Nina Exner is the Research Data Librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. She is also a part-time doctoral student at the University of North Carolina’s SILS, and delighted to be able to say that she is in her candidacy stage. She likes talking about librarians’ research challenges and successes, which is also the topic of her dissertation. You can find her on Twitter @Z669_E9 or see her ORCiD vita at 0000-0002-8746-8364.
Hopefully you had a chance to read the first half of this series, which discusses finding potential journals. Getting published can be like blind dating or househunting. We line up something promising but the first option may not work. It’s not us or them, just the fit isn’t right or the the timing doesn’t work out. Ideally, you may have a main journal you plan to submit to and at least one backup in case that first just doesn’t turn out to be the right home. Let’s prepare for the main date.
Scope to the scope
Writing has many choices and options, and we can use our target journal for picking among our stylistic options while writing. Journals have their aims and scopes. Somewhere, subscribers and collection managers have made a deliberate choice to say, “I’m spending my money on this journal because it fits my needs.” Those subscribers (individual or library) become our audience when we write for that journal. The journal and its review process are built to steer articles towards the needs of that audience.
Therefore, we want to strategically try to improve our article’s fit with the audience. In reviewing the journal’s aims and scope, consider what they tell you about the audience. What can you guess about what this audience will want? Does it have a big-picture feel, or more of a practical take-aways vibe? If you can’t tell, this might be a good thing to have a colleague take a look at. Ask them if they were readers, what would they would expect to read in that journal. This kind of independent impression is always an advantage; when researching we tend to be so deep into our topic that we get tunnel-vision and can’t always see what will work.
Read examples for style and structure
Before starting to write, reading through articles in our target journal is a great way to get insight into our audience. We want to look at the style and structure of other articles, to get a sense of what the editors and readers are used to.
Some useful things to look at include:
- First-person or third-person? Active or passive voice? Just knowing this can save us a major rewrite later!
- How are the articles structured? Are they all using the IMRAD headings, or some other consistent style of subsections?
- Is the literature review mixed in with the introduction, or are they separate?
- Do the introduction sections usually give history, or theoretical background, or some practical “who cares” discussion, or something else?
- How detailed are the methods and results sections? Are there common datapoints such as always reporting demographic summaries, or do they jump right to reporting graphs or p-value tables?
- Are there conclusions or only discussions? Are the conclusions more of the tell them what you said summary style, or do they emphasize specific issues such as implications for practice or conceptual directions for future research?
As authors, we can save ourselves a lot of uncertainty later. Then while writing, when we reach a moment of debating how to put something, we have that sense of the tone and style of our target journal to fall back on.
Balance scope and mileage in research writing
Writing up research is its own particularly troubled beast. I love doing research, but I hate writing it (and frankly, I don’t know too many people who like writing up research no matter their love for the research itself). Fortunately there are lots of other things you can write, but if you are writing up research then the journal affects your writing on one more layer. That layer is how much research is included per article, or how many articles per research project.
Sometimes we do a work project, assess it, and realize we found something interesting that’s worth sharing. Usually that sort of one-project assessment report is going to be one article. No problem of “scope.”
But other times we plan a research project in advance. This is the classic methods class sort of approach of asking a question and planning data collection and analysis to answer the question. But research studies often blossom way beyond what we originally planned, and we find that we learned a lot of different things in the data. That’s great!
We have to think about splitting it up when we have one of those great – but overwhelming – projects that blow up into lots of findings. We don’t want to write an article that feels like an unfocused barrel of findings is all shoved together. Instead, we want to fit the number of articles to reflect the size of the research findings.
When you’re reading the methods sections for style and structure, concentrate on the questions/hypotheses. How many research questions per article seem to be there? Are they shorter pieces with one question per article, or are they long and complex with three or four interrelated research questions? Scale your articles to the same number of unique questions or hypotheses that you are seeing in example articles.
The most important thing in breaking apart a research study is: don’t duplicate research questions. One article might focus on top factors in patron engagement with the library, and another with main differences between demographic groups in patron engagement (assuming lots of rich engagement data not just one local survey). In that example, one article is all about the most prominent themes or factors and the other article concentrates on differentiating themes or factors. The analyses and content should be different despite a shared dataset, with clearly different discussions and implications. The target journals may be different too! Maybe prominent themes will lean towards a practical journal, but differentiating factors may lean towards one with a conceptual focus or that specializes in diversity issues. When in doubt, we can always bounce the two ideas off someone and ask them if they think they should be one article or two.
Revise and resubmit
Assume you’ll be asked to revise based on reviewer feedback. There may be annoying parts to that, but don’t take those hard and just be realistic and organized in your reaction. And when you get confusing feedback, keep in mind that reviewers are varied people with varied specialties. They’re applying an artificial rubric that attempts to judge what the journal prioritizes. Oftentimes, like a blind date, the response is not actually about you but about some weird thing in the other person’s situation. In the case of reviewers, they may not dislike something about our manuscript but are just trying to respond to a weird question on their review rubric like “Does this represent a unique contribution” and trying to respond with some sort of advice to the Ineffable Judgement of the Rubric. Therefore, keep in mind that (like a blind date) sometimes it works, sometimes it’s awkward but then works, and sometimes you agree politely that it won’t work. Consider where they might be coming from, and whether to work it out with that position or decide to part ways with that journal.
As you finish up, try to remember to write abstracts at the end of writing the manuscript, and to rewrite after revisions. This point is kind of tangential to the issue of how journals guide our writing, but there’s nothing as annoying to readers as an abstract that doesn’t match the text. Therefore if you revise heavily, then make sure your abstract is an accurate opening view of the final version of the article.
Finally, take this and all advice with a grain of salt. Your situation is your own. Furthermore, you do not need to follow all of the advice to its utmost all of the time. The perfect is indeed the enemy of the good; the best article is the finished one. Therefore, you should put forth your best reasonable effort. Stay reasonable about writing parts; your ideas are more important than details. Your readers are looking for good ideas, so they will love you!
Share comments and keep the conversation going…
- Can you share some tips on reading for structure and style instead of content?
- Reviewers, what are your most frustrating review-form questions?
- How can a writer develop a sense for when they’ve added too many sub-questions or sub-topics in an article?
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