An academic writing workshop

It’s been quite a while since my last post – this has been due to a combination of work, annual leave and procrastination. In an effort to get back on the horse I thought I would make use of my current train journey to write a brief post…

Yesterday I attended an academic writing course, funded by the NIHR and run by Think Write. I’m interested in the act of writing as communication and the manner in which different publications / materials affect us in a variety of ways. For example the authority and construction of truth that can be a characterising feature of clinical guidance.

Some thoughts on the workshop

The workshop was hosted in Sheffield, on a beautifully sunny day. Depressingly with the glorious weather we spent the day in the basement of a Sheffield hotel… Surely we deserved a first floor seminar room or something?

The focus of the workshop was on supporting the needs of junior academics looking to begin to publish research findings. The audience consisted of NIHR doctoral research fellows (like me) and also a couple of post-doctoral fellows. While the nature of the NIHR meant that all those present were focussing on clinical research in some form the variety of backgrounds was interesting, I was sat between a Speech and Language Therapist and Epidemiologist during our round table discussions; over lunch I had an interesting conversation as to the nature of psychic experience and role of biology in mental distress with an haematologist researching rare forms of hereditary anaemia (she initiated the conversation before I get accused of being a bore…)

Because of the wide range of interests represented in the audience the workshop was designed to focus on the specific mechanics of the writing process.

I don’t want to say too much on the specific workshop content as this would likely represent some for of copyright breach… I do want to comment on a couple of factors though.

The first was the emphasis on the seduction of editors representing journals – ensuring a goodness of fit between the proposed paper and the target journal. This is obviously sensible in that, for example, Cell is unlikely to ever accept any work that I’m interested in. However the degree of emphasis that was placed on this, to me, became somewhat concerning in that the implication became that one’s research should be conducted in a manner so as to please the concepts of high impact factor journal editors. This could obviously be a contextual feeling, in that we were there to discuss academic publishing, but at times the emphasis did feel too much to me.

The second portion of the workshop consisted of analysing the papers published in our target journal – I think the idea being that if our papers resembled the format of already published articles then there would seem a good fit with the target journal. In my very limited experience however journals always publish guidance for authors regarding word counts, formats etc. Beyond that should the paragraph structure etc not be determined by grammar and author voice? Or is this naive?

Finally we focused on the importance of planning articles and coordinating work with colleagues or co-authors. This is obviously a highly complex area and makes me grateful that, at present, I work in a small academic team…

Some reflections

This was an enjoyable day on one level – there were plenty of amusing anecdotes, moral boosting speeches and life advice – post-it note lists of how great one is are apparently a reliable cure for any form of self-doubt, must remember that next time I’m working with someone with crippling levels of anxiety… There was even some neuroscience – apparently brain activity changes when one is writing without planning compared to when you write having formed a comprehensive plan in advance, who’d have thought it I’m very glad there are neuroscientists out there to confirm for me that this difference in thought form does in fact have its basis in the brain…

For me however there was a subplot to the workshop that I found a little darker and more concerning. This message, for me, read as follows: Academic writing is represented through journal publications. Journal publications are controlled by a powerful cohort of individuals, know as editors, and it is my job as an academic, wishing to communicate my findings to seduce these editors into publishing my work. I am aware that this is not a revelation and I certainly wasn’t innocent to it. However I am concerned that this process can represent a stifling of the research process – if all writing is constructed so as to be conservative and not rock the boat the where will the paradigm shifts necessary for development come from?

Ultimately, for better or worse, academic publishing is taken as a measure of academic success and is therefore essential as a means of communicating findings. The audience reading these findings reliably, the publication process and the manner of measuring these successes to me seems uncertain. However, there can be no doubt that there is a well established game out there that must be played according to the rules.

Long live the iconoclast…

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