• On 23/01/2018
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Failure to engage

Since the first phase of a research project was published (see practitioner/academic research), and as I’m wading into the weeds for the next couple of parts, I’ve had the opportunity to read closely–again–a lot of academic scholarship. It’s not a secret that I’ve been ranting about the state of research in the field for several years (thanks Mike, and SCCI), and in this re-reading, I haven’t changed my opinion. There are two major problems that I have

  • poor research study design
  • failure to engage

Because I’m working on some sort of project about research study design, this post is confined to the second point: failure to engage. I have briefly talked about these things before (see ethics of reading and dear academic author), but I want to expand what I mean by “engagement” in hopes at least one person hears me.

Engagement with the literature is exactly that. You need to write in your own piece what you’re building on and/or what you find lacking in the literature.

Contrary to some recent postings and discussions via social media, you can truly write scholarship that is critical. Not everything needs to be “yes, and.” It can be “no, and here’s why.” For me, I actually prefer the second because it’s clearer and it defines the issues in more direct ways. Now, for those folks who know me, my predisposition for directness is well-known. And I truly believe we can be critical and still be collegial and professional. This goes to the idea that not every idea is a good one and sometimes when we make claims, they don’t hold up. When they don’t, people need to say that. We need to be rejecting about 1/3 more of the scholarship than we do and we need to move away from our attachment to give an R&R to every submission.

I am painfully aware of how things get published (or not). It’s a problematic system and every person in the field has a story. And every person in the field will read something, roll their eyes, and wonder how something got published. I get that. But even in a problematic system, we can still endeavor to the best job we can do both as authors and editors.

As a writer, I feel obligated to engage and have been doing more of this. And I’m committed to doing it even if it never gets through peer review. We have to do better research and part of that is to actually engage with existing scholarship in meaningful ways. And hell, if you wanna be a “yes, and” person. Fine. Just actually engage with the material rather than citation dropping it. Tell me what the “yes” part if and then how you’re diverging into the “and.” Please don’t just drop it with an innocuous and ambiguous sentence or two and expect everyone to figure it out.

Engagement, to be clear, means that you take a paragraph or two and discuss previous work and deliberately connect that work in either positive or negative ways to what you’re doing. Now, this statement can be found in most every book or article or what have about writing a literature review, but somehow it just isn’t happening by the time something gets in print. Based on the number of things I review, it’s not happening in drafts either. (And over citing your work through citation dropping isn’t engagement either. All that shows is you know how to read abstracts and search a database.)

I am so over reading scholarship that omits both purposively and by lack of awareness the existing scholarship in the field. To me that’s doing research for the sake of research, and that’s not the business we’re in. We need to building knowledge, which means building on existing research by extending it, challenging it, proving or disproving it, and/or creating new ideas from the old. And if you don’t want to engage with something tell us why otherwise when it hits my inbox as a request for review, I immediately doubt your authorial ethos and more so, I wonder what your motive is for not engaging.

As for reviewers, I truly challenge you to write a review where you call out authors over not engaging with the literature. If there isn’t direct engagement then that piece at the very least needs to be revised and resubmitted, and my guess is that it actually needs to be rejected. So just do it, and do it in a way where you spell out what scholarship you think should be engaged and why that engagement makes a difference to the argument being presented. Now, this means we all need to be reading the published scholarship, which is a problem for a different post.

We need to commit to building knowledge, which means a true and meaningful engagement with the literature.

Happy engaging!

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