At this time of year, many students have finished bench research and are starting to focus on writing the dissertation, thesis, or journal article. To determine if you are ready to write requires a researcher to critically examine their research in light of three “scrutinies”:
The research topic (broad problem) was understood; the research idea (specific question) was designed to be tested appropriately; and the data generated by the research project answered the research question and advanced a solution to the research problem. Moreover, the author who knows what the disciplinary community holds as an overarching theory to frame their study and a literature to provide incremental context, insures that author is ready to write.
Easier said than done. Impossible to do using only sources retrieved on the Internet. In my work editing dissertations, I find that authors become stuck when trying to write because their preparation before the bench and after the experiment did not meet the three scrutinies. Most often, authors do not dig deep enough, read broadly enough, and document with detail enough to become fluid writers. Authors write well when they have something important to say and a context within which to express it.
A fruitful approach to writing about research is to construct a working, annotated bibliography in the style of your discipline from Day 1 of a course of study. Such a tool helps students and mentors keep track of the research problem while the research idea is formed and the experiment is designed. Three books can help.
First, Thomas Mann, a reference librarian at the Library of Congress, began publishing in 1987—prior to the Internet—the Oxford Guide to Library Research. Now in its 4th Edition and updated to include digital as well as analog tools, Mann wrote a Preface that outlines and argues for a “Hierarchy of levels of learning: Data, information, opinion, knowledge, understanding—and wisdom?” Mann contends that data, information, opinion, and knowledge (to superficial degree) can be gained via the Internet but that understanding and wisdom require higher and wider levels of complex thought. His ideas about understanding and wisdom are outlined in detail in “Appendix A: Wisdom and Information Science.” In between the Preface and the Appendix, Mann provides in detailed instructions and examples NINE methods to search on any subject. Every researcher in any discipline should be encouraged to read and use this guide because it allows one to retrieve knowledge, gain understanding, and develop wisdom using the variety of complex tools which allowed that information to be preserved in the first place in all sorts of repositories from individual databases through community libraries to university inter-libraries. Consequently, Mann’s explanation of numerical call numbers, standardized subject headings, linked subheadings, and their relationships to author-generated keywords is invaluable because it allows authors to not only find credible sources but also decide how to use these tools to place correctly their own contributions into the body of knowledge.
The second book that can help scholars improve their research and communication is The Craft of Research, by Wayne C. Booth (1921–2005), Gregory G. Colomb (1951–2011), and Joseph M. Williams (1933–2008), These three authors originally published the book in 1995, and each was well known among scholars for their work with English language (literary criticism, writing studies, persuasive argument, i.e., rhetoric, clarity and style). They remain as the first three authors while the book is now under the care of Joseph Bizup (currently at Boston University as the associate dean for undergraduate academic programs and policies) and William T. FitzGerald (currently director of Teaching Matters and Assessment Center, Rutgers University, Camden), Besides literary studies, Bizup brings current theory and practice in argument, while FitzGerald has branched further into rhetoric, writing, and media studies as well as pedagogy and student research to their revisions of this work. The nature and practice of argument in the research background, design, and reporting is explained thoroughly, and it carries forward the scholarly process of research established and evolving over the last 300 years. Without a working understanding of the approaches described in this book, most scientists, social scientists, and humanists would never realize what constitutes an academic argument and why it is the basis for the rhetoric of their discipline. Moreover, researchers not savvy in research argumentation have difficulty distinguishing between it and “spin”. The exercises and self-evaluations I’ve devised in my syllabus on determining if you are ready to write are based on the approaches in The Craft of Research. We’ll revisit the “rhetoric vs. spin” situation in subsequent blogs.
The third book absolutely necessary to reside on your writing desk is the disciplinary style guide or handbook particular to your discipline—and its use should be started as early as your discipline is selected as a major. Since I’ve edited in all the sciences, liberal arts, and social sciences, I have collected over thirty years and maintained disciplinary handbooks because these are the community standards for communication among peers—whether writing, speaking, presenting, or editing and publishing. Currently, I have a list of these disciplinary handbooks in the membership pages of this website, and the list is pages long. Note that often more than not one handbook is used for publication, and it is often a specific disciplinary manual. Journals will also refer to that handbook as well as a more general handbook or even specific dictionary when they have not included certain information in the handbook. For example, Anne M. Coghill and Lorrin R. Garson as editors maintain The ACS Style Guide: Effective communication of scientific information, 3rd Edition (2006), published by the American Chemical Society. This handbook explains what this community upholds as ethics in scientific communication; how to write and format a paper to publish in one of their many journals; how that paper will be subject to peer review; how they approach copyright; a complete style guide from the basics of mechanics (grammar, punctuation, spelling, style) to specific nomenclature and language in chemistry; other conventions like standardized symbols, abbreviations, and structures; how to display equations or present data in figures and tables; and bibliographic format and purposes. Individual ACS journal guidelines will also refer to the Chicago Manual of Style if information is not in the ACS Style Guide. If you wish to become a working member in a discipline you must obtain, read, use, and regularly update your handbook(s) to understand the communication conventions for that community. Remember to also check with your committee members for disciplinary dictionaries for the language you might need to use as well as which edition of the handbook to obtain. I mention ‘update” because I once needed to mediate a dissertation defense for a student whose committee argued for literally months that her dissertation did not meet format standards set by their common handbook—until I discovered that the three committee members each were using the same handbook but editions that they had used in their own dissertations, some over 30 or 20 years old! Language and conventions change over time.
In addition, if you rely on grants to secure funding for your research, obtain and scrupulously use the funder’s handbook. For example, the U.S. National Science Foundation recently updated its Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide, (January 28, 2019). See https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/policydocs/pappg19_1/index.jsp?WT.mc_id=USNSF_109
These resources essentially anchor a researcher in the communication of their community; they foster access to the knowledge preserved and retrieved from their communities. Researchers should gain insights about where their own ideas fit into the body of scholarly knowledge and how to in turn make their publications accessible to the community.
Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup, and William T. FitzGerald. 2016. The Craft of Research, 4th Ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN-13:978-0-226-23973.6, DOI: 10.7208/Chicago/9780226239873.001.0001 or available at https://www.bibliovault.org/BV.landing.epl?ISBN=9780226239736
Coghill, Anne M., and Lorrin R. Garson, Eds. 2006. The ACS Style Guide: Effective communication of scientific information. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society (Oxford University Press). Available in .pdf file at https://pubs.acs.org/isbn/9780841239999
Mann, Thomas. 2015 (1987). The Oxford Guide to Library Research, 4th Ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-993104-0 (hardbound); ISBN 978-0-19-993106-4 (paperback). https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-oxford-guide-to-library-research-9780199931064?q=Oxford%20guide%20to%20library%20research&lang=en&cc=us