Reblog > Writing for impact (Rob Kitchin)

Over on the excellent Programmable City blog, Prof. Rob Kitchin offers an interesting set of observations and suggestions about the kinds of writing academic social scientists (and I think particularly geographers here) engage in, how they can be received and thus what one might aim to do in the writing of an academic paper. In particular, I think Rob highlights the challenge (and implicit conflict) for the contemporary (and in particular early career) academic – to be productive and to have impact. In other words, one can read the piece as kind of saying – its all very well pumping out the papers but if you’re simply recycling other material, i.e. applying a bit of well-worn theory to a new empirical example, its not really enough.

My reading of such an argument is as a kind of implicit critique of the logic of exercises like the REF – especially if, in the future, it moves over to being driven by bibliometrics . Its all very well to be cited, but are people actually engaging with your material. This is certainly a challenge I don’t feel like I’ve cracked (and my work has only been very modestly cited)!

Anyway, for colleagues in academia (especially those who are early career), I suggest that this is definitely worth a read:

Writing for impact: how to craft papers that will be cited

For the past few years I’ve co-taught a professional development course for doctoral students on completing a thesis, getting a job, and publishing.  The course draws liberally on a book I co-wrote with the late Duncan Fuller entitled, The Academics’ Guide to Publishing.  One thing we did not really cover in the book was how to write and place pieces that have impact, rather providing more general advice about getting through the peer review process.

The general careers advice mantra of academia is now ‘publish or perish’.  Often what is published and its utility and value can be somewhat overlooked – if a piece got published it is assumed it must have some inherent value.  And yet a common observation is that most journal articles seem to be barely read, let alone cited.

Both authors and editors want to publish material that is both read and cited, so what is required to produce work that editors are delighted to accept and readers find so useful that they want to cite in their own work?

A taxonomy of publishing impact

The way I try and explain impact to early career scholars is through a discussion of writing and publishing a paper on airport security (see Figure 1).  Written pieces of work, I argue, generally fall into one of four categories, with the impact of the piece rising as one traverses from Level 1 to Level 4.

Figure 1: Levels of research impact

Level 1: the piece is basically empiricist in nature and makes little use of theory.  For example, I could write an article that provides a very detailed description of security in an airport and how it works in practice.  This might be interesting, but would add little to established knowledge about how airport security works or how to make sense of it.  Generally, such papers appear in trade magazines or national level journals and are rarely cited.

Level 2: the paper uses established theory to make sense of a phenomena. For example, I could use Foucault’s theories of disciplining, surveillance and biopolitics to explain how airport security works to create docile bodies that passively submit to enhanced screening measures.  Here, I am applying a theoretical frame that might provide a fresh perspective on a phenomena if it has not been previously applied.  I am not, however, providing new theoretical or methodological tools but drawing on established ones.  As a consequence, the piece has limited utility, essentially constrained to those interested in airport security, and might be accepted in a low-ranking international journal.

Level 3: the paper extends/reworks established theory to make sense of phenomena.  For example, I might argue that since the 1970s when Foucault was formulating his ideas there has been a radical shift in the technologies of surveillance from disciplining systems to capture systems that actively reshape behaviour.  As such, Foucault’s ideas of governance need to be reworked or extended to adequately account for new algorithmic forms of regulating passengers and workers.  My article could provide such a reworking, building on Foucault’s initial ideas to provide new theoretical tools that others can apply to their own case material.  Such a piece will get accepted into high-ranking international journals due to its wider utility.

Level 4: uses the study of a phenomena to rethink a meta-concept or proposes a radically reworked or new theory.  Here, the focus of attention shifts from how best to make sense of airport security to the meta-concept of governance, using the empirical case material to argue that it is not simply enough to extend Foucault’s thinking, rather a new way of thinking is required to adequately conceptualize how governance is being operationalised.  Such new thinking tends to be well cited because it can generally be applied to making sense of lots of phenomena, such as the governance of schools, hospitals, workplaces, etc.  Of course, Foucault consistently operated at this level, which is why he is so often reworked at Levels 2 and 3, and is one of the most impactful academics of his generation (cited nearly 42,000 time in 2013 alone).  Writing a Level 4 piece requires a huge amount of skill, knowledge and insight, which is why so few academics work and publish at this level.  Such pieces will be accepted into the very top ranked journals.

One way to think about this taxonomy is this: generally, those people who are the biggest names in their discipline, or across disciplines, have a solid body of published Level 3 and Level 4 material – this is why they are so well known; they produce material and ideas that have high transfer utility.  Those people who well known within a sub-discipline generally have a body of Level 2 and Level 3 material.  Those who are barely known outside of their national context generally have Level 1/2 profiles (and also have relatively small bodies of published work).

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