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LibParlor Contributor Reflection

In Grad School? Make Upcycling Part of Your Research Agenda

Tammy Ivins shares her experience upcycling MSLS coursework to help enhance her research agenda.

Tammy Ivins has fourteen years of academic library experience in academic libraries and has been publishing for nine years. Previously, she was the Coordinator of Instructional Services at UNC Wilmington, and currently she is the Library Services Team Lead for the Library and Information Resources Network. Tammy has master’s degrees in library science and conflict management. She is a Hufflepuff. You can find Tammy on Linkedin.


Introduction

In 2014, I published an article entitled “Upcycling MSLS Coursework into Publishable Content” in Endnotes: The Journal of the New Members Round Table. In this article, I encouraged new librarians to revisit class papers and projects that they had completed as part of their MSLIS coursework with an eye towards converting them to publishable content. Even better, I hoped to encourage current LIS students to be intentional and thoughtful about future publication options as they completed coursework. 

That article was inspired in part by my own success at this – after graduation I was able to successfully “upcycle” one grad school paper into a non-reviewed short journal article and my capstone project into a peer-review article in JELIS.  However, the article was also inspired by regret. There I was, in a tenure-track faculty position complete with publication expectations, with 48 credit hours’ worth of papers, reflections, responses, and presentations saved on my Google Drive, the vast majority of which wasn’t useful in any way to my research agenda. My LIS education was valuable and helped prepare me for the library workforce, and I would never say that my coursework was a waste. However, it was a lost opportunity to not use more of it for research. 

Fast forward to today, and I have considerably more research and publication experience, as well as a second master’s degree under my belt. Reflecting on my old article, five takeaways still stand out to me as useful to prospective writers:  the value of a capstone project, faculty feedback, thoughtful selection of courses, project planning & documentation, and strong revisions. 

Write that Capstone

In my article, I broke MSLIS coursework down into multiple categories, the most valuable being substantive writing like capstone projects and papers that can be adapted for submission to peer reviewed journals. Often these projects are so big and detailed that they actually need to be streamlined and shortened before submission.  

Many MSLIS programs do not require a thesis or other capstone project, only offering it as an alternative to producing a professional portfolio. While portfolios are valuable, I still believe what I said in my original article: take the opportunity to complete a capstone project if possible! Instead of looking at it as extra work (compared to creating a portfolio), there are many benefits. Not only is it an opportunity to research and write for course credit, it is also a chance to do so with the attention and mentorship of a faculty member. 

Make Use of Faculty Feedback

One of the best nuggets of advice (if I do say so myself) in my original article was to really pay attention to and incorporate your instructor’s feedback on your work. In my original article, I recommend telling your instructor explicitly that you want to publish your work and that you would value feedback towards that end. Even if you aren’t comfortable with being that open, I certainly still think it is worth your time to mention that you read, appreciate, and apply their feedback. As an instructor myself, I have found that students sometimes completely ignore my comments on their work, which in turn makes me lax in providing detailed feedback. However, on the occasion that a student responds even once to my feedback (with a comment or question), I then bend over backwards to make sure I leave constructive grading notes for them. As a student, I have found that treating feedback as a conversation with my professor results in more robust and useful notes. 

Additionally, I have since found that the level of feedback I receive from a faculty member is a worthy metric to consider when deciding what classes to take. If I know a certain faculty member is generous or not with their ideas for improvement, that might influence my decision to choose or pass over a class. So, if you are a student, I encourage you to seek out classes where you can receive abundant helpful feedback from the instructor in order to both learn and to improve your manuscripts. 

Choose Classes Thoughtfully

In addition to who is teaching, class topics are also an important consideration. Because my second master’s degree program was on a totally out-there topic (Conflict Management), I quickly realized a large piece of advice missing from my previous article was the need to consider what classes had potential to produce upcycle-able work and which didn’t. I knew right away that “Transgenerational Family Trauma” was a class that I likely couldn’t twist any work into a publishable piece, so while I still worked hard to get an A, I didn’t bother to think about my research agenda while completing the coursework. 

On the other hand, when I did enroll in a class that would likely offer opportunities to upcycle my work, I immediately took a look at the syllabus and brainstormed ideas on how the assignments might be leveraged into publishable (or presentable) opportunities. I also considered where I could write on the same topics that I had addressed in previous classes – this allowed me to build a collection of papers all on the same topic, but that all approached the shared tropic from multiple angles. These papers could possibly be upcycled by being stitched together into a single, larger work for publication.  

Plan and Document Your Work

As I continued my coursework, I realized that I was building habits that could also be applied to my professional work. A project plan can become the basis for a bigger literature review. That assessment model can become a poster presentation. The implementation of the project and initial impressions could be a conference presentation. Then, while the idea of writing a long research paper may have previously seemed out of reach, you could instead find your hands full of all the pieces you need to get you started. Without committing self-plagiarism (come on, people, don’t present the exact same poster at two different conferences), I could get several different resume items out of one continuous project.

Whether you are building the upcycling habit in your course work or professional work, the need for planning remains. You’ll want to develop a habit of documenting and saving your work, even if you are just brainstorming. For example, using a citation manager such as Zotero to save and sort articles that provide ideas, so you can easily find them later to cite. Even if a project could be exempted from the IRB process, why not go ahead and take the time to get IRB approval just in case? If you don’t end up using the data you find, then yes: going through the IRB process would be wasted time for you to regret. However, I think that is better than looking at an ocean of amazing data that you can’t publish on because it wasn’t gathered via approved research.

Revise for Cohesion

Finally, in the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to have editorial roles with two peer-reviewed journals (Endnotes and Reference Services Review), and the most common issue that I saw was a lack of cohesion and flow throughout the manuscript. Sometimes the introduction, literature review, methods, results, and/or discussion seemed to be about different topics altogether. This can happen easily to any author, as we see the continuity between sections in our mind but fail to draw the connections for the reader. It is even easier to occur when you are stitching together several different pieces of writing. 

So, I would like to emphasize a piece of advice that I treated too lightly in my original article: budget significant revision time to ensure a singular and cohesive message, flow, and purpose throughout the new piece.  For example, set the piece aside for a few days, pick it up and skip right to a random section, and be honest with yourself about whether that section (out of context with the rest of the piece) clearly matches the topic of the new piece.  Having outside readers and co-authors can also really help with that editing process.

Concluding Thoughts

It is always a pleasant surprise to revisit past work and find it not totally devoid of merit. While my previous advice may have been incomplete, I feel more strongly than ever that the philosophy of upcycling one’s work (whether from coursework or professional tasks) is a worthy strategy to help librarians work smarter, not harder, on research and publication.  


Dedicated to Anne Pemberton (1975-2021), who planted trees others will sit under. 


Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of the writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

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