The Impossible Necessity of History

Some book titles are so compelling that you’d feel guilty if you didn’t at least pick the book up and skim it. Such is the case with Ged Martin’s book, Past Futures: the Impossible Necessity of History (University of Toronto Press, 2004), based on the 1996 Joanne Goodman lectures at the University of Western Ontario. Despite his thoroughly convincing arguments that historical explanation, as we know it, is methodologically and analytically impossible, he managed to convince me that it is nonetheless worth doing. This is the kind of book that people used to describe as a tour de force. What’s Martin’s argument?

A small town that time has (almost) forgotten.

A small town that time has (almost) forgotten.

He asserts that the data available to historians are hopelessly incomplete, the models they build are fraught with selection bias, and our view of the past is unjustifiably judgmental. He advocates giving up traditional historical scholarship in favor of locating events in time, identifying their relationship to each other, and connecting them to the provisional present.

In terms of data, three problems confront anyone turning to the historical record for evidence about what “happened in the past.” First, throughout most of human history, very little that happened was permanently documented. Hugely significant events went unrecorded or noted with incomplete details using fragile techniques and materials, which disintegrated, burned, and were lost forever. Second, only a minuscule fraction of the population has ever been in a position to actually have their actions recorded. Much of what we do know about the past concerns that vanishingly small segment of the population some have recently labeled the 1%: elites who had the luxury of employing others to document what they did or the resources to create semi-permanent records using materials such as stone or parchment. The vast majority of the population engaged in activities that are now essentially invisible to us, although forensic anthropology and archaeology are pretty good at working with the few artifacts we can find. Third, more problematic is the tendency of those people who did leave records behind to engage in hyperbole, self-aggrandizement, and untrustworthy accounts of the role they actually played in historical events. Although the rise of modern digital technology would seem to have improved matters greatly, Martin argues that the problem still exists, but now on a grander scale. It is simply impossible to know everything that happened in the past.

In terms of model building, contemporary historians are in the unfortunate position of knowing exactly how things turned out. First, scholars are tempted to build their explanations backwards, starting from outcomes and then searching for plausible prior events, continuing back through history until reaching a “satisfactory” explanation. But, they will be working with historical materials left behind from each era by people who had their own theories of why things had happened and structured their documentation accordingly. Second, almost all events have multiple causes.  Prioritizing them and determining how much leverage each exerted on an outcome of interest is nearly impossible, given the data problems mentioned above. Martin compares this task unfavorably to the situation that laboratory scientists work with, which allows them to run multiple experiments, under conditions where they can control many possible causes, and isolate the influence of specific factors. By that test, of course, almost all social science explanations will also fail. Third, and perhaps more important, uncertainty permeates every aspect of human activity, with people facing multiple options at every turn. Even focusing on “decision-making,” as Martin advocates, doesn’t remove the problem of people having only the faintest of ideas concerning what’s going to happen next, given the action they take. Moreover, because we have no way of getting inside the heads of the people who made those important decisions, we can only speculate as to what they were thinking at the time they acted.

The “past futures” of the title refers to the fact that from the perspective of the present, everything in the past could be viewed as the realized futures of people who had little clue as to what was coming next. Today, we are their future, but it is highly unlikely that one any of them foresaw it. In writing history by looking backwards, from the present, it is tempting to make our “known past” part of our explanation by treating it as the intended future of humans who were making decisions about what options to pursue. But of course, lacking clairvoyance, they had no ability to imagine all the possible futures that would unfold. Nonetheless, the temptation to write linear, coherent narratives about why things had to happen the way they did overwhelms most scholars.

But wait, there’s more! Martin also takes historians to task for imposing normative judgments on the actions of historical figures, using contemporary values. The severity of the normative judgment increases, the further back in time the historian travels. He uses the example of people involved in the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as more contemporary examples. Martin’s point is that such normative judgments cloud the construction of analytic arguments, biasing the selection of cases and causal principles.

Despite the incredibly bleak picture Martin draws of the impossibility of historical analysis, he nonetheless concludes his book with the argument that contemporary social scientists “need” historical analysis. Giving up their quest for comprehensive explanations of historical events, historians can instead simply locate events in time and identify their relationships to one another. They can tentatively indicate which events were more significant than others by making comparisons to possible alternatives, now known because we have the luxury of looking backwards. Abandoning the conceit of the superior present, they can remind us that “each succeeding present is merely provisional, nothing more than a moving line between past and future.”

Discerning readers of my blog post will now recognize why I like this book so much: this is a very evolutionary argument, cognizant of the need for humility in building tentative explanations of social phenomenon. “Past futures” are always explicable, if one is willing to commit the kinds of methodological and analytic fallacies that Martin points out. Don’t go there. He argues that contemporary historiography has plenty to do, without falling into the trap of building “neat and tidy” explanations. Instead, historians can make us aware of our own ethical standpoints and caution us against ransacking the past for justifications of currently favored policies. The future awaits us, but it is probably not the one that we envisioned, nor could we.

Organize literature reviews by ideas, not authors

A few days ago I received a draft manuscript from some friends who asked for comments. The manuscript was prepared for a handbook meant to summarize the state-of-the-art in an emerging field and thus was intentionally focused on reviewing the literature and identifying trends. I first checked the references and saw that they had included what I expected. Therefore, the review was certainly up to date. I settled in for a good read.

Wilhelm Hofer

Wilhelm Hofer “Medir a Coherencia da Vitalidade.” Santiago de Campastella

The first paragraph announced the paper’s purpose and then laid out the plan of the paper. It was organized into thematic sections, with short headlines identifying the themes. No surprises so far.

However, as I read through the paragraphs, I noticed a pattern that has become all too familiar to me over the years, in my roles as reviewer, editor, and commentator on other people’s work. The first sentence of nearly every paragraph began by mentioning a particular author’s work, often with the author’s name the first words in the first sentence. For example, “Smith (2014) studied 94 entrepreneurs in the process of beginning their first ventures, focusing on how they picked the industries they wanted to enter.” Subsequent sentences provided more detail on what Smith had done. Occasionally the paragraph included mentions of other authors, but often the entire paragraph was devoted to a single author.

In the paragraphs that followed, the pattern recurred. Each told us about a particular author or authors and their work. Sometimes the authors were strung out in a narrative that presented the work chronologically, but often the organizing principle wasn’t clear, beyond the fact that all the authors in this section could be grouped under a common theme.

By the third page, I was ready to throw in the towel. The authors were asking me to do the work that they should have done, before beginning to write the paper: group the papers reviewed by concepts and principles and then use topic and concluding sentences to tell us why the work reviewed is important. Rather than organizing the review by authors’ names, they should’ve organized it by ideas and concepts.

Thus, the paragraph that now began with “Smith (2014),” should have instead begun with “Most studies of how entrepreneurs choose the industries they want to enter have found that entrepreneurs enter industries in which they have worked, rather than taking a chance on coping with unfamiliar environments.” Smith’s contribution could then have been placed into the context set by a strong topic sentence. For example, Smith might have conducted a particularly valuable study because it included a large nationally representative sample and well – documented indicators of the concepts under investigation. By contrast, Jones could’ve been mentioned in the same paragraph as conducting a study that seemed not to support the topic sentence’s empirical generalization but, in fact, the study should be discounted because of fatal flaws in methodology.

Literature reviews that follow a simple narrative structure of serially presenting author after author are easy to write but do little to advance our understanding of how to interpret previous research and how much confidence we should place in it. As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, a better strategy is to read all the relevant works and write interpretive notes on them. Then, the interpretive notes should be sorted into conceptual categories and further ordered along the dimensions that emerge from a close reading of the notes. For example, one dimension might be “research designs used,” and another might be “theoretical perspectives framing the research.”

The resulting emergent conceptual categories and principles should then be used to organize the literature review, with authors’ names subordinate to the higher-order principle of capturing central tendencies and the extent of diversity in the literature.

So, the next time you read a literature review and notice that nearly every paragraph starts with an author’s name, ask yourself, did the authors really do the tough analytic work required to add value to the literature? If not, perhaps here is an opportunity for you to step in and do more! Organize your own review by ideas, not authors.

Use the norm of reciprocity to get constructive feedback on your work

In popular fiction, authors are often portrayed as isolated and tortured souls, locked away in a garret apartment or in a cabin in the forest, producing their great works without benefit of human companionship. In reality, writing is an extremely social activity, highly dependent upon an individual’s network of family and friends. Peer networks play in a particularly important role in moving writing from solipsistic doodling to prose that others want to read. Let me suggest one way in which social relationships are critical: finding people willing to offer critically constructive feedback on the work.

Boston MFA

MFA Boston

When your draft is completed, how will you know what reception it will receive from the intended readers? When I talk to academic writers about this question, I point out that the most risky action an author can take is to submit to a journal a paper that no one else has yet read. Although it seems incredibly shortsighted, I often talk to people who’ve done exactly that – – they claim that they really couldn’t find anybody they thought would be a good reviewer. Thus, to get feedback on their work, they plunged ahead and sent it out for review.

Why is this risky? For most academic journals, the best outcome of initial review is an invitation to revise and resubmit the paper. Thus, the initial submission is not an attempt to get the paper published as is, but rather to convince the reviewers, and hence the editor, that the paper has enough merit to warrant the journal spending an additional round of reviewing on it. If you submit a paper that has not been evaluated by anyone yet, it is quite likely that it contains so many serious problems as to preclude the likelihood that reviewers and editors will see it as worthy of a revision. So, at the very least, it makes sense to seek feedback from others that will enable you to fix major problems with the paper before submitting it, thus increasing the odds that you will get a chance from the journal to revise the paper.

But who should you turn to for such feedback? I recommend thinking first of strong ties and then expanding beyond them in selecting people whom you will ask for feedback. First, you can turn to your local circle of colleagues and mentors. You might join a writing group with others who seek feedback on their work. With others writing about similar topics, you could organize a workshop at which you present your papers. Second, you can locate potential reviewers by attending conference sessions at which people in your field are presenting their own work. Third, if there are several authors whom you relied heavily upon in your literature review, they are likely candidates for providing feedback.

When I make such suggestions, especially to graduate students and junior faculty, they almost immediately object. Why would these people be interested in helping you out? Providing feedback is a lot of work and it seems unlikely that people you hardly know would voluntarily give up their precious time to spend it on your draft. Even close colleagues and mentors are mentioned as people evidently disinterested in providing timely feedback. (That could be a topic for another blog post!)

Anthropologists and sociologists have given us the answer to why we might expect these people to help: the norm of reciprocity. How does it work? In just about every culture where the phenomenon has been studied, we observe that when somebody does a favor for someone else, the person receiving the favor incurs an obligation to return it. You can use this norm to your advantage, but you must be strategic about it.

Locally, ask a fellow graduate student or junior faculty member if they are working on any projects on which they would like feedback. Do they have any working drafts they can share with you? At a conference session, stick around after the presentations and speak with the scholars from whom you’d like feedback. Again, don’t tell them that you are seeking feedback on your own work, but rather ask them if the paper they presented has been published, and if not, if they would like feedback on it? For scholars you know only through their journal publications, write and tell them that you find their work very interesting and that you are interested in keeping up with cutting edge findings in your field. Ask them if they can send you their working papers and if they’d be interested in receiving feedback.

If the targets of your solicitation respond positively, take the next step. Ask them to send you a digital copy of their work and ask what specific issues they are concerned about; for example, adequate recognition of prior work, arguments supporting proffered hypotheses, and clarity in interpretations of findings. Find out if they are working to any deadlines and in particular, if the paper has already been submitted for review. It’s important to ask about the status of a paper, as there is little point in sending people comments on a paper that is currently in the review process. Whatever you have to say will be overridden by the editor’s requests of the author.

Now we come to a critical component of my recommendation: in your comments, you need to show the person what kind of feedback you would like for your own work. In doing so, you prepare the groundwork for a working relationship with a constructive critic who can give you the help you need.

How do you teach someone else what kind of feedback you would like? Remembering the norm of reciprocity, you need to show them what a competent and constructive review looks like by doing one yourself. Provide higher order rather than lower order feedback. Critique their ideas and concepts, not their spelling and grammar. For example, point out problems with the flow of the argument or with lack of a connection between the literature cited and the inferences drawn.

Technology is our friend in this case. Microsoft Word makes available two excellent writing tools — Insert Comments and Track Changes — one of which you can use in providing feedback and one that you should avoid.

Do use insert comments by marking blocks of text and then writing explanations to the author for why you have marked them, as I noted above. Do not use track changes by inserting your own words into the author’s text. “Track changes” is for co-authors, not commentators. It is not your job to point out spelling mistakes or errors in grammar, unless someone specifically asks you to do so, and even then, you should resist. In short, leave the copy editing to the author or somebody who is paid to do such work. Your job, as a reviewer of their work, is to provide feedback on the substance of their argument. So, aim high.

The norm of reciprocity is so powerful that it will probably not be necessary for you to enter into an agreement, a priori, with the person whose work you are citing. Instead, by following the above steps, you will have prepared the other person for a subsequent request from you, asking them if they’d be so kind as to provide similar feedback for a draft paper of yours. Of course, there is always a risk that you will be turned down, which is why I recommend only commenting on the work of others whose work you genuinely find interesting and is in fields which you know enough to provide useful feedback.

Start small, with your local circle, and then work your way out to others you don’t know personally. You will be astonished at how grateful even well-known authors are to receive constructive feedback on their work. I have met a lot of good friends this way.

In my own work, I am delighted if I can find five or six people to provide the kind of feedback I’ve mentioned above – – feedback on the substance of my arguments. More than that and I’m ecstatic! This past month, I sent a paper to three friends overseas with whom I previously talked about the topic, and I sent it to three other scholars whose work I admired but whom I never met face-to-face. In their cases, I made clear to them why I was seeking their help and advice on whether I had used their work properly. I sent it to several people with a request that they only look at one particular facet of the paper, and ignore the rest, unless they had the time to do more. As a consequence of these solicitations, I believe the paper improved enormously from the early drafts to the latest drafts, and now I am ready to send it on to the formal reviewing process.

Journal reviewers will be anonymous and brutally honest! Better to learn all you can before the paper reaches their desks

Message to graduate students: The way you practice is the way you will play

In sports, coaches tell their players that they should treat practices the same way they would treat actually playing in games. They say this because sloughing off in practice, rather than following best practices, can carry over into the game. When a game situation arises, when decisions must be made quickly, people tend to fall back on old habits. If those old habits were reinforced by sloppy practicing, then the player will be sloppy during the game. So, even while practicing, people need to behave as if they were in the real thing. I see a parallel between this advice from coaches and the advice I give to first-year graduate students, with respect to how they should begin developing good habits. Rather than just recommending that they follow the leadership of their mentors and try to imitate their practices, I tried to identify specific habits that students could start practicing, using a technique called “deliberate practicing.”

 

Never take a play off

Never take a play off. From Steve Gilliland (@SteveGSpeaks)

I came up with a reasonably short list. I first list the professional habit that you are trying to cultivate and then list what you can do in graduate school to “practice” how you will eventually “play.”

  1. Professionals take every opportunity to learn more about their field: go to all open seminars and workshops offered by the department.

  2. Professionals can articulate a point of view and back it up with evidence derived from their expertise, a skill you will need when teaching, as well as when you’re trying to make yourself heard at conference sessions: speak up in class – – don’t just speak when called upon, but rather volunteer to speak; pay attention to what others are saying so that you learn to maintain continuity in the conversation.

  3. Professionals take initiatives to organize their environments to their advantage: start discussion groups outside of what is required by your instructors.

  4. Professionals establish relationships with others who have complementary skills and not just with those with whom they share overlapping interests: befriend not only the junior faculty but also some senior faculty with research interests different from yours. Ask them if they will help coach you.

  5. Professionals don’t just “attend” conferences, they participate in them: at professional meetings, spending your time in coffee shops, sightseeing, and going to clubs will do nothing for your professional development – – go to sessions!

  6. Professionals don’t “take a play off”: if you are a teaching assistant, be a good teaching assistant – – someday you will be responsible for organizing your own course and you would like to have TAs who work as hard as you do

Begin establishing good habits from the moment you enter graduate school. You can do this taking advantage of the many opportunities offered to you to begin acting “as if” you had already earned your PhD. Practice those habits that will stand you in good stead throughout your career: participate, connect, and never take a play off (unless maybe it involves fly fishing).

Can you live up to the titles you choose for your papers?

Which of these two papers, on the same theme, would you read first: “Patterns of Vandalism during Civil Disorders as an Indicator of Target Selection” or “Mad Mobs and Englishmen? Myths and Realities of the 2011 Riots”? The former is wordy and boring, not reflecting the passion and chaos that typically characterize riots, whereas the latter is cheeky and informative, conveying a sense of an author who’s keen to connect with readers. Sadly, the boring title was chosen by my co-author and I in 1972 for our otherwise well-executed study of civil disorders in US cities in the late 1960s, thus consigning it to the dustbin of academic history. It reported on the only large-scale longitudinal study of small businesses that were at risk of being targeted and convincingly showed that there was an implicit logic to the choice of targets by people involved. Despite being published in the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association, it has been cited only 64 times in the past 43 years. By contrast, the “Mad Mobs” book, published only a few years ago (2011), has already been cited 52 times.

Venice vaporetto

On a vaporetto in Venice

I believe some, but not all, of the difference in the perceived usefulness of these two papers reflects their authors’ choices of titles.

So, what makes for a “good” title? Let me offer four suggestions, based on my experience with writing dozens of titles, good and bad.

First, I strongly suggest choosing a title that you must live up to – one with bold and even outrageous claims to importance. It should make promises about the payoff that readers will expect you to keep. Of course, the risk is that they will be deeply disappointed if their expectations are not fulfilled. Do not disappoint them! Set the bar high and motivate yourself to get over it.

Second, simple titles with an emotional resonance that surprise readers and foreshadow the paper’s “hook” are my goal. Finding them is arguably as important as crafting a strong narrative for your paper. Indeed, I have discovered that choosing a memorable title often completes the final piece of the puzzle that shows me the way forward for the narrative.

How simple? Entrepreneurship through Social Networks” is a 4-word title – with no colon and thus no follow-on description of its contents – that succinctly captured the essence of what Catherine Zimmer and I had to say. Published in 1986, it has been cited over 2600 times, garnering several hundred citations each year for the past decade. The paper’s narrative offers a few simple ways in which social contexts and connections can increase the likelihood of people becoming entrepreneurs, none of which were new to the literature in the 1980s. Evidently the title is a magnet for people who already believe that networks are important for entrepreneurship and just want a confirmation, in print, that they can cite to substantiate their beliefs.

Similarly, “Who’s the Boss? Explaining Gender Inequality in Entrepreneurial Teams” asks a simple question but doesn’t necessarily imply what the answer will be. From the words after the colon, it is clear that Tiantian Yang and I will be looking at men and women as bosses, within entrepreneurial teams, requiring people to actually read the paper if they want to know the outcome of our inquiry. We could have written a longer title, such as “Will Men or Women Be in Charge of an Entrepreneurial Startup?” Instead, the simple “Who’s the Boss?” suffices to provoke a reader’s interest, especially coupled with the material after the colon.

Third, I suggest choosing a surprising title. How surprising? Studies of babies show that even at a very young age, they have a strong sense of the causal interconnectedness of their world and thus take for granted a lot of what they see. By contrast, they are startled when their expectations about the world are thwarted and focus intently on where things have gone wrong. Authors can use this trick of confounded expectations to heighten interest in their papers.

In our paper on generational units, collective memory, and imprinting, Steve Lippmann and I took an old proverb and slightly twisted it, generating the title “A Rolling Stone Gathers Momentum.” Note that we only changed the last word in the proverb, but that change completely overturned the original meaning. Instead of gathering no moss, the stone now picks up speed as it moves along. The new meaning fit well with the paper’s theme, which was that a combination of imprinting and collective memory create generational units that play leadership roles in a region’s economic development over time.

Surprise can also be generated by conjuring up bizarre images, as Ellen Auster did in our paper “Even Dwarfs Started Small: Liabilities of Age and Size and Their Strategic Implications.” Strange as it may seem, the first part of the title actually anticipates quite well the papers theme, which is that small organizations are ubiquitous in the world and that few of them grow significantly. Auster and I discussed the ways in which small firms coped with their disadvantaged starting point.

Fourth, you earn a bonus if your simple and surprising title also subtly implies the paper’s hook, especially if you can do it in the words before the colon, rather than after. I published “Paradigm Wars: Donaldson Versus the Critics of Organization Theory2″ in the late 1980s, when Lex Donaldson had taken on not only what he called anti-managerial theory but also the threats to organization theory from social constructionists. My initial title was “Paradigm Warriors,” but I decided that I wanted to put the focus on the theories themselves, rather than the protagonists.

Fools Rush In? The Institutional Context of Industry Creation,” published in 1994 with Marlena Fiol, was deliberately posed as a question because we wanted to capitalize on the skepticism of the academic community at the time toward entrepreneurship. The “fools” in question are the entrepreneurs who create businesses which are the first of their kind and thus are pioneers in creating a new industry, if they succeed. We focused on the strategies that nascent entrepreneurs could use in the face of uncertain and possibly hostile institutional environments. Note that we were not calling such pioneers “fools,” but rather were using the term in the same sympathetic way that Johnny Mercer’s 1940 lyrics characterized the behavior of people who’d fallen in love. Or the people that Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers referred to when they asked “why do fools fall in love?”

Where can you find templates for possible article titles? When searching for titles, I turn to songs, movies, books, aphorisms, and proverbs. Some of my favorite titles have come from popular songs, as often the title can be used directly without changing any words, such as “Fools Rush in?” In other cases, just a few word changes are needed, such as in Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light which became “Blinded by the Cites” when used as a title for a paper using bibliometrics to assess trends in entrepreneurship research methods. Soelvi Lillejord and I used the title of David Bryne’s concert film “Stop Making Sense!” as a title for our paper on contradictory logics in the American university system.

You should avoid overusing the work of popular musicians and other artists. For example, in a study of papers in the biomedical literature that used song lyrics from Bob Dylan in their titles, researchers found that 135 articles used just one title (“The Times They Are a-Changin’”) and 36 others over-used another (“Blowing in the Wind”). I recommend doing a search on the perspective title you are thinking of using, to make sure that it hasn’t become banal or a cliché.

Books are often good sources, and my colleagues and I found that Terry Orlick’s In Pursuit of Excellence became an excellent jumping off point for our paper on sampling procedures in organizations research, which we called “In Pursuit of Evidence.

I am fond of classic movies and so have often turned to them, borrowing “Lost in Translation” and “Even Dwarfs Started Small” directly from the films. “Lost in Translation was a paper about the cultural mismatch in modern societies between a media over-emphasis on becoming an entrepreneur versus an under-emphasis on the difficult steps required to become successful at it.

Choosing a title that is simple, surprising, and foreshadows a paper’s theme takes a little extra work, but it pays off in two ways. First, in this era of scholarly information overload, anything you can do to motivate readers to give your paper a second look is worthwhile. Second, by not settling for a plain-vanilla, boring, and forgettable title, you push yourself as an author to make sure your story is strong enough to justify your provocative title. I believe the title is so important that I often delay writing a draft until I have found a title that not only grabs readers’ attention but also challenges me to work as hard as I can to fulfill the implicit promise it makes.

Using the literature in your writing: interpretive notes, not summaries

At the beginning of my doctoral workshops on academic writing, I start with a simple question: “when you sit down to compose your draft paper, what does the space look like around you? Is it covered with books and journals? Photocopies of papers and articles?” Most students confirm this description, but others say no, it’s just them and their computer. However, when I push them, it turns out that they have multiple files open on their computer, with digital copies of papers and articles ready to be consulted. My response is always the same. I tell them they’ve begun to write too soon. They have skipped the stage where they impose their own interpretations on what they’ve read. They have failed to make the material useful for the narrative structure of their own story.

Venice staircase Palazzo Cini

Staircase of the Palazzo Cini in Venice

My claim is confirmed when I ask them why they still have all these raw materials lying around. Students say “I might forget something,” or “I wanted to make sure I got it exactly right” or “the author said it better than I could.” Their responses indicate that they have read the material but not really made it their own. They understood it sufficiently to know that it was relevant but they hadn’t yet put those ideas into their own words – – they still needed the words of the authors.

I probe further, asking what kinds of notes they have taken. Some have copied the abstract, others have made a list of concepts in the form of bullet points, and still others have compiled long lists of verbatim quotes. In all these cases, they are still working with the authors’ words, not theirs. At best, they will be able to offer a condensed version of what was in the original, but now shorn of its primary context. I suggest to them that if I really wanted to know what Mary Douglas had to say, I would just read her in the original. Why trust a pale reflection?

Moreover, by sticking so close to the original text, they’ve deprived themselves of the chance to write in their own voice. And editors and reviewers want original voices. Is there a better way to work with the literature when reviewing it for papers? Let me offer some suggestions.

First, your goal should be to write interpretive notes of what you read and not just simple summaries. Copying words from the text into your notes requires very little cognitive engagement. The words and phrases are held in short-term memory long enough to be transferred from one medium to another, with very little processing taking place. By contrast, writing to capture the meaning of what you’ve just read and explaining its relevance to your project requires higher order cognitive processing that reorganizes and stabilizes memories.

Second, think of the notes you are writing as a message to your future self, who will be reading them in a few weeks or perhaps even months. If your future self sees only bullet points or the reproduced words of a famous author, you may have to go back to the original to figure out why you felt the text was valuable enough to include in your notes. Hence, you’ll find again yourself sitting in your chair, surrounded by piles of raw material. So, make it easier for your future self – – explain in your notes why you feel this material is worthy/unworthy of discussion.

Moreover, because these notes are for your eyes only – – as opposed to the text that you put into the first draft of a paper – – you are free to be as casual, emotional, and judgmental as you wish. If you feel that an author has offered an outrageously ridiculous argument to explain something you’re studying, put that into your notes. Don’t pull your punches, writing something ambiguous that will require your future self to go back to consult the original text. Similarly, heap praise on arguments that you find compelling.

Third, as you begin to think about the notes you are taking as interpretive, rather than mere summaries, push yourself to make connections between this book or article and other things that you’ve read. For the moment, it can be quite simple, perhaps nothing other than simply saying “Merton seems to be having an implicit argument with Lazersfeld in this paper, but I think he missed Lazerfeld’s point.” Later, as you start to sort through your interpretive notes, you can check out this tentative interpretation by looking at your notes on the other authors.

Forcing yourself to think about making connections to other knowledge you’ve acquired in the course of your literature search involves retrieving information from long-term memory, thereby reinforcing it. Using it in a new context and applying it in an evaluative way helps you update your understanding of all the material you’ve read.

Fourth, rephrasing an author’s thoughts in your own words is a great way to deeply learn the material. Elaborating upon what they’ve written and generating your own text gives you the opportunity to express your own voice, rather than merely mimicking that of the authors you’ve read. Indeed, by steadfastly sticking to the principle of writing interpretive summaries rather than faithfully reproducing the original text, you’ll have prepared material that will readily fit into your paper’s narrative. This material is already in your own words, written in your style, and you own it.

Of course, if you do find that some of an author’s text is so perfect that it simply must be preserved, then by all means copy it into your interpretive note, but be sure to adequately document where it comes from. I suspect that as you become comfortable with trusting your own voice, you’ll have fewer occasions on which you feel you need to preserve original text.

When you have accumulated a sufficient stack of interpretive notes, it is time to sift through them, looking for connections, new directions, and arguments that need to be further researched. I like to write my notes on paper, rather than in digital form, as I find I can more easily sort through them, mark them in multiple colors to indicate different themes, and add pictures/diagrams. I use them to suggest an overall narrative structure for my outline, but the notes themselves are not the outline. I number the notes and when I have the first draft of my outline, I work my way through it, indicating by number where I might fit the ideas from a particular note. At this stage, some notes drop by the wayside. By contrast, gaps in my outline indicate where more notes are needed, which requires I go back to the literature.

So, if you find yourself sitting down to “write” your paper but are still burdened with piles of undigested raw material from your literature search, you have begun too soon. Instead, take the time to learn the skill of writing interpretive notes, rather than summaries. Use those interpretive notes to flesh out your outline, and discover the joy of finding that in the process of writing the interpretive notes, you have found your own authorial voice.

Journal submissions: Playing up (or down) to the competition

Every fall I look forward to the opening of the college sports season: football, soccer, field hockey, volleyball, and so forth. In particular, I enjoy the discussions in the sports press about the choices athletic directors and coaches have made in setting up their schedule of games. Unlike the professional sports leagues, where scheduling is taken care of by the league office and considerations of equity and robust competition are explicitly taken into account, college schedules are under no such strictures.

Carolina soccer player

photo credit: IMG_9551 via photopin (license)

In scheduling games, college athletic directors face two stark choices. They can make their teams look good by padding their records with early games against lesser opponents, thus ensuring at least a winning record for the early part of the season. Or, they can put their teams through a trial-by-fire by scheduling tough opponents. Why wouldn’t athletic directors choose the easier path, giving teams an early-season break and setting them up with a winning record?

As sports commentators are quick to point out, the danger of taking the easy road early on is that playing against lesser competition lulls teams into a false sense of confidence. Running up the score against weaker teams covers up mistakes and gaps in preparation, such as athletes’ lack of endurance. Players who look like All-Americans against East Overshoe Tech become sloppy, take plays off, and are overwhelmed when they come up against teams in their own league. No matter how much the coaches tell them that the early-season games against weaker opponents are no gauge of their true strength, players may start believing their own press clippings.

The other danger of scheduling easy games early in the season comes back to haunt teams at the end of the season, in those sports where teams are invited to championship competition based on the strength of their schedule. Committees deciding on which teams to include in the playoffs, such as in women’s soccer or men’s basketball, can easily spot the flaws in a winning record based on playing weak competition. Florida State’s overwhelming early season win against the Texas State Bobcats will be heavily discounted!

Athletic directors with their eyes on the future are advised to schedule at least a few tough opponents early in the hope that difficult competition will pay off and prepare the team for its league schedule against stronger opponents. Such planning may also ease a team’s path into the postseason.

I’m reminded of this scheduling dilemma every time graduate students and junior faculty come to me, seeking advice on where to send their papers. As I see it, academics just beginning their careers face the same conundrum: do they aim for the top journals in the field or do they try for the easier route, in journals with weaker review boards and softer selection criteria? Why not try to pad your resume by aiming for the Journal of Lost Causes, which you know accepts almost half the papers it receives?

My answer to the authors seeking advice is the same that savvy athletic directors offer to desperate coaches: if you began by playing down to the weakest level of competition you can find, you set in motion a process that becomes hard to reverse, after a few iterations. Getting into a top journal is hard work, requiring sophisticated literature reviews, excellent research designs, and state-of-the-art analysis, regardless of the kind of data collected. If the paper is a theoretical/conceptual contribution, rigorous analytical thinking will be required, as well as lots of revisions before the paper is submitted.

I tell students that even if a paper is ultimately rejected at a top journal, the experience gained in the process is priceless. Most top academic journals use what they call a “developmental” review process, a much kinder and gentler process than authors faced three or four decades ago. (I hasten to add that I discourage “frivolous” submissions which just clog up the review process – – a senior colleague can quickly tell a junior scholar whether a paper is worth submitting to a top journal.) As a colleague reminded me, you must be prepared to invest anywhere from 2 to 6 months, on average, with every submission. That’s another reason to “start early.

Recruitment and promotion committees are seldom fooled by resumes padded with acceptances at weaker journals. So, I would turn to the weaker journals only after I had tried the top journals.

Although the odds of acceptance are low, gaining experience with the practices necessary to compete at the highest levels pays off in the long run.