Academics are expected to carry out research and effectively report the
results to various audiences. The demands for delivery continue to increase, as
do the penalties for falling short. Unfortunately, there is much more formal
support for learning how to carry out research than how to communicate it
CENTRAL MESSAGES FROM TWO BOOKS ON PUBLISHING SCHOLARLY WORK
I had a very difficult time getting even one manuscript into the journal
review process at the beginning of my career, and some of my instincts and
interests seemed to stand in the way. I was reading widely but indiscriminately,
then trying to cram as much material as possible into what I was writing. I am
happier with my publishing efforts now, but still learning. There are a number of
good books about academic research offered to management scholars, some of
which are listed in the annotated bibliography by Tobias Fredberg in Designing
Research for Publication. The more unique aspects of advice offered in these
books about communicating that effort can be summarized in five key claims.
1. Science is conversation. This is the most important contribution of
Writing for Scholarly Publication in my opinion and in the opinion of most readers.
After several years of unrewarded efforts to publish as a green assistant
professor, I realized that I was still in student mode – collecting references,
organizing them haphazardly, reading at various levels of detail, making notes
that were extremely difficult to codify, then trying to find a connection with my
empirical data. The clarifying moment came when I realized that I had to
contribute to an established line of thinking.
Understanding academic work as a conversation I wanted to join meant
that my efforts made more sense to me and editors/reviewers. My attempt to
contribute something new had to begin by specifying context with several project-defining publications. In ‘mature’ fields with publications in clearly identified
subfields of inquiry, this may take little or no effort, but specifying conversation is
critical if your publication target addresses a more general audience. What is
news in one conversation or subconversation is often of little interest to scholars
in other areas of inquiry. Your contribution has to attract an audience interested in
similar problems; one that understands compatible theories and methods. In a
globalizing world with an expanding number of outlets and participants that is
The underlying claim is that science is a complex social endeavor. Even
the most brilliant scholars thus must show how they build upon what has gone
before – as Einstein (1916, 22) did when proposing his theory of relativity. He
begins with the statement: “The special theory of relativity is based on the
following postulate, which is also satisfied by the mechanics of Galileo and
Fortunately everyone already knows how to be part of a conversation,
even those of us who wish we had more social skills. At a party, we gravitate
toward talk that interests us, and we can see that good conversationalists first
listen to understand what has been said before trying to make a contribution of
their own. In other words, most of us already understand the importance of
coordinating our interests with the interests of others. ‘Coordinate’ is perhaps a
misleading word. Good conversation and good academic work requires difficult
but necessary subordination of idiosyncratic interests to collective concerns.
2. Writing = Thinking. Most people assume that writing cannot
happen until the author has a message. This book makes the opposite claim, as
advised by Karl Weick (2005, 12, 18), that writers often discover what they think
by seeing what they write. Many novelists say something similar. For example,
Anne Lamott (1994, 22), whose book Bird by Bird is one of my favorite nonacademic sources of writing advice, says “very few writers know what they are
doing until they have done it.”
The practical implication is that writing should begin as research begins.
Writing for Scholarly Publication suggests a series of exercises to help you
discover what you are beginning to know, test it, rewrite it, shop it to others, and
rewrite again to clarify emerging understanding. The hard truth is that what we
read in the academic literature is the result of many drafts and reiterations, and
the knowledge conveyed has been significantly improved by this ongoing
process. Even highly regarded scholars begin with imperfect drafts that help
them clarify their thoughts. The time to start writing is right now – even if you are
a first year student.
3. Subject domain is critical, often neglected, and influences
identity. It interests me that many people give relatively little attention to
alternatives when making what seem to be critical decisions of personal or
economic importance – like buying a house (Huff, Huff, and Barr, 2001). Similar
inattention often accompanies what might be described as drift towards an
academic’s domain of interest, which can have unanticipated consequences.
When one of my research projects goes well, it inevitably consumes more time
than I expect, which means that other projects languish and often die. In addition,
a publication can shift my identity as a scholar in the eyes of others and over time
in my eyes as well, which means that the opportunities I see and am offered shift.
This evolutionary path can support creativity, but it can also lead to less
interesting and time consuming side excursions.
To more purposefully shape your career, I suggest making a conscious
choice about what you do, but also do not do. Newcomers often define a very
general subject and then happily sink into the more familiar detail of literature
review and collecting empirical evidence. When another project beckons, new
grass too often seems greener. Fortunately, Wallace and Wray (2016) have just
published the third edition of an excellent book to help people identify and
evaluate representative articles in a potential area of interest and make informed
decisions about their relative quality and interest. I strongly encourage readers to
follow its advice.
Writing for Scholarly Publication gives more fine grained suggestions for
purposefully choosing among several alternative writing projects. It suggests that
you a) first compare possible projects in terms of your level interest. This is the
most important factor since you must choose to write when alternatives in your
personal and professional life beckon. However, it is also important to compare
possible projects in terms of b) accessible theory and methods for developing a
contribution, c) the availability of compelling empirical evidence or models, and d)
the demands of your other life choices. One of my most successful exercises
asks participants to bring three projects they are currently working on to a
workshop, and evaluate them on this 4 point diamond. I feel our time is well
spent if after many participants realize they are giving time to one or more project
that should be dropped (at least at this point in time) in favor of one or two more
Further clarification is likely when you craft job application letters, which
often ask for longer statements about your research, teaching, and service. Both
of my books argue that it is difficult to maintain multiple identities when trying to
win a job, or gain promotion. However, increasing attention is now being given to
interdisciplinary work and thus the appropriate level of breadth varies. My advice
is to identify institutions and people who have jobs like the ones you hope to
have. Look at how they describe themselves on websites. These are the best
sources of advice for how to publicly present your academic domain.
However, a critical question needs to be asked before proceeding. Is this
general area of conversation likely to interest you for at least the next several
years and ideally much longer? It takes time to understand what has already
been said in a conversation and then plan how to take an additional step. Getting
a contribution published takes even more time. It makes a lot of sense to craft
multiple contributions to the same or a closely related audience based on your
4. Conversants facilitate written contribution. Urging you to “join a
conversation” may seem very abstract. The more practical advice found in
Writing for Scholarly Publication is to identify 3 or 4 published articles that you
would especially like to engage in your research and writing. Pin these
‘conversants’ over your computer (literally, if possible) and write with them in
mind. One helpful side-effect is that you avoid books as anchors. Books send
the writer of a single manuscript, even a dissertation, in too many directions. It
may be helpful, however, to include a specific chapter in your set of conversants.
“Conversation” is thus something that you construct, but is tangible. The
works you choose should be asking similar questions and using similar
vocabulary with some overlap in references. Their authors are likely to have
compatible training and present at the same or similar conferences. It may make
sense to add an interesting article from a different domain to help substantiate
your contribution, but all conversant articles should be work you admire. “You are
wrong” is definitely a conversation killer. If you have a grievance, find conversant
articles that discuss why a particular line of inquiry is misguided; you are unlikely
to change the minds of true believers.
Since the number of conversants is constrained to 3 or 4, if you follow this
advice, you are likely to choose work by the smartest people in your area of
inquiry. Once you overcome understandable nervousness about imagining
yourself in their company, you are more likely to put forward your smartest efforts
in response. Interacting with these references will help subvert a tendency to
provide too much background information—because their authors already know
it. They should help you be more focused, direct and engaging the rest of your
manuscript as well.
In general, conversant articles do not include the publications that helped
define the area of inquiry that interests you, though these will be cited.
Conversants represent more current thinking. You should work to find out how
the conversation is continuing to evolve, since publication typically takes several
years. Look at websites maintained by the authors of conversant papers, search
for their recent presentations, look for projects their students have underway, and
so on. Most important, go to meetings where you can hear and see major
players and ideally interact with them. Following this advice can be daunting, it
takes time, it requires money and time to travel, but it reveals the human faces
behind publication. It is typically much easier to write something of publishable
quality if you are familiar with some of the colleagues you hope to interest
through your work.
Of course, some attractive articles may be from a conversation that is out
of reach. My advice is to avoid making that decision too quickly, because it is
possible and in fact necessary to continue learning as an academic. On the other
hand, there are many alternative conversational homes to be found in
publications around the world and it makes sense to compare alternatives before
making a choice. Since scholarship is a social endeavor, choose authors you
would like to spend time with.
5. Writing mechanics are the necessary bones of a successful
story. Writing for Scholarly Publication provides a set of exercises and several
checklists. All focus on the idea that every structural expectation for what you
write should reinforce a clear message to a busy reader. Since writing = thinking,
this means that as you consider alternative words and phrases for your
publication’s title, abstract, key words, subject headings, table titles, and so on,
you also are clarifying your understanding of the message you want to deliver.
When the various aspects of writing finally work together, they help readers
identify your project using search engines, quickly skim the article you write, and
efficiently understand your basic argument.
As search engines become more central to how readers find relevant
publications, the standards for attracting attention is going up. I now recommend
advice found at http://olabout.wiley.com.jproxy.nuim.ie/WileyCDA/Section/id-828012.html a website maintained by John Wiley & Sons, the publishing
house that has expanded into a broad range of services supporting publications
in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and professions. In addition to
discussing “search engine friendly” titles and key word phrases, this website
suggests much more repetition than I have recommended in the past. It argues
that no more than five key words or short phrases should be reiterated in title,
abstract, literature review, and subsequent writing. Most should be concepts you
know are already being used in your field of inquiry and they should appear again
in your subsequent publications. It may sound mechanical and restricted, but
must not be, and some helpful examples are given. I have tried their recipe in two
recent publications and will continue to use it because I believe it is helping me to
convey a core message more effectively.
A second way in which the demands for publication are going up involves
increasing expectations for narrative skill. In “Being Shahrazade” Pollack and
Bono (2013), editors of the Academy of Management Journal, say: “We have two
jobs as scholars: Answering interesting questions and telling the story.” They
emphasize the importance of providing a personal face in academic writing, using
motion and pacing to provide action in the story you tell, and (in common with all
works on academic writing I know) writing titles that “capture the reader’s
More specific suggestions from Writing for Scholarly Publication include:
Get mad about what’s missing in your conversation to get over the
timidity newcomers often feel.
Cut 30-50 % of initial drafts to reveal your core message. Good
targets for pruning are often at the beginning of your paper and in transitions –
writing tends to get better once you are underway.
Ask for advice about title and abstract from different kinds of readers
(family and friends, trusted colleagues, participants in writing clinics at
professional meetings, etc.).
Work on developing an “internal compass” to help sort inevitably
disparate advice given
Constructively review work published in your area of inquiry because
the advice you offer is likely to provide insight into improving your manuscript as
Identify good examples of the kind of work you want to write, which
may not be about the subject that interests you. Once you’ve found work you
admire, experiment with replacing their nouns, headings, etc., with your own to
learn how you might more professionally phrase your contribution. This could be
plagiarism if done mechanically and then presented in public, but your work is
likely to be distinctive enough that you do not need to worry.
It makes sense to delay submission until you feel you have something to
offer, but please, please ask for assistance in making that decision. Important
scholarly conversations are held with trusted advisors who help clarify which
aspects of your work are most likely to interest others; often these points are not
the observations most cherished by authors.
Academic work requires new voices to remain vital, and there are very
legitimate concerns about the Ivory Tower’s capacity to provide this needed
variety. I wanted the message found in these books to be relevant to those at
elite schools, but go beyond them. Thus I have always worked in government
funded institutions that draw a substantial portion of their students from families
with little previous involvement in higher education. I make contributions to
programs that support gender, ethnic, international, and other diverse groups.
And I have been involved for over twenty years with programs for professionals
who write doctorates based on their experience in private, public and not-for-profit organizations.
I am happy working in these contexts, but they also are the source for
several probing questions that do not have easy answers.
A. What about creativity, autonomy, and new ideas? Isn’t this the
necessary heart of academic work? I want to do something that hasn’t been
done before, rather than follow footsteps that don’t seem to me to be going
in the right direction.
I share the spirit behind this question, but strongly believe that an
independent intellectual effort has little chance for impact, even though social
media is increasing the possible reach of individual efforts. It may not be easy to
find what I call ‘fellow travelers’, but I am convinced that your effort will be more
successful if amplified by compatible voices. In short, your bold message is likely
to be more robust, cover more intellectual territory, and connect with more social
networks if your reference works with similar themes.
If you are reluctant to accept this advice, I wonder if it has more to do with
style than content. My books are likely to appeal most to writers who work in a
relatively structured way. There are alternatives, and Writing for Scholarly
Publication includes an interesting conversation with Mary Jo Hatch, a well-known organization theorist who begins every day with free form writing. You
might try following her lead, but note that we both move between more and less
structured thinking and writing, which I think make sense for all who want to
As a last bit of advice, if you are drawn to a bold project, I suggest making
it part of a portfolio that includes other efforts with a clearer path to success.
Publication is a question of probabilities. I do not think it makes sense to bet only
on high risk, relatively untested projects.
B. I am not happy about focusing on contribution to just ONE
conversation. The questions that interest me are multi-dimensional and do
not fit that well into one academic silo.
Here again I am sympathetic to the concern behind this question, which is
especially relevant to work on complex and important issues of our time, like
sustainability, but is also applicable to most questions that interest management
scholars. However, I have several concerns about abandoning the clear
emphasis on one academic conversation found in these two books, even though
it entails a problematic simplicity.
On a practical level, I am concerned by the page limitations of journal
submission. I am always stressed by having to cut relevant complexity to meet
the demands of a short article. It is more difficult to prune effectively when it is
necessary to address more than one audience.
More broadly, it takes a great deal of time to master more than one
scholarly area of inquiry, especially when the domains are in different disciplines.
The few people I know who are multi-dexterous have spent years in preparation.
Newcomers have to ask themselves whether they are willing to spend the time
involved at this point in their careers.
A third concern is about audience size. I give relatively little attention to
work that touches on one of my interests, if it is combined with other subjects that
are not central to my work. The more complex and idiosyncratic a publication’s
frame, it might be argued, the smaller the audience in most academic
publications. It makes sense to trial more complex arguments in presentations
that emphasize new thinking, or to write for practitioner publications that require
less grounding in previous publication.
It is also useful to realize that we are drawn to interdisciplinary work not
only by the complexity we see in the field, but also by funding agencies and
university administrators defining grand challenges. This recipe has become too
widespread in my opinion, and is especially risky for newcomers who hope for
academic careers. I worry about the future employability of people who do
doctoral work or take first jobs in projects without a clear academic base. When
the project has a laudable multi-disciplinarily objective it still makes sense to
develop a clearly defined area of academic expertise in my opinion.
C. It seems that the advice in these books applies primarily to the
western world and learning to publish in English-language outlets. How
disadvantaged am I if I did not learn English as a first language?
Once again I have to say “you are right in some important ways” to people
who ask variants of this question. Important insights do come from
communication in a first language, especially if it is the language of those you
study. Conferences and publishing outlets that promote scholarly conversation in
multiple languages are thus important to rich understanding and I worry about the
consequences of policy makers and leaders of academic institutions who try to
increase their impact by importing structures and theory from English to other
On the other hand, the basic idea found in these books is that one of the
best ways to learn how to be a scholar is from sources within the conversation
you want to join. American ideas and practices are being diffused around the
world. To the extent that you see this happening in your area of inquiry and are
interested in the direction taken, the advice offered in these books may be helpful
precisely because it has an American flavor that I cannot completely erase.
D. To what extent is the future of academic institutions in jeopardy? I
worry that publications in the field of management seem to have little
impact on practice. More specifically, how can academic research be
influential given its small scale and scope in comparison to the complexity
and scale of global interactions?
One of the reasons academic work has relatively little influence is that
most journals expect it to focus on work published in a few top-ranking journals. I
am happy to support recent efforts to pull back from a system that thus tends to
divorce ranked journal publications from work the public is likely to appreciate
(Smart et al, 2016).
On an institutional level, an important discussion is now occurring in the
accrediting bodies widely seen to be part of a problem that tends to diminish
public impact (see for example, http://www.bizedmagazine.com/archives/2016/3/features/academic-research-into-public-engagement). These efforts are typically
led by senior scholars with less to lose, but they will not have an impact unless a
much larger group of scholars takes some stand on the arguments being made.
Thus we all have a responsibility to do what we can where we are, and to
remember our initial complaints even as we learn to succeed in the current
system. Once again it may make sense to see these efforts as part of a portfolio
that includes work with less controversial intentions.