Special Articles / Anthony McMohan, Sue McGinty and Felecia Watkin Lui / Scientific Writing and Publishing in Social Work
Research should be published. Researchers create knowledge; they seek out people and situations, spend time on the research and ask others to give of their opinions, time and wisdom. Not to publish that knowledge is to say that that time and effort were not worth telling others about it. A researcher who never publishes is a not a person who creates knowledge or adds to the sum total of knowledge but only someone who consumes other peoples’ effort.
Research scholars must publish. Typically, a student spends a couple of years researching and writing up a thesis. The supervisor reads, edits and comments on what the student produces. Finally, examiners and a committee decide if the work is the required standard for a particular degree. But, unless that work is published it does not receivean audience wider than the half dozen examiners and thesis committee members that reviewed it. McMahon explains that ‘unless (the) writing gets into the public arena, it is as if (the research) never happened’ (2008, p. 39). Students, like all researchers, create knowledge so that others can consume it. ‘Research helps define the practice of the social work profession’ (Sohng, 1998, p. 187). Research scholars owe it to themselves, their supervisor, the people who have given themtheir time and their knowledge to write a thesis and the larger public to publish their work.
That being so, we should expect the same high standards of social work research students as we expect of them as social work practitioners. We need to model in our mentoring and in publications the values we expect from practice. As the draft Global Definition of Social Work states:
The social work profession facilitates social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledges, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing (IFSW 2013).
Social work research and the consequent mentoring of researchscholars for publication rely on the same principles of social justice, human rights, responsibility and respect for diversities.This paper is written from the perspective that publishing is a form of social work practice that ‘facilitates social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people’. Therefore, mentoring for publication begins with formulating the topic, choosing and setting out the approach to research and deciding on the intended outcomes of research long before a paper or thesis is being prepared for publication.This paper follows that premise and is based on the principles in the Global Definition of Social Work above.
Research that empowers and liberates
The Global Definition of Social Work speaks very positively of the purpose of social work practice. In contrast, much research seems to be pessimistic and limited in application. It is very easy to undertake and publish research that describes what is wrong with a situation or population group. Often, this type of research reinforces stereotypes of particular marginalised groups in society. It is done from a deficit mentality (the very opposite mentality of the Global Definition of Social Work) and produces results that confirm the plight and misery of the people being researched. This type of research merely reinforces oppressive social relationships andhas limited value for social work practitioners. They know there are social problems; what they want to know is what works, what can be done to change peoples’ situations.
All research is conditioned by the political and cultural contexts in which it is undertaken. This is even more obvious when research is undertaken to facilitate ‘social change and development, social cohesion and the empowerment and liberation of people’ in the global definition of social work cited above. The idea that research on people can be merely the disinterested objective search for knowledge is a myth. To give an example from research on ‘race’, the subjectivity inherent in all research is particularly damaging to the subjects of research when derogatory or negative subjectivities on the part of the researcher are not questioned or challenged. Rigney (2001) reveals Western research frameworks as no neutral instruments to capture ‘reality’, but rather as products of a racialised society which directly influences how knowledge and claims about the truth of ‘reality’ can be created, “the concept of ‘race’ upon which Western societies were built, dis-acknowledges Indigenous epistemologies, ontologies and methodologies, which resulted in the ‘Intellectual Nullius’ of Indigenous peoples” (p. 4). Thus, among Indigenous peoples, research has a racist history, making it not only a ‘dirty word’ in the Indigenous contexts but a word laden with abuse, exploitation and mistrust on the part of its subjects of inquiry (Smith, 1997; Rigney, 1999). While all research, whether quantitative or qualitative, is a systematic search for patterns and meanings,the researcher brings their own presuppositions to shape and constrain the research focus, the questions asked and the crafting of the results of that research. The scientific model is not neutral or disinterested. As Laurel Richardson has written In our work as researchers we weigh and sift experiences, make choices regarding what is significant, what is trivial, what to include, what to exclude. We do not simply chronicle ‘what happened next’, but place the ‘next’ in a meaningful context. By doing so, we craft narratives, we craft lives (1990, p.10).
Mentoring research students for publication means mentoring them to craft empowerment and liberation by engaging ‘peoples and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing’ (IFSW 2013).
An example of research that creates a liberating political understanding is the work of Martin Nakata. Nakata, now Professor of Indigenous Studies at University of Technology Sydney Australia, is a former student in our postgraduate research group at James Cook University Australia where he coined the term ‘the cultural interface’. Nakata’s notion of the cultural interface (Nakata, 2002, 2007a, 2007b) provides a conceptual framework for exploring the dialogical exchange between Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems, as well as situating the lifeworlds of contemporary Indigenous people in the dynamic space between ancestral and western realities. Although he asserts this space is highly political and contested, it also carries a strong reconciling dynamic (Nakata, 2007a). Elsewhere in the literature, Nakata’s notion of the cultural interface is seen as an opportunity for innovation and creative dialogue (Ball, 2004; Bala& Joseph, 2007), a harnessing of two systems in order to create new knowledge (Durie, 2005; Yunkaporta& McGinty, 2009) that meets rigorous epistemological criteria as well as respects the diversities of Indigenous knowledges.
Research that addresses life challenges
Research can reveal political repression, exploitation, domination and social manipulation (Sohng, 1998). Researching and documenting the oppressive working conditions of garment workers and the relationship to economic and political decisions, researching the plight of refugees and the relationship of their conditions to international and national policies, to give some examples, all contribute to making oppression regimes explicit. But, really addressing oppressive situations means making the link to social action explicit (Sohng, 1998).
For example, Nonie Harris (2005) used a critical feminist framework to explore the relationship between government ideology and the materiality of women’s lives by researching government subsidies for accessing childcare in Australia and California. While appreciative of the subsidy to gain child care for their per-school children, the research uncovered and displayed the conservative and patriarchal power explicit in social policy and affecting these women’s lives, rendered invisible their experiences as gendered subjects and thus made their oppression difficult to identify and resist.
Similarly, Tyson Yunkaporta (2010), worked with 50 non-Indigenous teachers in a rural area. He found that teaching an explicit Aboriginal pedagogy, combined with a willingness to learn on the part of the teachers helped them to implement a culturally strong pedagogy which engaged young people. The teachers reported less disruptive behaviour by the students in the classrooms and the intellectual work produced by the students was of high quality and beyond what they, as teachers, had thought possible. In his thesis, Yunkaporta makes an excellent point, that the aim of research is to create new ways of doing things not just critique the old.
Research that values Indigenous and local knowledges
A central criterion of social work is to start where the client is. More recently, social work practice has emphasised the strengths perspective (Saleeby, 1996) which takes that notion a couple of steps farther to respect clients’ agency, abilities and knowledge of their own situations. This way of working is essential for working with oppressed groups lest the research (and the researcher) further disempower and disadvantage those being researched. This can be clearly seen in working with disadvantaged Indigenous communities.
Much of the published research about Indigenous communities reinforces negative stereotypes, creates and reinforces feelings of hopelessness and confirms participants’ understanding of their own worthlessness. De-colonising and de-racialising research is more than just a call to action against institutionalised racism and discrimination within the academy (Smith, 1999). Rather the process seeks to define, value and articulate Indigenous knowledge frameworks, epistemologies and ontologies whereby, in an Indigenous context, social and political agency is enacted through research which promotes an anti-racist and anti-colonial standpoint. This critique provides a starting point for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars to (re)claim the space from which they can speak of, and indeed speak back to, the corpus of knowledge produced about them.
An example of this is the work of Karen Martin (2005), an Aboriginal woman from South East Queensland who researched a Rainforest Aboriginal Communityin Far North Queensland. Being Aboriginal but also an outsider, a major feature of her research was its Indigenist research paradigm based on cultural respect and cultural safety and embedded in Aboriginal Ways of Knowing (epistemology), Ways of Being (ontology) and Ways of Doing (axiology). For her thesis, she used the concept of Storyworkwhich is a way of telling traditional Aboriginal stories through a repetitive style of sentence construction. It is a culturally safe, culturally respectful and relevant research method based on Aboriginal epistemology and communication protocols. It builds on the seven principles of respect, responsibility, reciprocity, reverence, holism, interrelatedness and synergy that form a framework for understanding the characteristics of stories, appreciating the process of storytelling, establishing a receptive learning context, and engaging in holistic meaning-making (Archibald, 2008). Her writing incorporated both Indigenous and non-Indigenous patterns of discourse to value Indigenous knowledges.
Valuing client perspectives and local knowledges, and seeking social change, are essential aspects of current social work practice and theory. Local knowledges are not just Indigenous knowledges. McMahon (1998), focused on the local knowledges and day-to-day experiences of child welfare workers rather than on child clients, their families or child welfare administrators. His research showed the hard reality of child welfare work in a large American city. At the end of the study, he notes ‘if the response to this study is merely to change, tighten up and modify current practice then the result will be just more of the same. This study has shown that the current way of doing child welfare is inherently counterproductive for workers and clients’ (p. 104).
Doing research that ‘facilitates social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people’ (IFSW 2013) is what social work researchers do. Research supervisors and committees guide scholars in the ways described above. The next step is to have scholars write and publish.
Mentoring research scholarsto write
Many of us, including students, have a fear of letting others see what we havewritten. There is the fear of humiliation and embarrassment in having someone else criticise our work. It is often a shock to writers to see their work edited and critiqued by editors or reviewers. This is something we need to help students get over. Yes, it can be embarrassing, even annoying but it is better to have some good advice about writing and how to write before it goes off to a publisher. William Zinsser says ‘Few people realise how badly they write’ (Zinsser, 1998, p.19). Part of the academic process is peer review and reviewers see our work with fresh eyes. We don’t know who the reviewers are and they don’t know who we are so we must be prepared for some forthright, even contradictory, advice. So, in mentoring research scholars we must critique their writing to ensure it is at a suitable standard, says what the student means to say and addresses the topic. It is an absolute myth that truly skilled writers rarely revise. Writing is a constant process of revision.
Students should not think that writing is a lonely craft conducted by introverts who never talk to others about their work or show what they have done. Writing is a communal task; it is not really writing unless it is seen and read by others. It might as well be a diary entry, otherwise. Nor does everyone find writing a physical pleasure; sometimes it is drudgery. Writing is a craft, a skill,and like any craft has to be learned and practiced and laboured at. Even worse is to think that writers actually know what they are going to write about before they start. One might know where one would like one’s writing to go but sometimes it has a life of its own. Writing is, in fact, a way of thinking (Wolcott, 2001, p.21) and by composing and writing weare analysing and synthesising our material, sifting and sorting it.
Besides being mentored for composing and writing, scholars need to be mentored about creating a place and some space for writing. Virginia Woolf said in 1929 that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ (Virginia Woolf, 1929/2002). This is true and not just for women or those who write fiction. The physical space only needs to be big enough to do the work, where they won’t be always interrupted and can leave their work undisturbed, at least for a time. A writer must also create some psychic space as well as a physical space. While one should not neglect one’s family and friends while writing, they will survive for a time. The best time to write is also part of creating some psychic space. Some people work best in the early morning, others late at night. Some can write in the midst of turmoil, others need perfect quiet. What really matters is ‘time on task’.
As well as having a quiet space for writing, we have found that writers’ retreats or workshops, where a group goes away for a few days with the specific intention of writing papers/chapters, are good for communicative practice and productivity. During these retreats, the writer has the opportunity to get feedback on their writing, to share ideas and to write without distraction. Other, more easily organised, supports could include a peer support group dedicated to writing and publishing made up of research scholars and attending writing master classes or writing workshops as they become available. These types of workshops and support groups have been found very useful in ensuring research scholars keep up the momentum in their writing. Mentors could be a resource for beginning and supporting such initiatives.
The writing process begins when one actually writes something. Scholarssometimes think they are writing when they are just reading, or taking notes or getting ready to write but those things are not writing. Wolcott says, ‘at the moment you generate sentences that couldconceivably appear in your completed account, you have begun your writing’ (2001, p.13). And it doesn’t matter how that writing gets done as long as something is produced. Wolcott (2001) says there are two types of writers—freewriters and bleeders. Freewriters just let it flow and edit later. They can just sit there and write and write and turn out thousands of words. It might need a lot of editing but they can certainly produce the written product. On the other hand, some are bleeders and really take time, searching for the right word or phrase and revising each sentence as they go. They are slow and methodical and what they produce is fairly good the first time. But, it doesn’t matter what sort of writer a person is; ‘what counts is what you produce’ (Wolcott, 2001).
Mentoring scholars to write means mentoring them to get organised. Neuman (2006) talks about a threestep process involving pre-writing, composing and rewriting. By prewriting he means organising the material and notes, making lists, outlining what is going to be done. This is essential, but it is not writing. In composing,the ideas get on to paper or the computer, referencing is done correctly, data prepared for presentation, the introduction andconclusion are written. That is writing. Finally, in rewriting, the composition is evaluated, polished, proofread. Writing is a skill not an innate talent and good writing comes with practice. Every piece of writing, from a memo to an email to a journal article to a book, must be re-written and polished so that it says, clearly and elegantly, exactly what one wants it to say.
Mentoring research scholars for publication
There are a number of different ways to get research out to a wider audience. Some are easier than others. Posters can be one way to get research outcomes known. Posters sound easy but a good poster takes work and may require professional graphic design help. Letters to the editor, either to a newspaper or a professional journal, are also ways to join in public debate. So, too, are opinion pieces in a newspaper. But the usual methods for publishing work are through presenting at a conference or by having work published in an academic or professional journal.
For conference papers, students will need support and guidance even to write the abstract. As it can be frightening for a beginning researcher to speak in front of an audience, the student may need some practice before they present formally. Attending a conference and seeing the varying standard of presentations is also a good realistic preparation for a presenter. One failing of novice presenters is to stand and read from their paper; a conference presentation is a presentation, not just a reading. There can be a temptation to fit a whole thesis into a ten minute talk. Just speaking faster is not going to make the presentation better. The student needs to be coached to pick out the main things they want to say. Another common failing is the use of a PowerPoint presentation with too much data on each slide or the use of colours that make it difficult to see or sounds that are distracting. It is always best to keep things simple.
To be serious about making a contribution to new knowledge means publishing in refereed journals. In writing for academic or professionaljournals, we are taking part in the creation of knowledge in ourprofession. Research scholars need to be encouraged to do this and it is appropriate, as they are beginning researchers, to have their thesis supervisor co-author with them. While students may or may not need to be encouraged to publish, there are tried and true rules for publishing in refereed journals and students need to be made aware of those rules to have an article accepted. This is where the mentor’s experience and expertise are very important.
The first issue to discus with the student is the intended professional audience for the paper; this will determine the journal or type of journal for the submission of the paper. It is important not to restrict the choice of journal because of concerns that the journal is too prestigious to aim for; aim for the best. The second issue is to be scrupulous in providing what the journal editors require. This means following the journal’s instructions exactly, especially about their preferred style and citation system. The third issue is to ensure that the student doesn’t give the editors or reviewers an excuse to reject the paper because of typos, spelling, grammatical errors or poor presentation.
A critical stage for the mentor is when the reviewers’ comments are received. Some scholars give up at this point because of criticism. It is important that they not be discouraged by negative peer reviews and rejection. Perhaps the mentor can share their own experience of rejected articles to normalise the experience. Reviewers’ comments are an opportunity to learn from the criticisms and if a particular journal rejects the paper outright another may accept it.
If the paper is accepted, usually with some modifications, make sure these aredone promptly. Scholars may need to be assisted to re-work the paper, send the agreed changes back to the editor with a letter showing how they have responded to the criticisms. Not all editors and reviewers are always right so the student should be assisted to argue about some issues especially if a reviewer has misread or misunderstood what is written.
Publishing a book is a different method of publishing altogether. Publishing is a commercial concern and publishers want to know how many copies they will sell and why customers should buy this book rather than someone else’s. Publishers usually require a prospectus that sets out the purpose of the book, the intended audience, competing books in the field and why this one is superior or meets a niche in the market. In the prospectus, one must sell the concept of the proposed book just as hard as one hopes the publishers will sell the book itself when it is published. Unlike submitting papers to journals, where one can only approach one journal at a time, it is standard procedure to seek publishing contracts from a range of publishers and then to choose the best deal. If a student wishes to submit a thesis to a publisher to be considered for publication they need to be aware that, generally, publishers won’t accept the thesis format. This means the thesis must be trimmed and rewritten to meet publishers’ expectations.
Finally, one sure way to mentor research scholarsto publish is for the mentor to incorporate their work as chapters in an edited book. This way the mentor does the work of approaching publishers and getting a contract rather than the student. Editing a book can be very time consuming and will, at times, require skills in negotiation, coaxing and directing. The editor’s reputation is at stake, as well, as he or she has to make sure that deadlines are kept, chapters actually address the topic and proofs are read and approved. But the mentored student only has to write the chapter according to the criteria the editor requires. This is usually easier for the student than the review process in journal publishing.
Mentoring as social work practice
Social work is a profession that prepares candidates for professional practice through an apprenticeship system of supervised field placements. The requirement for students to undertake a series of supervised placements is a strength of the profession in preparing, guiding and supporting students for real world practice. Mentoring is a similar developmental partnership where one person shares skills, insight and knowledge with another. Therefore, mentoring research scholars for publication should also be seen as part of the professional social work apprenticeship system and essential for building the expertise and knowledge base of the profession.
The principles and examples set out in this paper provide some guidance to mentors assisting research scholars to publish. Just like the overall preparation of students for professional practice, where skills, knowledge and professional behaviours are taught, so the mentoring of research scholars has the same professional responsibility for the research scholars they are teaching.
your articles to
to publish in our website.
Our Other Websites
Receive email updates on the new books & offers
for the subjects of interest to you.