Focus Scientific Writing on Impact

Two hands around a lit lightbulb to illusrate focusing scientific writing on impact

When the COVID19 pandemic hit in 2020, it seemed that everyone was jumping on the bandwagon to publish COVID research. Major journals launched special COVID issues, and researchers were positioning their papers on the impact of the pandemic. Jumping on this bandwagon didn’t appeal to me as I have always been a contrarian. I tend to focus my attention on what is not popular rather than what is. My feeling was that once the pandemic ended, no one would care about what happened during COVID. A recent paper in Science Magazine bore that out. Comparing COVID with nonCOVID papers published at the same time, they found that COVID papers were cited less. In part it might be because the COVID topic is oversaturated with too many researchers publishing too many papers. This got me thinking that those of us who publish should focus scientific writing on impact rather than current trends.

Impact Is What Matters

Tenure earning faculty members are under tremendous pressure to publish—the old publish or perish system. Publication is largely what earns you tenure, especially at research-oriented universities. But the pressure doesn’t stop there. Promotion, raises, and future marketability are all impacted by how much and where you publish. So, it is tempting for academics to play the publication game, looking at what’s trending and trying to imitate the questions and methods that are hot at the current time. Often overlooked is that publication is only the first step. What happens after publication is just as important. The job of academics is not just to publish for the sake of publishing, but to have impact on their fields. The work we do should contribute to the scientific database, informing the work of others who come after. This is perhaps best reflected in citation.

Why Citation Is Important

Every scientific report uses citations within the body that refers to items in a reference list of prior work on the topic. Every paper links specifically to prior research conducted by that researcher (self-citation) and others. Citations can be found throughout the paper to support claims, hypotheses, and theories. Some of the major functions include:

  • Citing results from prior studies. When I write a paper, say on the connection between supervisor support and burnout, I will cite prior studies that have already found that connection.
  • Citing prior theories. Many papers are designed as tests of an existing theory. Early in that paper the theory will be described, and citations will point to prior sources where that theory is presented.
  • Citing statistical analyses. Often researchers will use complex statistical methods, or choose one from a number of possible options. Citations are used to justify the approach taken.
  • Citing the measurement approach. I do a lot of survey studies using questionnaires that contain several psychological measures found in the scientific literature. I provide a citation to the best source of information about each measure.

Citation is important because it reflects that someone’s research, described in publications, is being utilized by the scientific community. A paper that is never cited might as well have never been written because it has made no contribution to science. It is through citation that our work adds to our scientific discipline by influencing the work of others and contributing to the development of our fields. It is the accumulation of this work, documented in citations, that advances science.

Focus Scientific Writing on Impact

There are several strategies for maximizing the impact of your work. My approach has been to pursue topics that few were looking into at the time. My first foray was in the mid-70s when I published one of the first papers on counterproductive work behavior. As a doctoral student I had been studying human aggression in the psychology laboratory. One day my advisor, Steve Cohen, suggested that as an IO psychologist I should start doing organizational research and apply my aggression research to the workplace. The idea appealed to me because I could find no such study in the literature. I followed over the years by picking topics neglected at the time such as common method variance, employee stress, international issues in the workplace and personality of employees. Each of these topics is extremely popular today, but I got in on the ground floor.

Others have taken the opposite approach of choosing topics that were popular and finding a way to distinguish their work. This might be by coming up with a new theory for an old phenomenon, a new methodology, or finding some new twist that no one had considered. Regardless of approach, there are a few things to consider as you choose a topic, design a study, write the paper, and market your findings.

  • Potential contribution. A question that should be firmly in mind through the entire process is the nature of the contribution. What is the new knowledge that this research might provide, and why should anyone care?
  • Programmatic contribution. It is hard to make impact with a one-off paper. First, a single study is not conclusive and needs replication and confirmation with alternative methods. A series of studies can show that a finding is not a fluke and can rule out alternative explanations for results. Further, it is easy for a single paper on a topic to get lost and ignored. A series of papers compounds visibility and makes it more likely that others notice and cite the work.
  • Build in multiple reasons to cite your paper. Many papers have a single contribution. Perhaps they introduce a model and show support for it, or they test a few hypotheses. Such papers can expand their potential contribution by including and highlighting relationships among pairs of variables, introduction of a new assessment, evidence of boundary conditions, suggested best practices or theoretical explanations for results.
  • Publish outside of your core discipline. My colleagues and I have published papers in health science journals on our occupational health and safety topics. Not all of them are published in our core discipline.
  • Market your research. Publication should not stop when you get a journal acceptance. You need to market your work by making it available to other researchers who request copies, presenting your work at academic conferences, and taking opportunities to highlight your work through blogs, podcasts, and online discussions. ResearchGate, a free service, is a great way to get your work out there.

It can be easy for academics to overlook impact because their rewards come mainly from publication itself. My approach has been to pay attention to the science and what might have the greatest impact. I have found success when I focus scientific writing on impact rather than just on publication.

Photo by Gursharndeep Singh from Pexels

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2 Replies to “Focus Scientific Writing on Impact”

  1. Interesting essay. I like your writing. It is clear and to the point. The essay will help many readers.

    I’m guilty of getting on what you call the “bandwagon” of conducting research on Covid. Perhaps it was because I got sick with Covid early in the pandemic. I codeveloped a measure of pandemic-related anxiety (we created it to apply Covid and any–God forbid–future pandemic). My colleagues and I have a paper coming out soon. Although I hope to see an end to the Covid pandemic, I anticipate a program of research on Covid-related anxiety getting getting under way.

    –Irvin

  2. Dear Paul, your posts, as always, provides greater insights and never fail to impress.
    Thank you for your valuable guidance.

    – dali muda

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