On Oct. 10 and 11, 2022, CARISCA hosted its first faculty workshop of the academic year to build the research capacity of faculty at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). Over the two-day workshop, faculty and graduate students from the KNUST School of Business and other higher education institutions in Africa learned about how to write both for academic and non-academic audiences.
Presenters were Kevin Linderman, chair of the Supply Chain and Information Systems Department at Pennsylvania State University, and Robert Perkins, editor of S&P Global Platts Africa & Middle East division.
Writing for Academic Audiences
Kevin Linderman began his presentation on writing for academic audiences by likening academic research to a grain of sand in a sandpile.
“At some level, we’re just trying to get another little piece of sand on the big sandpile of knowledge,” he said. “The editors of journals are trying to make a decision whether or not our little piece of sand can go on the big sandpile or not. And we are trying to convince them that our little piece of sand is worthy of being on the sandpile.
“The research paper is an argument for why our research should go on the sandpile,” Linderman added. “One of the implications is that rhetoric matters in a research paper.”
Each paper needs to be written for the specific audience of the journal it will be submitted to, explained Linderman. The Production Operations Management journal, for example, might have a slightly different audience than the International Journal of Production Operations Management.
Linderman then explained the role and importance of each element of a research paper, as summarized below.
Title and abstract
This section of the paper positions the research and conveys what it is about. You should use the title and abstract to influence people to read and reference your paper. The abstract should be a concise, jargon-free statement of the study. And it should conform to the standards of the journal you are submitting to.
“The first thing people read is the title,” Linderman said. “So often we don’t pay enough attention to the title. We kind of view it as, we’ve done all the research, and we’ve got to slap a title on it. But it’s important to think through the title, and think through, what is this research all about? And how do we communicate this to potential readers and reviewers?”
The introduction is the most important but least understood section of an academic paper, according to Linderman. It is the initial basis on which reviewers will make a decision about either accepting or rejecting a paper.
“What we want to do in the introduction,” Linderman said, “is to set the stage for the paper and tell the complete story of the paper.”
He views the introduction in four parts: 1) context; 2) problem statement; 3) analysis and results; 4) overview of the rest of the paper. The first paragraph of the introduction should establish the precise boundaries of the project.
“When I look at some introductions,” Linderman said, “they create confusion because they start talking about these very broad strokes. They really don’t drill the reader down into what this paper’s precisely about. What is your little piece of sand that you’re going to put on the sand pile?”
The literature review section educates the reader on the underlying logic of the paper, said Linderman. It should be focused on the actual study and not the broad field.
“Where people can get into trouble is when they give an overview of the overarching field, and they deviate too far from their research project,” he said. “Sometimes we talk too lofty in our literature review.”
Linderman advises thinking about whether what you put into the literature review helps your argument or distracts from it.
The hypothesis is essentially a summary statement of the arguments you are making in the paper. The introduction sets the stage, and the literature review provides background information that you will use to construct your arguments in the hypotheses, Linderman explained.
The analysis section is where researchers spend a lot of their time writing the paper, said Linderman. How you approach the analysis depends on the type of study you conducted.
“You’re really trying to demonstrate your capabilities there,” he said. “You’re going to show that you’ve got a command of the methods and that your methods are effective at drawing the conclusions you’re trying to make.”
The conclusion section has four components, Linderman said. First, it should cover the theoretical contributions of the study. “What does this paper add to the research? How does it justify being put on the sand pile of knowledge?”
Second, it should address the contributions to practice. “When we show how our research impacts practice,” Linderman said, “we’re also demonstrating the external validity of our research, that it’s actually useful and valid.
A third important part of the conclusion section is an articulation of the limitations and boundary conditions of your research.
“All research has limitations,” Linderman said. “So you should feel comfortable articulating those limitations. This is really important because it also heads off criticism from reviewers saying that you didn’t consider this or you didn’t consider that.”
The final component of the conclusion is laying out future research, Linderman said. The value of this step is to show that your work is not only important but also has a broader implication for future research.
Linderman concluded his presentation by talking about the importance of submitting research papers that are well-written and carefully edited. He recommended a reference work for authors and editors called “Professor Starbucks Cookbook of Handy-Dandy Prescriptions for Ambitious Academic Authors.”
Writing for Non-Academic Audiences
The second workshop presenter, Robert Perkins, covered how to write for non-academic audiences, particularly readers of print and online journalism. He suggested adopting the following news writing guidelines:
Write in simple English
People don’t have a lot of time to get into subjects they’re not familiar with, Perkins said. You need to capture their attention and ease them into the subject by writing in plain English and avoiding technical terms and jargon.
Write concise and engaging headlines
The story headline should give readers a sense of what they are going to read and why they should care. Writing a good headline requires a balance between giving enough detail to convey the subject and not including so much detail that it turns readers off, said Perkins.
Write concise and engaging leads
The first sentence or two under the headline, which is called the lead, should fill out the headline. It should entice readers to read the full story.
“A lead should never simply state the facts,” Perkins said. “It should also tell you why you need to be reading this story.”
Understand story structure and apply it
News stories are traditionally structured as an inverted pyramid. The key aspects of the story go at the top, in the lead. Following that is context or a quote to back up the lead. Then detail and background are filled in at the bottom.
Use quotes effectively
Include quotes in a news story to provide context and “color,” support the premise of the story and bring life to it, Perkins said. Quotes are ineffective when they ramble, repeat information already in the story and serve no purpose.
“You want a quote to say something a little more colorful or offbeat and add human interest to the story, rather than simply parroting what’s already been said,” concluded Perkins.