by Melina Aarnikoivu
In August 2019, a group of 25 early-career higher education scholars convened in a seminar room in Kassel, Germany, to talk about academic writing for an entire afternoon. We were there to help each other write better, and become comfortable with the fact that “everybody struggles with writing, everybody gets rejected”. That quote was just one of the insights that senior higher education scholars had offered us, the organisers, prior to the event via email. In total, we had received 38 responses where senior higher education journal editors and reviewers from all around the world shared their views on what makes a good, publishable article.
What I didn’t know at the time was that this writing workshop would be my last in-person academic event for the next two years. What the event and those 38 responses offered me, however, was a direction for my future research and teaching. And the question I’ve been asking ever since is: how can early-career researchers learn to write good journal articles when even senior scholars — the gatekeepers of academic writing and publishing — don’t agree on what makes a good journal article or how it comes to be?
Rules of academic writing and publishing – are there any?
In my recent SRHE conference talk, titled Rules of writing and publishing in higher education research: are there any?, I presented the preliminary results of a study that I’ve been working on since the Kassel writing workshop. In the study I explore what kind of advice senior higher education scholars provide for early-career researchers regarding academic writing and publishing, and whether these pieces of advice agree with each other. By asking these questions, my aim is to make the ‘publishing gates’ of higher education research more transparent and accessible, so that early-career researchers who want to publish in higher education research journals would not have to submit their first articles with only a “hope-for-the-best-but-be-prepared-for-the-worst” mentality.
Going through the data, however, has been quite eye-opening, as everyone seems to have their own – often very differing – views on how to write articles, what should be in them, or how to choose one’s research topics in the first place. For example, while one scholar seems to think we have to choose our journal before we have written a single word on paper, another one encourages us to first write the paper, then choose the journal. While one scholar cares a great deal about language and style, another claims they do not care about the language at all. Or, while one senior researcher says we should give up if a manuscript is rejected, others encourage us to keep trying as long as the paper is published.
While there are probably no right answers to any of these issues, the conflicting advice might seem incredibly perplexing to those who are about to publish their first papers. What an early-career researcher might ask as a result is: does the fate of my future article depend on luck — on whose desk it ends up landing? What kind of writing and research does that individual scholar in particular appreciate — or not?
There also seem to be some things that senior scholars mostly agree on, such as the well-thought-out focus of the manuscript. However, that is also a highly subjective issue: how many research questions is enough for this particular paper? What if the paper aims to do too much after all? Or, by contrast, what if the paper ends up looking like salami-slicing?
Accept the lack of rules, talk about writing, question your assumptions
What I find even more worrying than the conflicting or ambiguous advice of different individuals, however, is that many early-career researchers might not even be aware that advice is available and should be treated as no more than that. Instead, they treat their supervisors, journal editors, or peer reviewers’ pieces of advice as ‘the ultimate truth’.
What can we do, then?
Accept the lack of rules: Supervisors, mentors, and teachers should be frank with their supervisees, mentees, and students that there is no universal rulebook for ‘good academic writing’. They should acknowledge that there are differences between languages, disciplines, and individuals. What works in my Finnish academic writing, for example, might not work in English. While I appreciate my student trying out something different in their essay, the teacher next door might not be so understanding.
Talk about writing: To improve as writers and researchers, the more we talk about writing with other researchers, the better. Especially early-career researchers should be provided as many opportunities to talk about and share their texts with their colleagues and peers as possible. Moreover, they should be able to do so in a supportive and inspiring environment. In this way, they can become comfortable with others reading their work, even if it is not polished yet.
Question your assumptions: Every now and then, it would be good for any academic to stop for a moment and think how academic writing was taught to them and by whom, and how that affected their views on what ‘good writing’ entails. Would there be more room to break or bend the rules, if we had such rules in our mental academic writing toolbox? Do we welcome a constant challenge to the conventions of academic writing, or are we allergic to any kind of ‘rebelliousness’ in academic articles? Why?
Academic writing is often frustrating because it is difficult. There are no quick fixes to suddenly become an amazing academic writer and to get your papers published without hard work. While it is always beneficial to seek pieces of advice on good writing and publishing, it is equally important to remember not to take them at face value.
But that is just my advice.
Melina Aarnikoivu is a postdoctoral researcher at the Higher Education Studies Team (HIEST) at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research. She has recently received a one-year research grant from the Wihuri foundation to study academic writing practices and writing support of early-career researchers in Finland. Between 2020 and 2021, she taught academic writing at an undergraduate level.