Things I learned writing “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study”

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

“Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study” was a bit of a departure for me, publication-wise. Before that, the scholarly articles I’d written were more practical in nature, things that described successful projects so others might adapt those projects for their own purposes. It was a model I’d had some pretty good success with and enjoyed writing and had planned to continue. But then an idea started itching at the back of my mind.

This idea was completely different from anything I’d tried writing before. I didn’t know here to start or whether it even made sense. But I did it anyway and this is what I learned.

To write a lot, you need to read a lot

This is an idea that comes up a lot in books on creative writing. Stephen King in particular advocates for it in On Writing. The purpose of reading a lot in order to write a lot seems to be twofold. First, it’s a way to study the craft of writing. Second, it cultivates inspiration. Because you never know where a story idea is going to come from.

Writing a research-based scholarly article is a lot different from writing a novel or other creative work, but in this case inspiration did come from an unexpected source. Following the introduction of the ACRL Framework, I’d been reading up about threshold concepts and I happened upon a book called Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle. I picked up a copy out of idle interest to see how threshold concepts are discussed in areas outside of my own professional domain. I thought it might be relevant to some of the work I was doing at the time, but then again maybe not.

Toward the beginning of the book, Adler-Kassner and Wardle talk about how writing is often seen by non-experts as a basic skill that students only need to learn one time. As a way of addressing this misunderstanding, they introduce the metaconcept that writing is both an activity and a subject of study.

Everything they wrote instantly resonated me as someone who teaches information literacy and research. These are also often mistakenly thought of as basic skills that can be learned over the course of a single, hour-long instruction session. But librarians and other information professionals know that research is not just a basic skill. They know this because they study it.

In other words, research, like writing, is both an activity and a subject of study.

Basically, inspiration struck in a very unexpected way. I had no idea when I picked up Naming What We Know that it would set me on a research path that I would still be eagerly pursuing four years later.

Don’t be afraid of big ideas

Like I said before, most of the scholarly articles I’d written up to this point had been practical in nature and I’d pretty much planned to continue on that path. When this new idea began to form, it made me nervous. It just felt so much bigger than anything I’d pursued in the past. I had no idea how to even articulate what I was thinking, much less where to start. Would this even take me anywhere? If it did, how long would it take?

That last question was important because of the whole tenure clock thing. To earn tenure at my institution, librarians need a minimum of two peer-reviewed articles (or some equivalent). I already had two but one had been written and published during my time in a previous position, so it didn’t count. My third had just been rejected by the second or third journal and I was starting to think I might need to shelve it. Worrying about my timeline was probably a bit premature at that point but after whiffing out so much with that third article, I didn’t want to waste too much time on something that might not work out. Finding another practical, project-based topic seemed like the safer option.

Luckily, I have good mentors. When I brought my idea to my department head in one of our monthly meetings, she encouraged me to take the risk. My tenure mentor also had a positive reaction when I shared the idea with her. These were also the first two people to see the first draft, which took me almost a year to write as I experienced maybe for the first time the truly iterative nature of the research process.

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there

For me, the first step of any research project I take on is to write the abstract. That may sound a little backwards, but it can really help establish what problem you’re trying to solve, how you’re going to try to solve it, and why it’s important to solve that particular problem. In this case, I especially needed that because, as I mentioned before, I really didn’t know at the start of all of this how to even articulate what I was thinking.

Which also meant I didn’t know how to search for it in the existing literature.

I can’t remember now exactly where or how I started my research but before the project was done, it would take me to a lot of different places: writing studies literature, studies of the transferability of the ACRL Standards, early commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of the ACRL Framework, genre studies, the history of information literacy, stuff from the field of psychology, a review of the content of recent issues of core LIS journals…on and on. Every connection I found led me to a new one. After a while, I felt more than a little bit in the weeds but I was able to pull it all together into what felt like a reasonably coherent whole.

And just when I thought my bases were covered and I’d sent the thing in for peer review (twice, see below), the journal editor pointed out that I wasn’t being very clear what I meant by “research” in the first place. It had never occurred to me that I would need to define that particular term. So off I went, finding as many definitions of research as I could and trying to think of how to synthesize them in a way that made sense for what I was trying to convey with my work.

It was a lot. In the end, I think I cited somewhere around 80 individual sources, give or take. And then I had to convert all of those citations from APA to Chicago style, which I had somehow never used before. If nothing else, this gave me a good story to tell any students who complain about the handful of sources they have to cite for their research in a style they don’t understand.

Anything that’s worth doing

I first submitted the article for review in spring 2017. I got my first “revise and resubmit” in August(ish). I submitted again about six weeks later. About a month after that, I got my second revise and resubmit. The article was eventually accepted in March 2018.

That second revise and resubmit took me about three months because the second round of feedback from the peer reviewers and the journal editor was…well, let’s just say there was some tough love in there, emphasis on “tough.” This caught me off guard because the first round of feedback had seemed generally positive, which is part of the reason why I turned the next draft around so fast. While there was still some positive stuff in the second round of comments I received, the big takeaway was that maybe I had been a little overeager the first time around. I needed to slow things down.

It was hard not to be disheartened. The feedback I received was such that I knew I would need to make some major changes to the structure and content of the article, at least if I wanted to get it published in this particular journal (which I did, because it’s pretty much the top journal in the field). So I had to spend some time deciding what to do. Make the major changes or send the article as it was somewhere else?

In the end, I decided to make the changes. And then I made changes on top of those changes and it ended up being pretty much a major overhaul of the whole article. I didn’t start from scratch but the version that eventually got published is much, much different from the one I originally submitted.

That’s a good thing. Starting over sucked but this had become something I really believed in and wanted to share, so it was worth it to me to take the time to do it right. And as hard as some of that feedback was to take at first, I do think that I ended up with much a stronger piece than what I started with.

It doesn’t end there

The process for writing “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study” was long and messy. The process for writing the follow-up article has been even longer and messier but I think I finally have something that might be worth submitting somewhere.

Stay tuned.

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