Improving Academic Writing Skills Tutorial 2019
Writing is a skill that I have always considered as very important. Academic writing skills make a successful career in science and found out that it is your number of published papers, and how often they are cited. This tutorial explains several tips and techniques for improving your Academic Writing Skills with best examples in 2019.
How do we develop the habit of writing so that we can steadily produce our reports, dissertation chapters, and papers?
1. Schedule time
Starting to write a conference paper the night before the deadline is bad planning. Research has shown that academic writers who write steadily for a certain amount of time every day have a larger academic output than those who go for binge-writing.
If you are an (aspiring) Ph.D. student, this means that you should continuously report your work, so that you can pull from that material later on when you need to write a paper, or for when you start writing your dissertation.
If you are an early career researcher, this means that you should try to set aside chunks of writing time, preferably every day, so that you can steadily work on your publications.
When you schedule time consistently throughout your months and weeks, you also need to know what you want to be writing from week to week and from month to month. Make an overview of the reports, chapters, and papers that you need to write, and make a writing plan.
Ph.D. students, this means that you have the general overview of which chapters you will be writing when (in which year of your program), and keep space to write background reports and papers that will come up along the way.
Early career researchers, you’ll need a plan for writing your journal papers. Taking into consideration all other responsibilities, 2 to 3 months per paper is a good estimate.
Write a lot
For improving academic writing train that writing muscle by writing a lot! It sounds like a no-brainer, but it is so important. By the way, writing e-mails and tweets don’t count towards your “writing a lot”.
Develop your writing skills by writing for different audiences. Outside of academia, you can further develop your writing skills through journaling, blogging and writing fiction.
Learn from examples
Nothing is a better teacher than an example of a paper that you find particularly clear. Did you notice that some papers seem to take you forever to understand and that you have to read sentences twice?
That can be a sign of poor writing, more than of your poor understanding. On the other hand, do you have a paper that you find yourself nodding along to, making little side calculations and sketches?
Signs are that this is a clear paper. Analyze papers that appeal to you. How long are the sentences? How much jargon did the author use? How is the paper structured? Learn from this example, and apply these lessons to your own work.
Become your own critic
It’s time to grow up, folks! Nobody is going to come in with a red pen and correct your writing anymore. Your adviser might help you out at the beginning of your Ph.D., but afterward, poor writing will just be sent to the “reject” pile.
Learn to become your own critic. Analyze your sentences, the flow of your paragraphs, the structure of your chapter/ paper, and the visual clarity of your figures. Give your work a few weeks of rest, and then return with sharper eyes.
Figures are part of writing too
When we think about writing, we think about words and sentences. Writing is more than that, however. When we skim through a paper, we typically read the abstract, introduction, conclusions and then glance over the figures.
Revising your work is something that needs to be scheduled too. Don’t just make a plan based on the time it takes to write your first draft, but plan time for editing, for letting your work rest, and for discussing it with others.
What I learned last year, is that editing my dissertation took twice as long as writing the first draft. Even though I had major parts of my dissertation in conference papers and reports, revising still took much more time than I could have imagined.
When your writing does not flow, erase an entire paragraph, define the message you want to convey in that paragraph (you can do this by talking out loud: “I want this paragraph to describe such and such based on X and Y”), and then rewrite your entire paragraph.
Don’t be afraid of wiping out the text here and there and starting over. Instead, know that this is an essential step in moving your writing forwards and towards higher quality.
Write with others
As a Ph.D. student, you will mostly be writing to and with your adviser and committee members. But, if possible, try to broaden your pool of co-authors. You might want to reach out at conferences to fellow researchers with whom you might like to work on a publication.
To improve academic writing, If you are exposed to other writers from different institutions, you will learn from their writing styles, and your own writing will mature. Break out of the confinement of your fixed group of co-authors and actively seek cooperation across institutions, countries, and disciplines.
YOUR DISSERTATION OUTLINES
As you finish up the last experiments of your Ph.D. research or put the last pieces of the puzzle together, you will start thinking: “Now I should start writing…” – a question that probably will echo on and on in your head for the next couple of weeks (or maybe even months) as “But really, once I’m done with XXX, I really will start writing…”.
And then one day, you decide to take the plunge and Start Writing. You open a fresh Word document, maybe put some reference papers on your desk and then…then what?
You might stare at your empty screen. You might chew on your pencil. You might get side-tracked and do some urgent work first. But the all-encompassing thought in your mind now becomes: “So I decided to start writing – without knowing how to actually Start Writing!”
When you need to produce a book-style dissertation of about 100,000 words, you don’t just sit yourself down in front of your computer, write the first line of your introduction, and then only look up once you ’ve written your conclusion’s last sentence. “One does not simply walk into Mordor” (and show up bright and fresh on the other side).
You need a map for this expedition – and in thesis terms, that means you need an outline.
This is not just a table of contents: you need to find out how all the elements can be tied back to your research question. You need something like an “enhanced” table of contents, or a mind-map of your soon-to-be book.
Therefore, I advise you to do the following:
Draw a scheme or diagram of the content, so you know how the different chapters are interrelated.
This scheme is not something that you will use at the very beginning – I think it is an excellent element to add such a scheme to the first chapter of your dissertation.
In your introduction, you will typically give an overview of what the reader can expect in every single chapter of your dissertation. Go up one level, and present how these chapters are logically interrelated by showing the diagram of the contents of your dissertation.
Once you have your overview diagram ready, you might have all the tools you need to get started with your first chapter. While opinions differ on when you should write your introduction, I think it’s not a bad idea to scramble your thoughts together and write a provisional introduction.
To improve academic writing, You can write this just as an exercise in defining the boundaries of what you will discuss in your dissertation, and within which limits you will deal with your research question.
Most likely, you will completely revise your introduction once you’ve completed your dissertation, but the first gist of preparing the ground for your writing will most likely still be there.
HOW TO MANAGE MY PAPERS
At the beginning of your research career, working on one research paper will be a big deal. Once you gain more experience, and once you move on to your next career stages, you might transition into the next stage of writing, the stage of working on many papers at once.
Having many papers going on at once can be messy. You’ll need to find a way to keep track of deadlines, see if you need to go and bug the editor to get your reviews back if after many months they still haven’t given you a sign of life and keep track of the replies of your co-authors.
Or you might have included a figure in your paper, but later, when it’s time to upload a high-quality version, you’ve forgotten where on earth it is.
Planning your papers
I use a Google Document in which I keep an overview of the papers in progress and the papers I have in mind to write. I use a spreadsheet in Google Docs for this, which is a rather low-tech approach for planning, but let me explain why I prefer Google Docs for this purpose:
My Google Doc is shared with the people who are most often my co-authors. I don’t need to send an updated file whenever I make a change – they can simply see the latest version whenever they want to check our progress.
And on the rare occasion that I do need a print or time-snapshot of this table, I can easily print it (as a PDF or physical print), and use it for something like my annual evaluation.
Whenever I have an idea of a paper I should write, or if I’m traveling and forgot how far along I am with a given paper, I can simply access this document in the cloud, and check the table. This feature is especially helpful since I’m working at institutions that are pided over 2 continents.
Overview of dates and people:
My Google Docs table is very simple, and consists of the following columns: “Paper” has an abbreviated name for the paper, typically related to the journal I’m aiming at; “Topic”, well, contains the paper’s topic;
“Journal/Venue” contains the journal or conference in which I’m planning to publish this work; “First Draft” has the goal-deadline for my first draft;
“Revisions” has my goal-deadline for receiving my co-author’s revisions; “Co-author X/Y/Z” has an x if said co-author already sent me his comments; “Submitting” has my goal-deadline for the first submission.
Then, for the second round of reviews, I use the following columns next to the previously discussed ones: “Draft Review”, “Revision”, “Co-author X/Y/Z” and “Resubmit”. Finally, I have a column that I use for personal notes.
Using a simple spreadsheet allows me to write comments in separate columns. What do I include? For example, if a paper is rejected, I make a comment on where else I could publish it and when I think I can rework it. Or I write that I need to ask other people if they want to co-author the paper.
I use simple color-coding in the sheet (by filling the background of the cells in the first column): light blue for papers that are completely finished, green for papers that are on hold or in a review, orange for papers in progress, and red for papers I haven’t started yet.
Reminders and future plans
Besides the Google Document with the planning table, I also put self-imposed and hard deadlines on my to-do list app. I use Todoist, and have a separate project titled “Writing papers”.
Not only do I have deadlines there (which show up as reminders on the Todoist website, the phone and tablet app etc.), but I also have reminders for starting dates (when I plan to start working on a paper), and vague ideas for papers that have no deadline but that I review from time to.
Once a “start writing” reminder shows up in my Todoist (or even better: in the 7 days ahead view that I always use), I add it to my weekly planning in Google Calendar. I use a weekly template to make sure I find the time to teach, prepare the class, read and write papers and do research.
Oh, and – to my distress – read and reply to emails. The weekly template is generic, but on a weekly and monthly basis, I fill out precisely which paper I’ll be working on during my writing time, and which piece of research I’ll be working on during my research hours.
On a daily basis, I write down my 3 most important tasks in my paper-based planner, because I tend to get distracted when I need to keep checking my schedule on Google Calendar online.
Another related element here is keeping track of all emails from the editors related to a given paper, and the figures – to avoid not finding the high-resolution version of a given figure once you need to upload them for submission.
I create a folder per paper. Within this folder, I save the paper and its different versions (I use “Paper Title YYYYMMDD. doc” as a name for the documents).
Another folder, “Calcs”, typically contains the calculations backing up the data in the paper for easy reference. Since I have an Inbox Zero, I also save all emails regarding the paper in its main folder, such as the email giving me the name of the submission, and its submission confirmation.
This method, in a nutshell, helps me to keep an overview of the papers that I have in the process. It’s easy, in the cloud, and suits the purpose. In my opinion, a complex time management system with a lot of zinging and dinging features is not what we need – instead, a simple system that just contains basic information is sufficient.
Now you have to come up with a problem that you are supposed to be interested in! You are probably so anxious about learning the material contained in your professor’s lectures and what is in this volume that you barely have time to think about anything else.
If you stop for a moment and let your mind explore some of the issues in the behavioral and social sciences that have piqued your interest, you will surely find something that you want to know more about. That is what the research process is all about—finding out more about something that is, in part, at least, partially known.
Once you select an area of interest, you are only part of the way there. Next comes the statement of this interest in the form of a research question followed by a formal hypothesis. Then, it is on to reviewing the literature, a sort of fancy phrase that sounds like you will be very busy!
A literature review involves library time online or actually being there, note taking, and organizational skills (and of course writing), but it provides a perspective on your question that you cannot get without knowing what other work has been done as well as what new work needs to be done.
But hold on a minute! How is someone supposed to have a broad enough understanding of the field and spew forth well-formed hypotheses before the literature is reviewed and then become familiar with what is out there? As poet John Ciardi wrote, therein “lies the rub.”
The traditional philosophers and historians of science would have us believe that the sequence of events leading up to a review of what has been done before (as revealed in the literature).
The research question and research hypothesis are more an outgrowth of an interaction between the scientist’s original idea and an ongoing, thorough review of the literature (good scientists are always reading).
This means that once you formulate a hypothesis, it is not carved in stone but can be altered to fit what the review of the literature may reflect, as well as any change in ideas you may have. Remember, almost all of our work “stands on the shoulder of giants.”
For example, you might be interested in how working adults manage their time when they are enrolled in graduate programs. That’s the kernel of the idea you want to investigate. A research question might ask what the effects of enrollment in graduate school and full-time work are on personal relationships and personal growth.
For a Research Question
Hypothesis, you might predict that those adults enrolled in school and who work full time and who participate in a time management support group have more meaningful personal relationships than those who do not.
Selecting a Problem
People go to undergraduate and graduate school for a variety of reasons, including preparing for a career, the potential financial advantages of higher education, and even expanding their personal horizons and experiencing the sheer joy of learning. Many of you are in this specific course for one or more of these reasons.
Select a problem which genuinely interests you.
The great commonality between your coursework and activities is your exposure to a wealth of information, which you would not otherwise experience.
That is the primary purpose of taking the time to select a research problem that makes sense to you and that interests you, while at the same time makes a contribution to your specific discipline. The selection of the area in which to work on is extremely important for two reasons.
Use the results of previous studies to fine-tune your research ideas and hypotheses.
First, research takes a great deal of time and energy, and you want to be sure that the area you select interests you. You will work so hard throughout this project that continuing to work on it, even if it’s the most interesting
You might consider the hypothesis to be finished at this point, but in reality, your ongoing review of the literature and your changing ideas about the relationship between the variables will influence the direction your research will take.
For example, suppose the findings of a similar previous study prompt you to add an interesting dimension (such as whether the employer subsidizes the cost of tuition) to your study because the addition is consistent with the intent of your study.
You should not have to restrict your creative thinking or your efforts to help you understand the effects of these factors just because you have already formulated a hypothesis and completed a literature review.
Indeed, the reason for completing the review is to see what new directions your work might take. The literature review and the idea play off one another to help you form a relevant, conceptually sound research question and research hypothesis.
In sum, you will almost always find that your first shot at a hypothesis will need revision, given the content of the literature that you review. Remember, it is your idea that you will pursue.
The way in which you execute it as a research study will be determined by the way in which you state the research question and the way in which you test the research hypothesis. It is doubtful that a review of the relevant literature would not shed some light on this matter.
Just as there are many different ways to go about selecting a research problem, there are also some potential hazards. To start you off on the right foot, the following briefly reviews some of these almost fatal errors.
It is easy to do, but falling in love with your idea can be fatal. This happens when you become so infatuated with an idea and the project and you invest so much energy in it that you cannot bear to change anything about it. Right away someone is going to say, “What’s wrong with being enthusiastic about your project?”
My response is strong, “Nothing at all.” As does your professor, most researchers encourage and look for enthusiasm in students (and scientists) as an important and essential quality. But enthusiasm is not incompatible with being objective and dispassionate about the actual research process (not the content).
Sometimes—and this is especially true for beginning research students—researchers see their question as one of such magnitude and importance that they fail to listen to those around them, including their adviser, who is trying to help them formulate their problem in such a way as to make it more precise and, in the long run, easier to address.
Be committed to your ideas and enthusiastic about your topic but not so much that it clouds your judgment as to the practical and correct way to do things.
Do you like your first idea for a research study? Great, but don’t run out and place an advertisement for research participants online quite yet. Wait a few days and think about it, and by no means should you stop talking to other students and colleagues and your adviser during this thinking stage.
Second and third ideas are usually much more refined, easier to research, and more manageable than first ones. As you work, rewrite and rethink your work . . . constantly.
Do you want to guarantee an unsuccessful project that excites no one (except perhaps yourself)? Doing something trivial by selecting a problem that has no conceptual basis or apparent importance in the field can lead to a frustrating experience and one that provides no closure.
Beginning students who make this mistake sometimes over-intellectualize the importance of their research plans and don’t take the time to ask themselves, “Where does this study fit in with all that has been done before?”
Any scientific endeavor has as its highest goal the contribution of information that will help us better to understand the world in general and the specific topic being studied in particular.
If you find out what has been done by reading previous studies and use that information as a foundation, then you will surely come up with a research problem of significance and value.
Part of your job is to learn how to build and elaborate on the results of previous research without duplicating previous efforts. You might remember from the beginning of this blog that we stressed how replication is an important component of the scientific process and good research.
Your adviser can clearly guide you as to what is redundant (doing the exact same thing over without any sound rationale) and what is an important contribution (doing the same thing over but exploring an aspect of the previous research or even asking the same question, while eliminating possibly confounding sources of variance present in the first study).
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Defining Your Interests
It is always easy for accomplished researchers to come up with additional ideas for research, but that is what they are paid and trained to do (in part, anyway). Besides, experienced researchers can put all that experience to work for themselves, and one thing (a study) usually leads to another (another study).
Never disregard personal experience as an important source of ideas.
But what about the beginning student such as yourself? Where do you get your ideas for research? Even if you have a burning desire to be an experimental psychologist, a teacher, a counselor, or a clinical social worker, where do you begin to find hints about ideas that you might want to pursue?
In some relatively rare cases, students know from the beginning what they want to select as a research area and what research questions they want to ask. Most students, however, experience more anxiety and doubt than confidence.
Before you begin the all-important literature review, first take a look at the following suggestions for where you might find interesting questions that are well worth considering as research topics.
First, personal experiences and firsthand knowledge more often than not can be the catalyst for starting research. For example, perhaps you worked at a summer camp with disabled children and are interested in knowing more about the most effective way to teach these children.
Or, through your own personal reading, you have become curious about the aging process and how it affects the learning process.
A further example:
At least three of my colleagues are special educators because they have siblings who were not offered the special services they needed as children to reach their potential. Your own experiences shape the type of person you are.
It would be a shame to ignore your past when considering the general area and content of a research question, even if you cannot see an immediate link between these experiences and possible research activities. Keep reading and you will find ways to help you create that link.
You may want to take complete responsibility for coming up with a research question. On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing wrong with consulting your advisor or some other faculty member who is working on some interesting topic and asking, “What’s next?”
Using ideas from your mentor or instructor will probably make you very current with whatever is happening in your field. Doing so also will help to establish and nurture the important relationship between you and your adviser (or some other faculty member), which is necessary for an enjoyable and successful experience.
These are the people doing the research, and it would be surprising not to find that they have more ideas than time to devote to them and would welcome a bright, energetic student (like you) who wants to help extend their research activities. can formulate as a research question so that your interest is held throughout the duration of the activity.
Ideas, Ideas, Ideas (and What to Do with Them)
Even if you are sure of what your interest might be, sometimes it is still difficult to come up with a specific idea for a research project. For better or worse, you are really the only one who can do this for yourself, but the following is a list of possible research topics, one of which might strike a chord.
For each of these topics, there is a wealth of associated literature. If one topic piques your interest, go to that body of literature (described in the second part of this chapter) and start reading.
Next, you might look for a research question that reflects the next step in the research process. Perhaps A, B, and C have already been done, and D is next in line.
For example, your special interest might be understanding the lifestyle factors that contribute to heart disease, and you already know that factors such as personality type (e.g., Type A and Type B) and health habits (e.g., social drinking) have been well studied and their effects well documented.
The next logical step might be to look at factors such as work habits (including occupation and attitude) or some component of family life (such as quality of relationships). As with research activities in almost all disciplines and within almost all topics, there is always that next logical step that needs to be taken.
Last, but never least, is that you may have to come up with a research question because of this class. Now that is not all that bad either if you look at it this way: People who come up with ideas on their own are all set and need not worry about coming up with an idea by the deadline.
Those people who have trouble formulating ideas need a deadline; otherwise, they would not get anything done. So although there are loftier reasons for coming up with research questions, sometimes it is just required.
Unlike a hypothesis, a research question is not a declarative statement but rather is a clearly stated expression of interest and intent. In the pay-me-now or pay-me- later tradition, the more easily understood and clearer the research question, the easier your statement of a hypothesis and review of the literature will be to create.
Why? From the beginning, a clear idea of what you want to do allows you to make much more efficient use of your time when it comes to searching for references and doing other literature review activities.
Finally, it is time to formulate a hypothesis or a set of hypotheses that reflect the research question.
From Idea to Research Question to Hypothesis
Once you have determined what your specific interest might be, you should move as quickly as possible to formulate a research question that you want to investigate and begin your review of the literature.
Research ideas lead the way to research questions, which lead the way to hypotheses.
There is a significant difference between your expressing an interest in a particular idea and the statement of a research question. Ideas are full of those products of luxurious thinking: beliefs, conceptions, suppositions, assumptions, what if’s, guesses, and more.
Research questions are the articulation, best done in writing, of those ideas that at the least imply a relationship between variables.
Why is it best done in writing? Because it is too easy to “get away” with spoken words. It is only when you have to write things down and live with them (spoken words seem to vanish mysteriously) that you face up to what has been the set of five criteria that applies to the statement of any hypothesis? To refresh your memory, here they are again. A well-written hypothesis
is stated in the declarative form
posits a relationship between variables
reflects a theory or body of literature upon which it is based
is brief and to the point
When you derive your hypothesis from the research question, you should look at these criteria as a test of whether what you are saying is easily communicated to others and easily understood.
Remember, the sources for ideas can be anything from a passage that you read in a novel last night to your own unique and creative thoughts. When you get to the research question stage, however, you need to be more scientific and clearly state what your interest is and what variables you will consider.
Using Social Media in Research
There’s no end to the imagination of entrepreneurs when it comes to the use of technology to have an impact on our lives, and correspondingly, there is no end to the imagination of researchers to use that technology in their research as well.
According to the Pew Research Center (http://www.pewinternet.org), 74% of all Internet users use social media, with the vast majority of 18– 29-year-olds (89%) being users. That’s a lot of folks checking their phones every hour (at the least) or so.
We can’t possibly cover all the social media tools that you might want to use, but we can focus on two that have become very popular in the research community; Facebook and Twitter.
And contrary to what people generally think, social media actually has some significant social benefits as well as utility as a research tool. In the Pew report cited above, some of the interesting finds are as follows:
Social media is increasingly used to keep in touch with friends and colleagues.
The average user of social media is less likely to be socially isolated.
Users of Facebook are more trusting than others and have more close relationships.
Facebook users are more engaged.
USING FACEBOOK AS A RESEARCH TOOL
Facebook is a social networking tool that allows users to form groups, communicate with each other, and even play games. As of 2014, there were over 1.35 billion Facebook users and it’s no wonder how convenient this tool can be to use to help like interested people to get together to discuss and participate in research where some common interest is maintained.
To improve academic writing, You would be well suited to begin a Facebook group based on your own research interests and reach out for others who have interests that are similar to yours.
And, of course, Facebook participants can very well become participants in a study as well. Facebook is a magnificent naturally occurring laboratory to study (mostly) young people’s ideas and actions as they exist in virtual and real-time groups.
And, the best way to examine how Facebook can be used in research is to cite a few examples of its actual application.
In her informative article on how Facebook can be used for market research (at http://researchaccess.com and search on “How to Use Facebook for Market Research- Surveys”), Dana Stanley points the following strategies for using Facebook. While these are discussed within a marketing research strategy, they are applicable across any research endeavor.
Post an open-ended question that asks for a direct response to a particular question or set of questions.
Use the Facebook option feature to conduct a survey or a poll.
On Facebook, provide a link to a survey that you have created perhaps using such tools as Survey Monkey (at https://www.surveymonkey.com/).
Use Facebook’s ad feature to make a connection to a survey that you want to be completed.
David Samuels from the University of Minnesota and Cesar Zucco, Jr. from Rutgers University discuss how Facebook can be used as a tool to recruit participants in survey research.
They discuss the use of Facebook to recruit participants for online studies of public opinion and have found that Facebook can be a cost-effective tool for recruiting large samples of participants anywhere in the world.
You can imagine how powerful this tool can be for reaching hundreds, if not thousands, of participants and how much less the investment that is necessary for both time and money (often huge barriers to any research endeavor).
Finally, in the journal Ethnography and Education, Sally Baker from the University of Newcastle writes about how Facebook can be used in many different ways in any research endeavor.
She proposes a three-part conceptualization of how Facebook can be used in research practices. She contends that even if there are concerns about privacy and such, Facebook can be effectively used to maintain communication among researchers and allow for the collection of data and she illustrates this using the results of her longitudinal research with young people.
A simple search of at least one online bibliographic data based, revealed more than 58,000 articles mentioning Facebook in the academic (and not the popular) literature.
Browse through these 10 (online of course through your library) to get a real flavor as for how this tool is being used, its advantages over traditional methods and its limitations as well.
USING TWITTER AS A RESEARCH TOOL
Twitter is another social networking tool that allows users to create 140-character messages (called “tweets”) and then allows those messages to be sent out to anyone who is following the author.
There is somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million+ users who send out more than 400 million tweets per day. By the time you read this, those numbers will have increased dramatically as have the user numbers for almost every social networking tool and technique.
So, how might you use Twitter in your research endeavors?
The most obvious of course is to follow the accounts of other researchers in your area who can inform you of their progress. While 140 characters might not seem like much, they can sure be used to inform you of new developments (and perhaps the not the development itself) and then steer you to a new web page or provide a URL so that you can stay abreast of the latest changes.
Another way to use Twitter is to find out what is being written as people are being followed by searching on this huge and vast electronic archives that are available.
For example, if you wanted to know what people were saying (or Tweeting) about nursing education, you can use Twitter’s simple search box on the main page and enter the words “nursing education” (using quotes since you would want the search to return for both terms together, not each one separately).
Facebook and Twitter open up entirely new avenues for research, and it is as important (and perhaps more so) that regards for appropriate behavior on the part of the researcher and his or her team, are as important as with previous models of collecting data and such.
For example, social media sites may have very definite guidelines about how information on their sites is used and often the same rules for disclosure and permission that are followed for “in a lab” experiments These need to be followed as well.
Writing the Literature Review
It is now time to take all the information you have collected using all the tools you have learned about in this chapter and somehow organize it so it begins to make sense. This is your review of the literature, and now you actually need to write it (horrors!). Here are some writing hints.
To improve academic writing, First, read other literature reviews. There is no arguing with success. Ask a student who has already been through this course or your adviser for a successful proposal.
Look carefully at the format as well as the content of the literature review. Also, look at some of the sources mentioned earlier in this chapter, especially sources that are reviews of the literature, journal articles, and other review papers.
Second, create a unified theme, or a line of thought, throughout the review. Your review of literature is not supposed to be a novel, but most good literature reviews build from a very general argument to a more specific one and set the stage for the purpose of the research.
You should bring the reader “into the fold” and create some interest in where you will be going with this research that other people have not gone.
Third, use a system to organize your materials. Most reviews of the literature will be organized chronologically within topics.
For example, if you are studying gender differences in anxiety and verbal ability among adults, you would organize all the references by topic area (anxiety and verbal ability), and then within each of these topics, begin your review with the earliest dated reference.
In this way, you move from the earliest to the latest and provide some historical perspective.
Fourth, work from an outline even if you are an accomplished and skilled writer. It is a good idea to use this tool to help organize the main thought in your proposal before you begin the actual writing process.
Almost every word processor that is available as an outline feature that allows you to create headings at several different levels, collapse and expand those and make good sense of how topics and sub-topics should be organized.
Fifth, build bridges between the different areas you review. For example, if you are conducting a cross-cultural study comparing the ways in which East Indian and American parents discipline their children, you might not find a great deal of literature on that specific topic.
But there is certainly voluminous literature on child rearing in America and in India and tons of references on discipline. Part of the creative effort in writing a proposal is being able to show where these two come together in an interesting and potentially fruitful way.
Sixth, the practice may not always make perfect but it certainly doesn’t hurt. For some reason, most people believe that a person is born with or without a talent for writing. Any successful writer would admit that to be a class-A basketball player or an accomplished violinist, one has to practice. Should it be any different for a writer?
Should you have any doubts about this question, ask a serious writer about how many hours a day or week he or she practices that craft. More often than not, you will see it is the equivalent of the ballplayer or the musician.
In fact, a writer friend of mine gives this advice to people who want to write but don’t have a good idea about the level of involvement it requires: “Just sit down at your typewriter or word processor, and open a vein.” That is how easy it is.
Seventh, create a schedule for your writing.
Try and write at the same time (and even in the same place) every day. This routine allows you to direct your energies toward the review on a regular basis and not be too distracted by the many other things you have to do.
You know, for example, that MWF, from 10:30-noon—that’s when writing (and nothing else) take place. It’s just too easy to put off otherwise.
So the last (but really the first) hint is to practice your writing. As you work at it and find out where you need to improve (get feedback from other students and professors), you will indeed see a change for the better.
Most schools have writing centers and part of the staff job at those places is to provide feedback to students on their writing. Many of these places are only for students who speak English as a second language, but may also provide help to anyone who requests it.
Including being searchable to just bibliographic citations to full text. You’ll find tons of stuff for the social and behavioral sciences researcher as well as the aspiring nuclear scientist.
Choosing the Best Search Engine for Your Information Need
The best place to start to learn about search engines and their ever-changing capabilities is Search Engine Watch at http://searchenginewatch.com. This is search engine central where you can read about the development of new engines, changes in existing ones, how to optimize your own searches and more.
Criteria for Judging a Research Study
Judging anyone else’s work is never an easy task. A good place to start might be the following checklist, which is organized to help you focus on the most important characteristics of any journal article.
These eight areas can give you a good start in better understanding the general format of such a report and how well the author(s) communicated to you what was done, why it was done, how it was done, and what it all means.
Research articles take all kind of shapes and forms, but their primary purpose is to inform and educate the reader.
1. Review of Previous Research
How closely is the literature cited in the study related to previous literature?
Is the review recent?
Are there any seminal or outstanding references you know of that were left out? Can you recognize any citations that were included but seemed to be too general and not really appropriate, and if so, why not?
2. Problem and Purpose
Can you understand the statement of the problem?
Is the purpose of the study clearly stated?
Does the purpose seem to be tied to the literature that is reviewed?
Is the objective of the study clearly stated?
Is there a conceptual rationale to which the hypotheses are grounded?
Is there a rationale for why the study is an important one to do?
Are the research hypotheses clearly and explicitly stated?
Do the hypotheses state a clear association between variables?
Are the hypotheses grounded in theory or in a review and presentation of relevant literature?
Can the hypotheses be tested?
Are both the independent and dependent variables clearly defined?
Are the definitions and descriptions of the variables complete?
Is it clear how the study was conducted?
Was the sample selected in such a way that you think it is representative of the population? If sample representation is not appropriate in this case, was the sample selected in a way that fits the question being explored?
Is it clear where the sample came from and how it was selected?
How similar are the participants in the study to those who have been used in similar studies?
6.Results and Discussion
Are the results presented in a clear and understandable manner?
Does the author relate the results to the review of literature?
Are the results related to the hypothesis? Is the discussion of the results consistent with the actual results?
Does the discussion provide closure to the initial hypothesis presented by the author?
Is the list of references current?
Are they consistent in their format? Are the references complete?
Does the list of references reflect some of the most important reference sources in the field?
8.General Comments about the Report
Is the report clearly written and understandable?
Is the language biased?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?
What are the primary implications of the research?
What would you do to improve the research?
Does the submitted manuscript conform to the editor’s or publisher’s specifications?
HOW TO START BLOGGING AS A RESEARCHER
You may have heard about a fellow scientist to be a researcher in the 21st century, you need an online presence. You may enjoy reading other academics’ blogs and may like to share your two cents with the world too.
Whatever reason attracts you to blogging, you might feel intimidated by the task. If you want to start writing on the internet, here are some of the steps you could consider taking.
Write a guest post
If you are not sure whether blogging is for you, or whether you have enough time and material to keep a blog up, you can always test the waters by writing a guest post for another blog. Reach out to a blog’s editor, explain what you would like to write about (consider this your short abstract), and how your post could benefit their readers.
A clear, concise email could secure your little spot on the internet. Typically, the editor will get back to you with some guidelines for posting on the blog, which you can consider similar to the paper formatting guidelines for a publication, and possible thoughts on how you can develop your topic further into a blog post.
Start or join a shared blog
If you feel ready to write on a more regular basis, but don’t want to commit too much, you can join a shared blog, such as GradHacker, or start a collective blog for your research group or project. Sharing responsibilities can be an excellent way to grow a blog as a project without having to carry all the responsibility yourself.
Select a blogging platform
If you are ready to start a shared blog, or perhaps a blog of your very own, you need to think about the following:
Where do I want my blog to go on the internet?
Do you want your blog to be part of a website or do you want it to stand on its own? Do you want your own domain, or are you fine with a blogger or Wordpress account?
What will my blog’s name be?
Once you know where you want your blog to appear on the internet, you will need to select a name for your blog. Do you want to use your name, or do you want to give the blog a name of its own?
Once you have sorted this out, you can sign up and register for your place on the World Wide Web. From then on, you’re all set to start writing or start tinkering with your layout.
Write about your weekly experiences
Now that you have your own online space, let’s discuss what you could write about. One way you could be sharing your research experience is by writing a weekly update on your work, what you have been doing for the past week and what caught your attention on the internet about your research topic or academia in general.
Share your publications and presentations
For improving academic writing Your blog is an excellent place to share your publications and presentations. While a blog solely consisting of entries with abstracts of published papers of yours might be too niche for your (future) readers.
For improving academic writing You can write short posts in which you gather some information about the conference you attended, the abstract of the paper you presented, and a SlideShare presentation of your slides.
You can see an example of how I share my presentations after conferences here, and how I write about recently published journal papers.
Explain your research
Your blog could also be a great place to write about your science in a more popular way. You could share videos of your experiments online – something you cannot do in your journal papers.
You can make a series of photographs with explanations about steps you’ve gone through in the laboratory – again, something we do not have a set medium for in our scientific community.
Share what you learned
When publishing research in a paper, you mostly publish the results of the technique that actually worked. I’ve suggested blogging in the past as a possible means to tackle publication bias and eradicate the skewed version of reality we sometimes find from research because of publication bias.
If you do not feel like sharing online what did not work for you in the laboratory (although I think you should; we can only disrupt higher education and academia once we truly embrace open science), you can also share stories about little hacks and things that work for you in the laboratory or in your research.
Over the years, I’ve mostly focused on this type of posts, as I enjoy reaching out to a broader academic audience. An example of this type of posts in this article in which I share how I write my abstracts.
Critique another article
You might read a blog post by another academic, and realize that in your field, the reality is different. You can react to the author by writing in the comments section of the original post, but you could take it one step further, and write a full reply on your own blog.
Note that with “critique” here I mean a civilized critique and not a complete bashing of someone else’s opinions. An example of this type of posts is my (very old) reflection on a list of things to let go of in 2011.
Describe how you implemented another article
Did you read about someone’s experiences and decided to try them out? Why not write a post about your experiences after trying a certain technique for some time?
Especially when it comes to hacks and productivity tricks, you can try out what other bloggers recommend, and see how they fit your field of work and activities.
You might run into problems that are typical for your field – write about how you solved these. You could find that some methods feel too rigid for you, and discuss how you blend these methods into the messy reality of daily life.
Link to videos or Storify
Have you filmed some of your research and experiments? Upload them to Youtube, write a post about what your tests and your findings.
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