

I’ve been working from home for over a decade largely as a disability accessibility thing & some people have asked me for tips. (Disclaimers: I’m a natural introvert and have no children.)

  • Set up a work space that is for work. Do not do other activities in it until AFTER you have mastered work-from-home.
  • Set up a schedule for when you will be working and write it down. Share the schedule with others in the house and make sure they know to respect your work-time boundaries.
  • Set up some transition / cuing activities that start your work / rest blocks; for example, by closing a door, turning on music, just small things but ones that can become habitual indicators. BUT–very important!–do not start your day or use as a start-work cue anything that is distracting and engaging (e.g., no TV, fun reading). Example: I start my day by going through my work email.
  • Write down your goals for each work block or day. Yes write, on paper. So that you have to stare at them. And they stare back at yoooooo—
  • External accountability – Share your goals with others for accountability, even if it’s just a FB post to no one who cares. Imagine the SHAME when you don’t deliver LOL
  • Internal accountability – Track your hours on paper. After over a decade of working from home I did this last year and was surprised by how much time I was wasting; I cleaned it up but have kept up with hour tracking for personal accountability so I can SHAME myself when I don’t work enough LOL
  • But, seriously, don’t feel guilty for having the extra flexibility. If you’re creatively stuck and really do need to give up for an afternoon and go for a long walk, or just absolutely have to run to the bank (or, please, drive-through ATM!) during the day, it’s okay–it’s a benefit of working from home. You’ll make up the time some other day when you get into flow and don’t realize you just worked through dinner. In other words, don’t pressure yourself to hold office hours so hard that you start resenting and hating work (or your home!!! no toxic spaces!).
  • Make boundaries and track your rest time too. It’s easy to be distracted by non-work things when you should be working, but also easy to be distracted by work things when you should be resting.
  • It’s okay, while working, to stop and pet the kitty. It’s not okay, while working, to stop and uncork that bottle of wine. Just sayin’…
  • Enjoy your reclaimed commute time!
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