Communicating the value of your research starts with identifying the problem you are trying to solve

This past summer, I was very privileged to be asked to become a co-editor-in-chief of Communications in Information Literacy, the same journal where I published one of my first peer reviewed articles back in the day and where I’ve been serving as a peer reviewer for the past five years or so. One of the first things I’ve had to learn in my new role is how to think like an editor rather than, say, a peer reviewer or an interested reader. This has been a challenge, but luckily I have a lot of great support from my fellow editors as I get my feet under me.

Learning to think like an editor is important because, at least at CIL, all of the research articles submitted to the journal are reviewed by us editors-in-chief before being sent for the next step of the process. And what I mean by “reviewed” is that we all read the article submitted and weigh in on whether we think the article is within the scope of our journal and whether the quality and originality of the writing and research is high enough to be considered for publication. If it is, we send the article on for peer review. Hurray!

A lot of times, though, the article is not sent for peer review. There are a lot of reasons this can happen, seemingly. Sometimes it’s because an article is simply not within the journal’s scope. Other times, the article may be within scope and generally well-written but there’s something about it that’s just…lacking somehow.

This the area where I’ve really had to practice thinking like an editor. In doing so, I’ve learned that for me, at least, the missing piece in many of this “almost-but-not-quite” articles is a sense of why the research the author did is important or what it adds to the larger conversation around information literacy and any subtopics it might cover. In other words, what problem is the author’s research trying to solve?

I can’t speak to whether this question is important to my fellow editors—they may prioritize different aspects of things as we review the works submitted to us. But this is a question I started thinking about a lot as a writer a while back. I think it actually came from a template I was using to write the abstracts for my articles. That template recommended structuring an abstract so that it states the motivation and purpose for the research, the problem being solved, the approach used to try to solve it, and what the author found. This template has not only been a useful tool for writing abstracts, but for thinking about my research in general.

When doing my recent study on the role of research in fiction writing, for example, I didn’t necessarily have a problem in mind when I started out. I just thought the topic was interesting. Then I shared the first version of the article I wrote with a trusted colleague, whose feedback to me was basically  that the article was lacking a “so what.” Meaning: like, yeah, books about fiction writing don’t talk about research that much but…so what? Why should the intended audience for my article (librarians) care that this is the case?

That turned out to be a hard question to answer. Which is to say, I knew that when it came to studies of creative research, there was a big gap in the literature on the field. But sometimes filling a gap in the literature isn’t enough. Especially when that gap probably exists because, well, nobody cares about it.

In the end, I threw out my original study and started over. This process turned out to be quite messy for a lot of different reasons (as you might know if you’ve kept track of this blog at all the past few years) but what eventually helped me snap my research into focus was spending some time thinking about what my colleague had said, but framing it in terms of what problem my research was trying to solve. It took a while, but eventually I hit on an answer that was apparently convincing enough that (after much revision, as recommended by the peer reviewers and editors) the article was accepted by portal, one of the top journals in the library field.(1)

I think the reason thinking about what problem you’re trying to solve is useful is because it creates a clear path for creating an argument around why your research is important or even why it exists in the first place.

Of course, we all know that the reason a lot of the literature in the LIS field exists is because librarians are required to do research as part of their jobs. It’s not necessarily something they want to do or want to spend a lot of time on, so there are a lot of articles in our field that read like what I call “contractual obligation” articles. In other words, stuff that people wrote less because they were interested in adding to a field of knowledge and more because they had to as a job requirement. Frankly, before I found my current research path, I had a few of those myself.

And that’s fine. Not everyone loves research or feels that they’re good at it. That doesn’t mean the work you do isn’t valuable.

Framing your research in terms of the problem it’s trying to solve helps communicate that value to editors, reviewers, and readers.

Also: this isn’t something you have to do before you begin your writing or even your research. Thinking about it at the beginning might help to focus your research and writing, but identifying a problem that your research helps to solve can happen at any stage. Like I said, when it came to my study on the role of research in fiction writing, I didn’t think much about this question until after someone else asked it. And even after I started thinking about it, I didn’t come up with an answer until relatively late in the process. That happens too!

So this is something that I’ve often thought about as a writer than I’m now learning to think about as an editor. I’m always happy to read well-written articles about information literacy by thoughtful and creative authors. But I’m even happier when the author clearly and convincingly communicates the value of their work. Identifying the problem they’re trying to solve is an important step in that direction.


(1) To be published in October 2022. Hurray!

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