academic writing

McMaster UniveGeoff Normanrsity’s Professor Geoff Norman is a prominent figure in the Medical Education/Health Professions Education community. Along with co-authoring one of the most popular handbooks in Biostatistics, Norman is also a long-time editor for the Advance in Health Sciences Education journal.

In his journal’s most recent issue Norman offers up some tips on how to not get your paper published. I’ve highlighted my favourites–sound advice for academics and graduate students alike:

  1. Support your problem statement with the best available evidence (“Nice ideas finish last”)
    • Your paper must provide sufficient theoretical and empirical justification for why its problem statement is an important one.
  2. Conduct a thorough literature review early (“The world doesn’t need another mousetrap”)
    • Before beginning your study, ensure the same work has not been conducted before. If it has, ensure your problem statement and study design sufficiently expand past findings.
  3. Ensure data are consistent with the journal’s/disciplines expectations (“We don’t really care if your students loved the course”)
    • Norman reminds us that studies involving self-assessment as data are consistently uncorrelated with performance measures. (Eva and Regehr 2005)  While another journal may publish self-assessment data, Norman begs authors to consider whether their data is appropriate for journal/disciplinary conventions before submitting their manuscripts.
  4. Ask whether your findings are applicable in another context (“We are scientists, not inventors”)
    • In studies where a costly simulation device or complex intervention is designed, Norman warns authors not to presume that their findings should be of interest to a wider audience–taking special care when the research is aligned with an commercial interests (e.g., a device manufacturer)
  5. Ask whether your findings are interesting in another context (“The only people who care about education of pediatric gerontologists in Lower Volga are pediatric gerontologists in Lower Volga”)
    • Norman reminds us to think about an international audience for our work. It is incumbent on authors to figure out why researchers in different countries will care about their work.
  6. Disclose other venues in which your study has been published (“Salami slicing belongs in butcher shops”)
    • Salami slicing is the colloquial term for publishing the same study in multiple journals. While Norman admits that this is sometimes an appropriate practice, he reminds researchers to avoid self-plagiarism by writing the second study de novo rather than cutting and pasting swathes of text.
  7. Represent quantitative value with appropriate detail (“P values tell you whether it’s zero but little else”)
    • While a research team’s findings may be statistically significant, simply displaying an appropriate P value is insufficient. Norman reminds authors to include standard deviations, confidence intervals and effect sizes, best represented by good figures and graphs.
  8. Leave room for future research (“More research is always required”)
    • Avoid overstating the universal applicability of your results. Be specific about other research questions that remain to be answered in your work.

Leave your thoughts

What do you think? Am I missing anything obvious? Do you find the advice pedantic? I’d love to read your commends below.


This is my second post about Academic PR, the practice of PR by academic professionals seeking to network, disseminate research, and discover funding opportunities. Today’s post is about, a social networking website for academics. I love the site because it leverages powerful techniques from the social networking web in a way that is easy and accessible for academics. But I hate the site because it overlooks some the most fundamental social networking techniques as well. Before I get into the details, first let me begin with the caveat that I’ve been in touch with the developers of about my concerns, and I was told that they are working them out. So by the time you’re reading this, things might be all better, in which case I’ll edit this post or write a new one. But for now, it’s a love-hate relationship.

Why I love

The reasons I love this website far outnumber the reasons I hate it. Most importantly, has an obvious understanding of their audience: academics. When you want to communicate with academics, you really need to cut the flack. Academics want simplicity and efficiency, not flash and complexity. So I love because they’ve succeeded in appealing to their audience. And they’ve done so in three primary ways: the functionality, the database, and the interface.

Functionality is a free and easy way for academics to publish their bios, publications, contact information, and Twitter-like status updates for the entire world to see. Further to that, users can use specialized search terms like research interests and departmental affiliations to find like-minded individuals and forge potential connections. I briefly mentioned that users can post publications, but I want to emphasize what an easy way this is for academics to highlight the work they feel best represents what they’re currently interested in. Furthermore, the site allows users to easily write blog posts that become part of their online profile.


The information about thousands of post-secondary institutions has been populated into the database. So when a new academic user first registers, the site intuitively auto-populates the information about their academic institution and department. A simple example of this is the fact a PhD candidate from, say, the University of Waterloo’s English department (my alma mater), can choose the appropriate departmental title, the “Department of English Language and Literature,” instead of simply a generic title like the “Department of English.” achieves this by allowing users to populate the database as they register. So the first registrant of a given department paves the way for subsequent registrants to easily select their department from a list of options.


In terms of user interface, has done everything right. The layout is clean and clear with solid web architecture. And one of the most noticeable aspects of the site is the visual layout of academic departments. Once a user has chosen their institution and department, they can see the other faculty members, graduate students, and staff who are also users (see my screen shot). screen shot

I think this is a neat way to visualize the hierarchy of a given academic department, although I have to admit it’s rather unremarkable if a department only has four users. The site uses a similar visual approach for laying out users according to their research interests.

The is also comprised of four primary feeds: News, Papers, People, and Status Updates. Which leads me to the next part of my post . . .

What I hate about

In its current iteration, I despise because users can’t filter the site’s feeds. The feeds are scrolling updates about users posting papers, status updates, profile changes, etc. You’ll be most familiar with this user interface from Facebook (and I can only assume you’re familiar with Facebook if you’ve read this far.) claims . . . CLAIMS that the site uses your reported research interests to populate your feed with information you’ll find relevant. Well this is just not true.

Like many others, I’m an interdisciplinary researcher with interests reaching from Linguistics to Medical Education. Perhaps this diversity is the reason my feed is constantly clogged with information about academics who I am not interested in and papers that I don’t want to read. Although the site allows you to “Follow” the work of some academics, this doesn’t occlude the work of academics you’ve never heard of from appearing in your newsfeed.

Everytime I log into I find myself having to sort through a wealth of unnecessary information. While I can perhaps see the logic insofar as the site’s organizers hoped to foster previously unknown research connections, it’s completely unacceptable that I my Papers feed contains a graduate student research paper about Islamic poetry when the closest Research Interest that may link me to this topic is “Illness in Literature.” This site desperately needs filters for their feeds and right now they don’t.

So maybe I was a little off when I said the site’s designers fully understood their audience. After all, while academics are particularly good at cutting the chaff from the wheat, we need to be in control of WHO’S work we want to follow, and WHICH papers we want to read. Anyone who understands academics knows that while we appreciate recommendations, we don’t want them forced on us.


One of my best friends is a professional grant writer. He started out of university working as the manager of a small theatre company, from there he moved on to event planning and grant writing for a local non-profit organization, and from there he got a job as a grant editor at the Office of Research for a university. His grant writing skills secured him this university position and, more broadly, grant writing skills are a huge asset for anyone with an interest working in academia or the non-profit sector. Put it this way: a grant is monetary aid and grant writers have the ability to solicit that aid.


Before writing, a successful grant writer needs to do the right research and answer the right questions:

  • Which grants should you apply for?

Where are the guidelines for the grant?

What are the guidelines for these grants?

  • What types of projects will they fund?

When are applications do?

What are the application components?

  • What, according to each foundation, makes a successful grant?

Are there successful examples of funded grant proposals?

Is there anyone with whom one can discuss the criteria for successful applications?

A grant will be immediately dismissed if it breaches the guidelines set out by the funding body. This is why collecting successful examples of funded grants, reading those examples, and researching why they were successful is so important for grant writers. A successful grant writer will make contacts with funding bodies, ask for advice, make contacts, and network in order to write the best grant possible. Not every grant you write will be a success, in fact, most probably won’t. But don’t be discouraged. My friend the grant writer told me that most of what he learned about grant writing was the result of rejection. He would receive a rejection letter and then follow up with the funding body. They were always happy to answer his questions; like so many things in life, we learn from our mistakes. 


I’ve posted previously on writing an effective business profile, why self-editing is difficult, and how to effectively self-edit. But I’ll expand and refine some of those points in the context of grant writing. In terms of the audience, imagine that you’re a grant reviewer and you have to read through stacks of proposals to decide who will receive this grant. As that reviewer, you don’t have time for inefficient grant proposals. So, grant writers, get to the point! Be straight-forward, effective, and—based on your research—ensure that you’ve answered the key questions set out by the grant guidelines. Grants1

Similarly, and (again) based on your research, pay attention to the verbiage used in the granting agency’s guidelines. If the guidelines ask for a mission statement, a methodology, and a budget, don’t label your subheadings “Our Vision,” “How we’ll do it,” and “Where we’ll spend this money.” Remember that grant reviewer? She doesn’t have the time to read each grant proposal in depth. Grant reviewers are ostensibly scanning these proposals and making a yes pile and a no pile—grants in the yes pile earn a more thorough reading. Using the verbiage from the grant guidelines will immediately catch a reviewers attention, showing them, most importantly, that you’ve followed their guidelines.

A well-written proposal outlines ideas in a clear, linear, simple manner. So also ensure you’ve had your grant proposal proof-read by a few people so, although they’re not familiar with the guidelines, they can point out disjointed sentences or lapses in logic or reasoning.


Ethos is the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution. It’s your mission, your vision, and your values all rolled into one; it’s how you present yourself. You want to demonstrate a responsible, professional, and knowledgeable ethos to grant reviewers—why else would they give you money? So, aside from following the guidelines, demonstrate your research in your proposal. Show them that you’re aware of who they’ve given past grants to, who has worked on similar projects, how your project will sustain itself when grant funding runs out, and how you’ll prove the tangible and measurable benefits of your project.

Grants are monetary stipends and therefore require a budget. My friend the grant editor says that one of the biggest red flags for grant reviewers is when the budget doesn’t add up. If a grant applicant can’t even take the time to balance their budget, how can a granting agency trust them to achieve the goals set out by their proposal. Again, this is your ethos—if you present yourself as someone incapable of doing basic math, well . . . Yet, similarly, your budget needs to make sense. Sure, you can easily balance a budget; but are your projections realistic. So, for example, let’s say you’re proposing to build an computer laboratory for an underfunded local library. Your budget, although well balanced, explains that the lab will cost $500. A grant reviewer will see the fault in your logic right away, and question your research rigor (it would be the same if you proposed a $50,000 lab.)

Aside from demonstrating your attentiveness and research, your grant proposal still has to explain how you’re going to make a contribution to society. So demonstrate awareness of the major political, social, cultural, environmental, academic, or scientific issues that your grant proposal speaks to. You need to show that you’re solving an important problem, and doing so in a replicable, sustainable, effective manner. Therefore, your grant proposal should outline how you’ll disseminate your ideas, who you’ll work with, and what your strategy is for achieving these goals.

More InformationGrants4

Believe it or not, there are college programs available on just grant writing; but, as my friend would say, the best way to learn is to try it. Is there a local non-profit organization that you’re interested in helping. Approach them and ask if they’re looking for a grant writer. There are also a lot of resources online, and when you’re writing your early grants, the Internet will be an invaluable resource for researching the funding organization. Grants3