Apart from the practical benefits to students of thinking about the conventions of academic writing I also find it really interesting. I have argued elsewhere[ii] that much of what we take for granted in education today is influenced by the nature and limitations of the material technology of print. When knowledge construction is seen mainly on the image of a dialogue then everything is potentially relevant. This is the ideal behind Michael Oakeshott's idea of education as 'joining the conversation of mankind'[iii]. The first academic journal, the Journal des sçavans, Paris 1665, reported discoveries in the arts and the sciences equally. Then academic disciplines emerged and began to police distinct ways of writing[iv]. Style conventions within communities make communication easier for insiders but at the cost of erecting barriers to outsiders and of limiting what can be said. The advent of the Internet brought with it new possibilities for communication some of which support a return to the earlier ideal of academia as an open dialogue. These include more dynamic exchanges between many voices and a greater embodiment of voices in the use of images and videos. Perhaps we can see a reflection of this new emerging shared dialogic space in the ideal of 'transdisciplinary' research increasingly promoted by research councils[v] but not yet well supported by journals.
Under the regime of print, knowledge became seen as a kind of physical stuff, the sort of stuff that can be categorised, stored in a warehouse and delivered via technology into brains. Our education and academic writing processes still reflect this print-based way of seeing. Fixed bodies of knowledge are being transmitted and their boundaries policed. The APA guide establishes one correct way to write a paper, what is relevant and what is not.
But really knowledge has always been and remains dialogic: it only lives in the oscillation of perspectives between the first person focus of attention and the third person field. Nothing means anything on its own - it means in relationship - in this case in relationship to a field of dialogue. Despite many attempts it has proved impossible to completely isolate fields of knowledge[vi]. Every bit of knowledge, every byte of information, only makes sense as 'a difference that makes a difference'[vii]. It stands out in a field that is ultimately unbounded. Every voice potentially can resonate with every other voice in a single dialogic space. Despite its many limitations, the Internet could support a significant step forward in realising the possibilities of an expanded education as induction into unbounded global dialogue. How we do academic writing is part of that revolution.
The trouble with a strong guide on the correct way to write reports is that it tends to limit the vision. Perhaps that is OK when we think we have a good frame and there is much of value to be learnt incrementally. But I am not at all convinced that education is a field where we can afford to limit the frame in this way. Progress in any and every science requires not just findings from empirical studies but reflection on the significance of findings from empirical studies. This means we need articles that 'rise above'[viii] the narrow framing to compare, contrast, refine and reflect. Desk-based research writing is not the opposite of empirical research research writing: it is an essential component of empirical research.
I will argue, from the evidence, that there is much less difference between empirical research papers and conceptual research papers than people often think. Both require careful argumentation in order to ground claims on reasoning and evidence. In empirical dissertations the argumentation is used to justify the methodological choices and the interpretation of the data. In conceptual dissertations the argumentation is used to justify the theories employed and the interpretation offered of other studies. The greater freedom of desk-based research can bring with it the reward of exploring the bigger patterns that can be found emerging from numerous more narrowly focussed empirical studies.
The term 'desk-based' research sounds a bit dismissive. Calling it conceptual research might be better. Concepts are the essential units of the global dialogue of science. Developing, questioning and refining concepts in the light of reason and evidence is what the long-term cultural dialogue of science is all about. However, it would be a mistake to think of research in education as ever purely conceptual or purely empirical. Both need to go together - it is common to separate them in different journals but they can fruitfully be combined in a single article.
Everything is rhetoric
Some people contrast 'rhetoric' to communicating the facts. This is nonsense. Rhetoric is the art of writing well and persuasively. This is as relevant to empirical as to conceptual articles. Every article has to establish trust in the methods used and in the interpretations of the findings. This can only be done through argumentation employing rhetorical devices. Imagine yourself justifying your research to a group of critically minded peers. You cannot tell them everything, there is never enough space, so you have to select. What is relevant and what is not relevant is not fixed in advance by the APA but depends on the questions the readers ask and this will, in turn, depend on the details of each study and also on the changing cultural context. If you have in fact done great research but you are unable to communicate this effectively to the audience then you will fail to get published or - in the case that prompted this writing - fail to get a good mark for your master's thesis.
'Though some practicing social scientists might wish to escape the uncertainties of human discourse by embracing a single, correct, and absolute way of writing science, any model of scientific writing embeds rhetorical assumptions.' (Bazerman, 1987)
Creating a Research Space (CARS)
I think of science as a dialogue, not a local face-to-face kind of dialogue but more a long-term cultural dialogue that is global in reach and supported by communications media like print journals and the Internet. Research on the structure of academic articles supports this. John Swales looked at a wide range of academic articles and found a general two-way funnel structure. First, in the introduction, they refer to field of debate in order to establish the relevance of their study. Then they do the particular research that adds a specific finding. Finally, in the discussion and the conclusion, they move back out to the field in order to claim significance for their finding. (Figure 1a and Figure 1b)
Interestingly most of the moves we found are as relevant to desk-based research as they are to empirical research. Empirical research articles generally have an IMRD structure: Introduction (including lit review), Methods, Results and Discussion (including conclusion). Desk-based research replaces the Methods and Results sections with a main argumentation section but otherwise the pattern is the same.
You start off broad to hook the reader by explaining why the topic you are focussing on is important, then you focus in to describe the specific problem, your research design for tacking it and your claims, then you go out broad again to explain why what you have found from this research, your claimed contribution, is significant in the larger context of the field of research and perhaps to the larger context of cultural evolution.
John Swales, another applied linguist, (Swales & Feak, 2004) refers to the funnel pattern of writing an introduction to a research article as 'creating a research space' or CARS. He found three main moves with associated smaller steps. These are described in detail with illustrative examples in Coffin and Wegerif (2000). Here is a summary of this approach as found on (https://libguides.usc.edu/writingguide/CARS):
Move 1: Establishing a territory
- Claiming significance -showing that the general research area is important, central, interesting or relevant by describing the research problem and providing evidence to support why the topic is important to study
- Reviewing literature -introducing and reviewing items of previous research in the area - providing statements about the current state of knowledge, consensus, practice or description of phenomena and also synthesizing prior research that further supports the need to study the research problem
- Counter-claiming - introduce an opposing viewpoint or perspective or identify a gap in prior research that you believe has weakened or undermined the prevailing argument;
- Indicating a gap - develop the research problem around a gap or area of the literature;
- Question-raising - presenting key questions about the consequences of gaps in prior research that will be addressed by your study.
- Continuing a stream of literature -extend prior research to expand upon or clarify a research problem. This is often signalled with logical connecting terminology, such as, “therefore,” or “thus” or language that indicates a need. For example; “It follows these connections need to examined in more detail....” '
- Outlining purposes - answering the “So What?” question. Explain in clear language the objectives of your study.
- Announcing present research - describe the purpose of your study in terms of what the research is going to do or accomplish;
- Announcing principle findings/conclusions - present a brief, general summary of key findings, e.g “This study suggests that....”]
- Outlining article structure - describe how the remainder of your paper is organised]
Although these three moves refer specifically to the structure of an introduction section, they give a pretty clear indication of the argument structure of the paper as a whole. They are the same for both empirical and non-empirical dissertations. The main difference lies in the way that methods are described and the use of evidence. In desk-based research in the field of education the method and results section of the empirical research paper is replaced by argumentation. This argumentation often combines conceptual analysis with empirical evidence drawn from other studies. Sometimes the findings claimed by other studies are cited directly as evidence assuming trust in the validity of their methods.
This means that the introduction, the critical literature review, the discussion and the conclusion sections of the paper can remain pretty much the same as they would be in an empirical IMRD paper. In the discussion section you revisit the themes and the literature that you quoted in the introduction and you show how your new findings make a contribution by challenging some claims in the literature, adding to others or perhaps re-framing the debate in a potentially fruitful way. Descriptions of how to structure these sections in our 'writing a standard article' guide (above) might be useful (although this is a little old now and there are new guides to follow including, perhaps, the APA style guides)
The 'research design' of a conceptual dissertation
There is plenty of scope for doing unconvincing desk-based research. As Jaakkola (2020) writes, to be taken seriously any conceptual claims you make needs to be grounded in what she calls an appropriate research design. By research design Jaakola means the key components of your argumentation, the theories, concepts and streams of literature you draw upon to make your case and the way that you string them together into a narrative argument. In empirical papers it is necessary to justify your methods for the collection and analysis of data - in a conceptual paper it is similarly a good idea to justify your research design. Why and how are these theories, concepts and literature streams relevant? Why is the kind of argument you are advancing justified and appropriate in this context? This is not just about claims and evidence in support of claims it is also about their 'warrant' or establishing the trust of the reader in your methodology. [ix]
It might help to formulate the central problem or question you wish to address at the beginning of your paper, and keep this in mind at all times. Make it clear what the problem is, and why it is a problem. Be sure that everything you write is relevant to that central problem or question or issue. In addition, be sure to say in each section of the paper why what you are including is relevant to your main argument and how this section takes it forward.
To decide how to structure a paper I usually start with the end, that is with the main contribution to knowledge (contribution to the dialogue) that I want to claim. Then I break this down into the range of smaller claims that need to be swallowed before the reader will be convinced by my big claim.
There are many possible research designs for desk-based or conceptual research dissertations. I recommend finding an article that you admire, breaking down its argumentation structure, and using that as a model. Jaakkola, writing in the context of conceptual studies in management, isolates a few types of conceptual paper that I think are equally relevant for education. I adapt and summarise Jaakkola in the following sections as this might give some ideas as to the kinds of dissertations that are possible:
A theory synthesis offers a new or enhanced view of a concept or a phenomenon by linking previously unconnected or incompatible bits of literature in a novel way. Often this does not so much develop a new theory as apply a theory drawn from one area to a new area, showing how it makes sense of things that previously seemed unconnected or in need of explanation.
This might look a bit like a critical lit review but there is a difference. While a well-crafted literature review takes stock of the field and can provide valuable insights into its development, scope, or future prospects, it remains within the existing conceptual or theoretical boundaries, describing existing knowledge rather than looking beyond it. In the case of a conceptual paper, the literature review is a necessary part of the study but the ultimate objective is a new way of seeing things. The synthesis paper is about revealing “big picture” patterns and connections rather than specific causal mechanisms
Examples of theory synthesis papers in educational research are:
Goldie, J. G. S. (2016). Connectivism: A knowledge learning theory for the digital age?. Medical teacher, 38(10), 1064-1069. Applies Siemens connectivist theory of learning to the field of medical education, showing its strengths and limitations
Wegerif, R. (2011). Towards a dialogic theory of how children learn to think. Thinking skills and creativity, 6(3), 179-190. Draws together disparate literature streams to argue that thinking is dialogue and learning to think occurs through induction into dialogue.
Theory critique and adaptation
While empirical research may gradually extend some element of theory within a given context, theory-based adaptation attempts a more immediate shift of perspective. Theory critique and adaptation papers introduce an alternative frame of reference - a new way of seeing - through challenging and replacing an existing way of seeing.
For example, the authors might argue that certain empirical developments or insights from other streams of literature challenge an existing conceptualization such that a shift of perspective is needed to better align the concept or theory to its purpose.
Examples of theory critique and adaptation articles in educational research are:
Zambrano, J., Kirschner, P., Kirschner, F., & Sweller, J. (2018). From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory. Builds on and adapts the now popular 'cognitive load theory' (no endorsement implied!)
Carr, W. (2007). Philosophy, methodology and action research. In The Quality of Practitioner Research (pp. 29-42). Brill Sense. Goes back to Aristotle to challenge and re-frame the whole idea of methodology in educational research.
Wegerif, R. (2008). Dialogic or dialectic? The significance of ontological assumptions in research on educational dialogue. British Educational Research Journal, 34(3), 347-361. Challenges the Vygotskian view of dialogue suggesting that a Bakhtinian view might be more fruitful.
Noorloos, R., Taylor, S. D., Bakker, A., & Derry, J. (2017). Inferentialism as an alternative to socioconstructivism in mathematics education. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 29(4), 437-453. Does what it says.
A typology paper offers a categorisation of a previously fragmented and confused area of discourse, offering a coherent and explanatory set of types. The researcher often accumulates knowledge of the focal topic and then organises it to capture the variability of particular characteristics of the concept or phenomenon.
Examples of typology articles in educational research are:
Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational researcher, 27(2), 4-13. Classic paper tackling the confused area of talk about learning and arguing it needs at least two main categorisations and cannot be reduced to either one.
Wegerif, R., & Mercer, N. (1997). A dialogical framework for researching peer talk. Language and Education Library, 12, 49-64. Offers a three-part typology for understanding small group classroom talk.
Paavola, S., & Hakkarainen, K. (2005). The knowledge creation metaphor. Science and Education, 14(6), 234-255. Offers three metaphors for learning.
This is not an exhaustive set of types of conceptual paper, nor is each type exclusive. In selecting examples I found it quite hard to distinguish which papers are theory synthesis, adaption, or typology. In practice these types of conceptual paper can overlap a lot. Some synthesis papers offer a taxonomy and build on a critique of other approaches. Many papers are not purely conceptual but advance conceptual contributions through small case studies or re-evaluation of data presented in other papers.
Empirical research papers in educational psychology often have a very narrow focus, adding to knowledge only incrementally within a theoretical framework without being able to question that framing. Teaching students to slavishly follow models of good research and good writing such as those offered by the APA is not really education, it is training. In the field of education there is no single correct method of research since almost every concept or way of framing problems can and should be questioned. Good quality conceptual research in education is not only possible, it is essential. Teaching education students how to write should be about helping them actively participate in the long-term dialogue about how best to promote human flourishing. Learning how to apply genre conventions in order to write up modest empirical studies certainly has a place in educational research courses. However, if we want to produce creative researchers who can take the field forward we need to also teach how to question framing assumptions, connect findings to 'big picture' visions and participate fully in those powerful dialogues through which we build a future together.
Bazerman, C. (1987). Codifying the social scientific style: The APA Publication Manual as a behaviorist rhetoric. The rhetoric of the human sciences, 125-144. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/bazerman_shaping/chapter9.pdf
Coffin, C and Wegerif, R (2000) How to write a standard research article. https://education.exeter.ac.uk/ojs/index.php/inspire/pages/view/research_article
Jaakkola, E. (2020). Designing conceptual articles: four approaches. AMS Review, 1-9.
Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2004). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills (Vol. 1). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Wegerif, R. (2013). Dialogic: Education for the internet age. Routledge.
[ii] Wegerif, R. (2013). Dialogic: Education for the internet age. Routledge. http://www.rupertwegerif.name/uploads/4/3/2/7/43271253/deiaproofs24thoct12.pdf
[iv] Bazerman, C. (1987). Codifying the social scientific style: The APA Publication Manual as a behaviorist rhetoric. The rhetoric of the human sciences, 125-144. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/bazerman_shaping/chapter9.pdf
[vi] Lewens, T. (2016). The meaning of science: An introduction to the philosophy of science. Hachette UK.
[vii] Bateson, G. (2000). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. University of Chicago Press.
[ix] Toulmin, S. E. (2003). The uses of argument. Cambridge university press. see eg https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/toulmin.pdf
[x] Stronach, I. (2007). On promoting rigour in educational research: the example of the RAE. Journal of Education Policy, 22(3), 343-352.