Academic writing and the research problem

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Researchers usually face two key moments: the definition of the research problem and the process of academic writing itself.

Let’s address these two issues. First let’s see how to prepare the research problem considering a number of basic steps. Second, let’s discuss how to write a scientific paper (articles, theses, dissertations…) and clarify our approach to a research problem. These observations have been developed along years of discussions with experienced and young researchers.

 

Definition of the research problem

This is a fundamental part of any academic writing. The approach will be structured by clear formulation, which will also lead to a clear text for the reader. Any academic writing – from abstract to article, monograph, dissertation or thesis – should consider and include the following items if the objectives are to inform the reader from the start and clearly establish the research problem.

 

1. Define what the research problem is

immediately in your work. Academic writing should not retain secrets that will be revealed as a surprise later, as a work of fiction might – the writer should show from the outset what the problem in question is.

2. Say why the topic is relevant as a research problem

describing its implications in a real context, showing its connection with a relevant empirical situation, and/or showing the topic (or aspects of the topic) as under-theorised or only partially addressed in previous approaches.

3. What is already known about the problem

Indicate (in summaries, projects) and critique (in articles or longer texts) what is already known about the problem – in other words, the current state of knowledge about it. Say how far the existing studies go, what they do not include, the important elements they lack. The field of possible contribution of your work will therefore be made clear to yourself and to the reader.

4. What the research will add

Then show what the research will add to knowledge about the topic.

 

Or, more concisely: (1) What the research problem is, (2) why it is important, (3) what is known about the problem, and (4) what the research will contribute to knowledge about the problem.[1]

The structure of the academic argument (and therefore your work) easily follows this kind of logical path, in which one thing leads to another – following those steps. This simple construction should be apparent to the reader right from the abstract and the introduction. More than anything, seek a clear construction for yourself as a researcher.

 

Academic writing: classic items

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Max Weber’s notes on the manuscript for Rechtssoziologie

The writing should include the following qualities, among others:
§   Methodical organisation: clarity in the steps defining the problem and in its treatment.
§   Support from other writings, authors and bibliographical references including criticism of existing theories/approaches, in the definition of the problem and in delivering what your research intends to contribute.
§   Quality of empirical data (when involving an empirical problem), the use of such data in the discussion and testing of your hypothesis/es.
§   Quality of argument throughout the work and the conclusion.

The introduction indicates and contextualises the problem. All the information here should be directly connected to the research problem. The introduction can use the four aforementioned steps for establishing and clarifying the approach to the problem. We shall go on to see that academic writing should not lead the reader away from the argument: the reader needs a map to know where the argument leads – an introduction that presents the stages of the argument and the role of the sections or chapters in that direction.

The argument for the relevance of a research problem is not an indication of personal reasons for interest in the topic or the motivation for carrying out the work. It is an argument about the importance, urgency or need to address the topic in the light of empirical or theoretical requirements. It establishes the need for considering the research problem (i) in its relevance for a practical context or empirical reality, or (ii) in its scientific relevance, such as the need to supersede an earlier theory or approach.

The objectives should be outlined simply. Avoid phrases like “This dissertation/thesis aims to establish [this and that]”, which are too conclusive. Prefer terms like “analyse”, “investigate the possibility of…” and other terms that avoid the error of a priori certainties. These classic research items do not need to be in specific sections, with those names in the titles. They can be placed in the form of a single text without sections – but they should be placed so that they are explicit to the reader.

 

The process of academic writing

Write in an allocentric way.

that is, write not for yourself (egocentrically), but for a reader who has never read anything about it. Your writing has to be clear enough for even the uninformed reader to understand the nature of the topic you are studying and why it is relevant and worthy of study and explanation.[1] The academic writing can be understood as an argument about a research problem – its nature, its importance, what is known about it and what is intended to be contributed to it.

Each stage of the argument has a part to play.

To ensure the clarity of your approach and your work, each stage of the argument should serve towards addressing the issue as a whole – each paragraph should leave the reader clear about its place in the evolution and unfolding of the argument. Think of the argument as a thread that is at each moment constructing the explanation as a whole: each stage must be implied by the previous one, and require a next stage. The stages or moments of the argument can take the form of sections; the larger stages can take the form of chapters. The course of this “thread” of argument should be presented to the reader in advance, in the introduction.

The reader of an academic work should not have to “discover” for her/himself along the way where the argument is heading. Not knowing the reasons and direction of the argument is irritating for the reader, preventing understanding of the reasons for the passage being read and, at least momentarily, it may lead to rejection of your argument. Neither should “the best be saved for last”, seeking to surprise the reader. Surprises are valid in a work of fiction, but not in academic writing.

Avoid ambitious statements without appropriate discussion.

Definitions need to be analysed and explained carefully. Unsupported statements have no place in academic writing. This temptation must be avoided. Insufficient treatment of delicate problems needs to be resolved in the work itself, or a suitably qualified piece (article, dissertation or thesis) will not be achieved.

We cannot take an idea about an issue we are investigating as a “premise”, that is, as a kind of “unproven truth”, without any consistent reference in the literature, even if the idea makes sense. Study premises should be presented by using appropriate references – that is, previous studies whose scientific credibility will support these premises. Statements without such support should be introduced by terms like “it seems to be” etc., indicating possibility and not a “certainty” or “answer”.

Answers are precisely where the research aims to arrive, at the end of its path.

In short, a conclusive statement should only be made in the work if supported by established theoretical and empirical reference or as a conclusion to the research itself based on its verifications (therefore, beyond personal impression or mere opinion).

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In the social sciences, avoid the word ‘prove’

The use of terms like “demonstration (“the research aims to demonstrate…”) in academic writing means “to provide empirical evidence”. (Avoid the term “prove” – empirical evidence of a hypothesis can be strongly dependent on context, and contexts vary greatly). The work should provide such evidence as support to a statement or hypothesis. No matter how correct an idea may seem, it should be put as a possibility, a hypothesis. A degree of modesty should be adopted in the face of a phenomenon being studied. 

The use of evidence as a basis and support for your findings is to be preferred.

Not every phenomenon offers the possibility of empirical “apprehension” (such as phenomena that are highly volatile or extensive, substantially discursive, or political, ethical or aesthetic issues) but try to make it so. Designing a method of empirical apprehension of the implications of the phenomenon under study is challenging and exciting and will increase your maturity and scope as a researcher.

In cases where empirical study and the search for evidence have not been possible, seek rigorous interpretations with strong conceptual support. But do not confuse rigorous interpretation with the exercise of rhetoric. It is the structure of hypotheses, empirical inquiry and the search for evidence that will allow one to build on earlier studies and base findings upon findings with more confidence.

This is what provides academic knowledge with an accumulative nature: we can build upon earlier knowledge because it is supported by empirical study (or rigorous interpretation, in the case of topics that are not open to empirical confirmation). The alternative is to base arguments upon arguments with a result and status no different from personal opinions: this way of producing information does not generate knowledge capable of supporting further knowledge.

Do not take as fact precisely what has to be demonstrated through the research.

Unfortunately, a large amount of research starts from a kind of a priori certainty: the study will only be concerned with confirming that initial certainty. That kind of stance does not add to knowledge. It is mere reproduction of what is already known – or worse, what is believed to be known. We have to try to recognise what is out there, not what we would like there to be.

The search for an independent stance is essential.

Although epistemologically impossible, this should always be the prospect sought by researchers. Try to “let the phenomenon speak”. We might have our hypotheses about the answers to a particular problem, and the research should corroborate these answers… or show them as erroneous or inadequate. Hypotheses or possible explanations that are not confirmed by the study in itself are also contributions to knowledge: other studies might be based on these considerations.

Do not be afraid to address difficult questions in your research.

Ambitious problems demand much from the researcher, requiring careful theoretical and empirical treatment, but the end of the process brings its rewards: more resources of knowledge and the conditions for addressing even more difficult questions and broader problems. Difficult problems prepare the researcher to overcome fear and confront the discipline’s more central issues.

Consider and retain the ambition of the contribution.

This is not the privilege of a select few. What drives the research effort is curiosity, the “will to knowledge” (recalling Foucault’s term in another context) perfectly legitimate and open to all. Moreover, further pursuit of contributions will tend to enrich the debate, the intellectual environment you work in and the discipline itself. But do your homework: know your discipline and your topic in depth.

Engage with and discover more theories,

even those that compete with the one you have chosen, which is probably more in tune with your view of the world. We need to recognise the “primacy and fundamental role of theory” as Helena Cronin points out: Darwin himself alerted that every observation is made in relation to a particular view and that therefore facts can only speak under the light of theory (which also implies that evidence and data cannot be free from the noise of theory).[2] Theories enrich understanding of the specific and the local: knowing broader theories provides conditions for broader knowledge of the phenomenon under study.

More theory is the best answer even for addressing apparently small empirical issues. Contextual consideration is naturally important, but we need cognitive resources to relate contexts and recognise what might run across contexts. Many relationships might arise that will clarify the phenomenon only if the researcher is backed by ideas capable of recognising the possibility of new relationships. “We see more” with more theories.

Research often falls into normative temptations – the idea of guiding practice, offering a way of making or intervening in reality. In these cases proposals made by the researcher have to be the end purpose of the scientific work, based on evidence gathered by the researcher and research references. (If those proposals are made by other authors, they should be added during definition of the problem and in comparison with previous empirical cases).

Note that research with a normative tone is often compromised as research, tending to lose its investigative nature, which is its raison d’être. Which does not mean that, once completed, the research results cannot support criticism and normative action. Indeed, the independence of these distinct stages has the potential of reinforcing criticism and action.

Avoid personal opinion

Avoid calling on personal experience as a factor in indicating the consistency of a piece of information, data, or for stating a fact. No matter how valid your experience may be, research involves checking how generalizable it and the ideas based on it may be. Data arising from personal experience cannot therefore be taken as correct or generalizable.

So personal opinion about a problem should also be avoided. The problem should firstly be described according to rigorous interpretation supported by other authors and, according to the topic, by empirical evidence. Explanations about the problem should be raised as possibilities to be investigated by the research. Academic writing should have an investigative rather than opinionative format. 

Avoid observations in the form of comments. Comments raised as mere additions, without offering the reader any evident connection to the problem, even if indicating implications of the text, are not the material for an academic work. Academic writing is not a summary of digressions with points in common. You must avoid discontinuities of argument that will disorient the reader and remove the focus and power of the main argument.

Citations

must be rigorously identical to the original source – and without errors in text or author’s name.

Avoid ‘in’ citations [e.g. Jenks in Chen et al (2008)] The original sources need to be used, using ‘in’ only for sources unavailable in print or digital form.

What about text size?

The question of size restriction (number of words, characters, or pages): compose your work in pursuit of objectivity. Do not worry unduly if it overruns the limit: edit your writing when it already meets the requirements of organisation, support in/criticism of bibliographical references, quality of data in the verification of hypothesis/es, quality of argument and substance of conclusion. Editing and deleting is easier than adding content – and contributes to a compact and objective work.

 

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“I am very confused” by Sophie Blackall, The Baby Tree.

On the research activity

The terrifying moment of interim assessment.

The interim assessment has a purpose: to see whether your research has the structure and condition to proceed to its final form. The aim is to check whether the researcher understands the problem, the way of approaching it, the stages of the argument or treatment of the problem, whether the researcher is certain which way the path is leading, what results can be expected and how much time is required for it, together with other items. The assessment panel will alert the researcher to the risks and demands of this route.

The interim assessment is therefore a key moment in acquiring an overview of the problem, its treatment and the ways of dealing with it. It is a moment for testing your ideas and acquiring intellectual autonomy. Good assessment panels tend to shift your ideas, which should be enriching. And they might suggest concepts, authors and approaches that will also add complexity to your view of the topic. It is a creative moment and a reality check. Appreciate this rich occasion, because it will not often be repeated – and it should. 

The terrifying moment of the final assessment.

In the same spirit, a good final-assessment panel will not confine itself simply to praising your work, even if it is indeed excellent. One of the panel’s roles is to indicate (respectfully) the limits of your argument and view, comparing contrasting views and suggesting other ways of seeing the same problem. Those items will be a kind of invitation to future studies, and to your development as a researcher. They “pull you to the next level” of rigour and competence in your career. Do not trust “affective” panels – their contribution to your growth as a researcher will tend to be more limited. Look for criticism – and disconnect criticism of your work from criticism of yourself. Assessment panels consider your work, not you. No matter how much a research project expresses your view of the world, your passions, etc., you have to recognise that once arguments are laid out, they are independent entities, which need consideration and criticism to find their place in the field of ideas and practice – in one way or another. That is how contributions, greater or lesser, are made and established. And that is how you improve yourself as a researcher. 

Immersion is fundamental.

Write every day, at least a little. If we stop writing for more than a day or two, the fears will arise again. Keep notebooks (analogue or digital) to hand all the time, even at the bedside. Jot down your ideas, however slight they may seem. When you put down one idea, others may appear at the same time[3]. Think of your research topic and insoluble problems before sleep: your mind will make connections as you sleep and answers can arrive in the middle of the night or in the light of day.

Write all the time.

Academic writing – especially a paper – is not an isolated part or an exceptional event in the life or year of a researcher. Writing constantly is a way of expressing and recording your ideas, and allowing them to mature. Furthermore, good ideas do not just turn up on one fine morning. They are pursued, outlined and rewritten until reaching a format that is self-sufficient as an argument and convincing as an idea. So the work is a means of expression – and you have always to be “in the work”.

Expose yourself to ideas and approaches and even disciplines that are different from yours. 

It has been known for decades that new ideas come when we connect together things that have not so far been connected.[4] The combinatory explosion of possible connections in these relationships is on your side. Which means that there is huge potential for new ideas, and that ‘chance’ is also on your side (called serendipity). This exposure will also reduce the (very common) mistake of reification of our own field and approach as the most appropriate or with some privilege of access to the real.

Overcome the isolation that we can easily fall into during research.

The paradigm of the solitary thinker writing by candlelight is precisely that: ancient. Talk about your ideas to colleagues, your partner, your boyfriend, even those ideas still being formed. Clarity and new ideas will emerge as you speak. And communication will reinforce them – and by extension, the field of research activity. Other people’s reading of your problem will also increase the possibility for new connections – and again we have the wealth of randomness to generate new ideas.

Do not make the foolish mistake of underestimating students and researchers in the making.

Their open view of the field and of the limitations of earlier theories equips them to see what you might not. They are therefore in a unique position to arrive at new insights. And that is often the case. 

Overcome the dualism of qualitative versus quantitative.

The bias towards quantitative approaches comes from their frequent urge to reduce the symbolic and experiential world to the physical and measurable, and rejection of everything that is not visible and measurable as non-existent or irrelevant. Fears of the justification of quantitative formalisation as privileged access to the real are well founded. Verbal language covers things that the quantitative cannot: the connotative, the symbolic, the ethical, the emotional, etc. But the opposite is also true. How can one address the intensity of things? Our vocabulary is vague (“much”, “little” and so on), and it is often important to know precisely the intensities involved in a problem. Furthermore, phenomena involve webs of relations that move in various directions. How can we represent these webs through the inevitable sequence of written or spoken language – by lines of discursive thought? Words also have their limits. Quantitative approaches work in aspects and fields that verbal language cannot reach. Therefore, avoid reifying forms of thinking. Such an effort requires a particular kind of modesty from the researcher in the face of what s/he seeks to understand once faced with the languages available for doing so.

Research is an intellectual adventure

So try something difficult: retain the “fresh eyes” of a student. Research involves a sense of enchantment that the rationality of understanding must not destroy, but instead reassert in another way.

Master’s or doctoral studies offer unique moments of discovery and improved development of a researcher. That sense of adventure, dissatisfaction with earlier answers and explanations, of dealing with the unknown, with uncertainties, groping in the dark, looking for answers without starting from pre-assumed answers, form much of the reason, practice and excitement of this kind of work – and a way of life expressed in research.

Do not ignore the difference between competing approaches concerning your research problem.

Do not underestimate the importance of having your viewpoint shifted by other views and authors. That tends to be strongly positive.

Therefore, do not underestimate the importance of intellectual crises – they tend to lead us to expand the complexity of our viewpoints.

 

Download this piece here.

See works applying this approach on academia.edu

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[1] This item was being strongly emphasised by Professor Bill Hillier, at University College London (UCL).

[2] Cronin, H. (2013) “In the beginning is the theory”. In Brockman, John (ed) This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works. New York: Harper.

[3] Another of Hillier’s points.

[4] Beveridge, W.I.B. (1957) The Art of Scientific Investigation. New Jersey: The Blackburn Press.

[1] These four components of the research problem were presented to me by Professor Bill Hillier, at University College London (UCL). I eventually found out that this simple approach becomes useful in defining the study topic for the reader – and in clarifying the research problem for the researcher.

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