Publishing in LIS: Marrying Theory and Practice

Today B Sides Journal hosted a lunchtime presentation by Dr. Jim Elmborg about publishing for LIS students. Jim is incredibly insightful and deeply passionate about the success of his students, which meant that we walked away with some great perspective on publication in our field. I wanted to share my notes from the talk so other students and professionals can benefit from his ideas! The talk was incredible, and I am going to focus on a few of the big take-aways that will help me as I continue to publish and encourage LIS students to do the same.

1. Examine your motives: *Why* is it that you want to publish? Are you just doing it because you’re required to or want a line on your resume, or are you doing it because you love to investigate problems and share ideas? It’s important to check your motives to make sure that it’s something you genuinely want to do (as Jim said, you don’t want to be in a place where you’re required to publish but don’t have a desire to.) Once you’ve decided you want to write this research, start looking at ways to build up your writing habits. Jim draws from fiction writing tools that I plan to draw on as I continue writing. First, never quit writing for the day without knowing what your next paragraph will be. When you start writing next, it will be much easier because you already have a clear direction and know what you need to do next. Also, look at the iceberg metaphor (what you’re writing is only a part of the knowledge that you have that’s informing your perspective.) The more you write, the more you’ll feel frustrated (or at least I do) by not having a chance to put in every piece of information you know. For most things you write, no one will want to read a 5-10 page lit review, a detailed description of every theory that you’re drawing from, or an agonizingly long and tedious breakdown of your library’s usage statistics. These things have their place (enter, footnotes) but you are going to have a lot more going on than will fit nicely in the paper. If you find that your paper represents your exhaustive knowledge of the topic, it’s time to go back and look at it further.
2. Take a look at your methods and process: The first thing to do when looking at your writing or considering how to approach a topic is to determine what model you’re enacting. If you’re writing from the narrative tradition (mostly humanistic) you’re creating a narrative in which you lay out an argument. If you’re writing a scientific paper, you’re isolating a variable and asking questions about it. A big take-away from this point was Jim’s reminder that the best work is informed by both–you can’t just look at science without acknowledging the role that history has played, or vice versa. A big help is to look at what’s been done before as a jumping-off point: identify something that looks like what you want to write, then examine how it’s written and researched in order to inform your approach.
Your ultimate goal as a writer of research is to make a knowledge claim (I know something worth sharing.) An important thing to do while writing is to examine your knowledge claim critically: how do you know that this is something you know (i.e. what supports your argument?) This is where the poster project we did recently comes in, because you have your claims laid out on a board and you have people coming around and tossing all sorts of questions at you (some of which you probably won’t be able to answer!) By listening to others react to and unwrap your argument, you get a better sense of where you need to go back and research further. This ties in nicely to the next big point…

3. Seek outside opinions: If your work isn’t ready to be looked over by people you know, it isn’t ready to be sent to strangers (note: I am very guilty of sending off work to be submitted without getting input from colleagues. Sometimes, it’s turned out OK, other times it’s resulted in my having to do several rounds of revisions before it was ready for press. Trust me, it’s a lot easier to get that out of the way early and give a stronger paper to the journal.) It’s important to have your readers be people who can judge it professionally–don’t get your siblings or partner to read it unless they are a specialist in that area, because they’re (hopefully) a bit biased toward thinking you’re awesome and also may not understand the topic in the way the majority of your readers will. Instead, opt for fellow students, faculty, co-workers, etc. whose opinions you respect. And don’t be afraid to approach faculty: Jim insists he likes to read works in progress from students because it’s a place where his suggestions make a difference.
Jim made a really awesome suggestion that we should start a student writing group for people who are writing for publication. Basically, everyone brings drafts to a designated coffeehouse/pub/whatever. Then, the work is read by other students there (while you read their work too, of course), and everyone gets the benefit of outside opinions and constructive criticism. Definitely something I would like to start instituting here at SLIS and at my future program at Florida State! Important side note to remember: you want the paper to be clear and in pretty good shape before you share with others, which ties back in with the examination of methods and process mentioned above: it ought to be clear to others why this piece of writing exists (i.e. to solve a specific problem, outline the history of an institution, etc.) If it isn’t crystal clear, go back and clarify! Your readers will thank you.

4. Practitioner-based research is a good thing: For the vast majority of LIS students/professionals, purely theoretical research might seem daunting, especially when the problems they most frequently encounter have to do with the practice of LIS. Enter practitioner-based research, a lovely term for the type of research that seeks to investigate and solve the problems encountered in the practice of librarianship and information services. Jim spent a lot of time going over what makes a good example of such research, which I hope will be of use to people who want to write in this way!
-You want to spend a pretty decent chunk of time looking at your problem: Identify a problem you encounter in practice (i.e. use of reference services in ___ library is decreasing.) Try to think of how such a problem could be solved through systematic questioning, BUT also think about the nature of the problem itself (is it a problem based in delivery of services? Attitudes of patrons? A changing environment?)
-Practitioner-based research is still research: Please, please, please avoid a paper that just says ‘I did this and it seemed to have worked OK.’ Good, that’s a start, but as a reader trying to learn from the awesome ideas you are trying to share (and yes, they are awesome), that paper doesn’t SAY anything to me. It tells me one possible solution that seemed to have had some impact in one particular environment, but it doesn’t tell me why the problem you wanted to solve was an important one, nor does it tell me anything about how you’re approaching that work. Remember, situating your work within a research tradition and building a legitimate knowledge claim are important here, just as they are in purely theoretical research. When you build up your claim, you allow those awesome ideas to shine!
-Establish a structure and flow of ideas: This isn’t just for practitioner-based research, but these components are specific to it. You want to establish a context (i.e. where is this already being done? Where else are we seeing this problem?) Tied in with that is a discussion of the field of discourse your problem exists in. What blog posts/articles/etc. are centered around this problem? What solutions have been tried? Have they worked? Where have they failed? In this case, the point isn’t to cite all the right people, it’s to create a snapshot of what the discourse looks like at the time you’re trying to implement the idea. And remember to include a discussion of the solution you tried, how it was implemented, where it worked (and didn’t!), and where you go from here.
-Avoid the ‘how I done it good’ mindset: Your publication is not just a place to talk about what worked, even though you’ll encounter many papers out there where that’s the focus (or the entire paper.) Your publication is a place to speak critically and openly about your experiences as a practitioner delivering services in a rapidly-changing field. Don’t just say what worked, say where your idea fell short. Often, the most value in a practitioner-based paper lies in talking about what *didn’t* work, and it makes you (and your research) more down-to-earth than a paper that frames results as being only positive (never, and I mean never, will you run into an implementation that does not encounter problems. Those problems will help others learn how they might do things differently!)
-Look at yourself as a practitioner: It’s hard to do practitioner-based research without the direct exposure to practice. LIS students take note: this is a great way to further the learning you’re getting in your practicum/work-study position. Katie LD Hassman brought up the possibility of student-practitioner-based research, which I think sounds incredibly. Think of it this way: you learn a theory or approach in school, but in your practical experience you are told to approach it a different way or that the approach you’re learning isn’t effective. This is an incredible opportunity for you to examine theory and how it informs practice (and how practice can modify theory.) Remember, you ARE a practitioner (even if you’re ‘just a student’) and the experiences you have as such are great fodder for research that you can share to help your colleagues.

5. Put yourself in the picture: Writing starts with you, so it’s important to value your ideas and your work. Trust that what you’re saying is what people need to hear. Be willing to draw connections between theory and practice in a way that challenges assumptions and presents new ideas and solutions. Be willing to edit your work and draw from feedback (although remember, feedback is just feedback, and your readers shouldn’t demand that you change everything they suggest.) Use suggestions from multiple people to see where readers are generally struggling to understand your argument, where they agree or disagree, and where they want changes. This brings you back into examining your work (and feedback) holistically, allowing you to zero in on certain aspects and improve them to strengthen the paper as a whole.
Look at yourself as a writer. If you call yourself a writer, it means you are writing. Defining yourself as such makes it more likely that writing will become a part of your identity, and that you will spend the time to keep it up. Beginning to write, and continuing through revisions, editing, and publication, not only boosts your confidence, it also makes it easier to keep writing and to keep sharing those awesome ideas! Publishers and editors are looking for good work, and most of the time they aren’t trying to reject papers off the bat (take it from someone who has published multiple times, the publication process is selective, but it’s generally run by supportive and approachable people who want to accept work they think has a lot of potential.)
Something especially useful here is to remember that it’s OK to branch out and try new things. I, for example, love to research and write about library history BUT I am also interested in numerous other things. Just because I’ve done some work on immigration as well doesn’t mean that I am married to that topic forever (although I would like to look at it some more.) Similarly, I want to research some other interests too, but that’s a good thing! It means that I’m passionate about my field and about looking at different parts of it from different angles. If you have multiple interest areas, try to find opportunities to explore them and write about them.

6. Theory and practice both matter: Without an understanding of both, you are missing out on a very valuable and holistic understanding of how our field works and how to situate yourself and your work within it. Practice allows us to see how things are day-to-day within a library (how our current setup works, where there are problems, and where we might start to look to address those problems.) Theory allows us to look past ‘how things are’ by allowing us to reinterpret a problem in a way that might create opportunities for different solutions. Researching as a practitioner gives you an example to use theory as a way to examine your solutions or implement new ones (the same is true for researchers looking at theory: it’s important for us to outline where our theories can find practical significance.) For example, if you are noticing a decrease in reference use and trying to determine the cause, that’s your practical experience. It tells you that a number of approaches to make patrons feel more comfortable using reference might help, or that implementing roaming reference might be a possible solution (those are just examples, as practical experience tells us all sorts of things.) Let’s say you look to LIS theory that suggests the structure of a reference interview is a determinant of patron satisfaction. This allows you to approach the problem from that angle too: you can look at altering reference interviews and measure the results. This gives you a way both to try to improve practice, but also to look at the real-world value of that theory.  And with that, you have the beginnings of a valuable research paper.


4 Replies to “Publishing in LIS: Marrying Theory and Practice”

  1. Wow, excellent post! Great food for thought, and I really appreciate how you broke down “practitioner based research.” From my perspective in grad school now, I feel that is a critical area for studies to expand. I know it is out there, but I’m not seeing it utilized at the pedagogical level, much less encouraged for students to pursue.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Thanks for your reply–I’m glad you liked it! I agree, it’s an important area to look at, and a great way to get a wider range of folks from our field to think about publication and to recognize its importance. I am pretty steadfast about the importance of all of us adding our voices to the literature, but I feel like it’s not considered ‘essential’ in a lot of positions and so those practitioners let publication fall by the wayside. I’d love to work it into curricula as I teach folks and hopefully help encourage more students to publish!

  2. Great post, and a lot of good advice. I’d especially agree with point 1, Examine your Motives. It’s generally pretty obvious when a paper (or whatever) has been written just to pad out the author’s publications record, and it really doesn’t reflect well on him or her. And it’s not fair on the reader either, who has to plough through it only to find that, bar a little tweaking here and there, there’s nothing of substance in it that hasn’t already appeared in other papers by the same author (or even other authors).

    I do disagree, though, with the advice not to seek the opinions of friends and family: I’d modify that to say don’t only use friends and family. Friends and family can be very useful in giving an ‘outsider’s’ view of a piece of work: first of all just in checking for basic grammar and style, and second – and more importantly – in checking that you haven’t got too bogged down in jargon and technicalities. Obviously, any writer, especially an academic writer, needs to make numerous fine judgments about how much to explain to the reader, and how much to assume they already know; but getting the views of a layperson as well as an expert can be very helpful in finding the right balance. An ‘expert’ reader may be tempted to skim over background explanations on the grounds that they already know that stuff: a ‘lay’ reader will read those bits particularly carefully, because without them they won’t understand the rest of the piece. So use both!

    1. You make an excellent point here–being accessible to readers outside the field is definitely important! This is one way in which I also veer from Dr. Elmborg’s suggestion: I often solicit the help of friends in the field, but my family and partner have also run through many an article for me. The best part is when they don’t understand something and they ask for clarification, forcing me to rethink and reframe an argument!

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