Writing for publication – it’s just a matter of meeting the conventions of a journal, right?

Well, no. Not exactly. There is more involved in making choices about how to write for your target journal than simply deciding to adopt their usual writing style.

I need to explain this assertion.

Let’s take the example of what is often called scientific writing, SW. This is often characterised as being factual and report-like. SW is written in the third person with the text marked by the use of the passive voice. Of course, writing in the sciences is actually much more varied than this and saying it’s all SW is a rather crude stereotype. However, that is not the point I want to make here. We are mistaken if we think that SW is simply a convention and journals that require this kind of writing are just being a bit dogmatic or old-fashioned. There is more at issue here than a question of writerly style.

Particular kinds of writing signal particular traditions of meaning-making, that is, of knowledge production. The choice of words and phrases used in any academic writing ‘give off’ and give away how the writer orients themselves to the task of scholarship and to the production of ‘truths’.

Let me illustrate this.

Take the notion of ‘collecting data’. This term is almost ubiquitous in the social sciences. It is not uncommon to read a thesis which offers a diatribe about positivism followed by a research design which mobilises the notion of data collection. Then comes a report of the actual research which uses, serially, the phrase ’the data showed’.

This is problematic. Not only does the anti-positivist rant disrespect the contributions made to knowledge production by positivist and post-positivist traditions of research, it actually mobilises an aspect of positivism through the language used.

The term ‘collecting’ data implies that data are like mushrooms or tomatoes, out there in the world waiting for the researcher to stumble across them, pluck them and put them in their metaphorical research basket. In other words, data equates to social phenomena which exist already neatly packaged, in entirety, just waiting for the observant researcher.

A researcher working in a social constructivist tradition does not think of social phenomena in this way. They understand that social materiality and data are not the same. The object is one thing and its socially produced meaning is another. Data is generated by the researcher, rather than already being in existence, through the ways in which they pose questions and devise and define categories of inquiry. Data does not exist outside of the researcher and their research project. Thus, it is congruent with a constructivist approach to knowledge to say that data is generated , not collected.

Similarly, data does not ‘show’. The phrasing ‘data shows’ makes ‘data’ an actor. Here is data standing in the text. What they say is self-evident and obvious and straightforward. Data points to what it is the reader must think. But nowhere in this formulation do we see that data does not stand alone – behind the representation of data in textual form are the selection, exclusions and inclusions and multiple interpretations made by the researcher in order to make sense of the ‘data’ they have generated.

A social constructivist perspective acknowledges the human hand, mind, eye and brain of the researcher. Other potential interpretations may have been omitted by the researcher right at the get go, or were just not recognised. The analytic choices made by the researcher are a product of their histories, their locations and their cultural positioning. All their interpretive choices, from research design through to the analysis, are inevitably situated, particular and partial.

In the social constructivist tradition then writing starts from the notion that it is the researcher’s analysis which leads to the production of particular kinds of meanings. The particular analysis shows, not the data. The researcher owns the responsibility for the interpretation instead of the textual sleight-of-hand shift to ‘data’.

I could go on at length here, but the point I am making through this example of data is not only that writing choices are important but they also position the writer in a particular way in relation to knowledge, and the processes associated with scholarship. That report-like, passive voice, third person SW contains within its phrasing and terminologies a positioning which is intended to represent ‘objectivity’ – that is a separation of the researcher and their practices from the phenomena they are studying. (The beginning sentences that I suggested in the last blog are often of this variety, hence the health warning that was inserted at the end).

If this is not the positioning of the researcher, then using SW in a journal article presents something of a problem, at the very least a lack of awareness – or worse, some kind of opportunist take-up of a position about ‘truth’ simply in order to get published.

But if this is the case … Does this mean that social constructivists and those with other knowledge positionings cannot write in journals which use SW? Well of course not. It does however imply that if they do, they need to very carefully consider the ways in which particular kinds of writing signal their positioning, their stance on knowledge. They need to modify the problematic aspects of SW so that they present a coherent and congruent positioning.

But equally, understanding that writing choice is not simply a matter of style means being careful when choosing to abandon SW. Non SW requires the writer to be alert to the ways in which SW (or any knowledge production tradition other than the one held), can creep into the text, carried Trojan-horse-style in the most common phrasings – just like collecting data, data showing.

Writing for a journal is thus never simply a matter of style or convention. It is a matter of writing as means of representing not only the specifics of the knowledge produced, but also the way in which the task of knowledge production itself is understood and practiced. To say all this in more precise scholarly language, writing is not separable from epistemological considerations; these ought not to be dealt with apart from writing choices.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, data, epistemology, knowledge production and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Writing for publication – it’s just a matter of meeting the conventions of a journal, right?

  1. Elizabeth Hartnell-Young says:

    Thanks for this piece Pat. I think it’s equally applicable to writing for government and informing policy. I read a lot of ‘SW-like’ reports in my role, and as you know, consultants and academics are not neutral in their stance. The reader also needs to be alert!

  2. Thank you for this informative piece. As a post graduate writer, I often find ‘SW-like’ phrases invading my texts, even though I am intending to present a totally different position on knowledge generation. I will remember your trojan horse image and it may help me stay on track.

    I hope you keep writing this blog, I am enjoying reading it and believe I will learn a lot from you. I have read and reread your book: Helping Doctoral Students Write. At the moment I’m finding it interesting thinking about the way scholars write differently in blog posts rather than articles and book chapters.

  3. Pingback: what’s at stake for an early career researcher in going for publication in a top ranked journal ? | patter

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