Dr. Lauren Kołodziejski on Writing an Academic Article

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Today I’m doing something a little bit different. A lot of shows have rules about what they won’t do as part of their content. For instance, the rule of Seinfeld was “No hugging. No learning.” Similarly, my rule when I started this show was no high-level theory or jargon and no academic inside baseball. Even though a lot of my guests are academics and I’m an academic myself, I didn’t want it to become too ivory tower. I wanted something that technical communicators across the spectrum, those who work, those who are students, those who are in academic, could all enjoy. But recently one of my friends posted an idea on Facebook that I really loved. He suggested that an academic podcast should take the same approach as Sawing Exploder. Sawing Exploder is a podcast that talks to famous musicians about where they got the ideas for their songs and how they wrote them and I thought it was such a cool idea that I’m temporarily suspending the two rules set for myself for the show. And so, what I wanted to do was talk to an author who had a lot to say about writing a successful academic article.

[Lauren Kolodziejski] Hi, I’m Lauren Kolodziejski. I’m an Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. I teach in the Communication Studies Department, but my area of expertise is rhetoric of science and medicine.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Lauren’s article, “Harms of Hedging in Scientific Discourse: Andrew Wakefield and the Origins of the Autism Vaccine Controversy,” was published in Volume 23, Issue 3 of Technical Communication Quarterly, that’s TCQ for short, and according to the TCQ’s website, it’s their most popular article. In fact, it’s been assessed twice as much as the next popular article, according to the statistics that I could find. So, I wanted to know what went into the creation of an article that in academic terms has been a huge smash success. So, I talked with Lauren about where she got her ideas, her writing process, getting feedback from reviewers, and a lot of other questions that we as academics don’t often talk about in the academic publishing process. And again, those of you who aren’t academics and don’t care, we also have an interview about the content of this article if you’re more interested in that, but technical communicators of course do a lot of writing and are interested in the writing process. So, I hope that this is interesting to all of my audience and I hope you enjoy the interview.

[Kolodziejski] Alright, Lauren well thanks for talking with us about the writing of your article. I wanted to do something a little different, you know this, according to Technical Communications Quarterly, is their most downloaded article at the time. It’s a hit, it’s a number one hit, and so I was interested you know in how-how you wrote this. I know there’s a lot of people out there who maybe are starting out in academic research and want to know how an article like this gets put together or even people who’ve been in the field a long time. So, I wanted to talk with you about your writing process and about getting this article together. Alright, so let’s start at the beginning, let’s take it back there, where did you first get the idea for this article? What interested you in this topic at all?

[Kolodziejski] This came from my days in grad school and I was taking a rhetoric of science class with Leah Ciccarelli, and I was really interested in manufactured controversies, which is a topic that she looks at as well, and really interested in trying to explore the rhetoric of expertise, and specifically, what is it or was there something we could learn about why people follow the advice of experts sometimes and then other times they seem to question or push back more. And climate change was really what got me thinking about this issue, but climate change is massive, and so I thought, “Let’s find a manufactured controversy that’s more manageable and like is wrapping up and is dying down, ha ha,” (chuckle). So, I thought about the autism vaccine controversy because you know everything was like, “The science is subtle and there’s no link,” and I thought, “This is really going to peter out and then it would give me this nice manageable artifact to work with.” That didn’t end up being the case, but once I got into it, I just you know got fascinated with it and have continued to look at it. So even once I decided on looking at the autism vaccine controversy, it was still a pretty big text, so to speak, and so I talked to Leah Ciccarelli, who was my advisor and just asked her like, “Where do you start studying manufactured controversies?” And she said, “Try to find some concrete moment or some concrete artifact that really seems to have significance in the controversy.” And so, the more I looked through media articles that talked about the issue, the more I saw these mentions of the Wakefield article, and I thought, “This is the perfect-right this is a perfect artifact for a rhetoric of science class. It’s a scientific article that seems to be a starting point. It’s really nicely bounded and so this seems like a good place to start.”

[Weber] So this is literally-did this start as a paper that you wrote for a grad class, is that right?

[Kolodziejski] It did. So, for anyone who is in a grad class right now (chuckle) this should make you feel good.

[Weber] That’s very exciting and Leah Ciccarelli is a friend of the podcast too, so we’ve had her on about a year and a half ago maybe.

[Kolodziejski] Yeah to talk about her zombie research, right? (chuckle)

[Weber] Yes, that’s right. Yes.

[Kolodziejski] Yeah.

[Weber] Yeah, how could we not put that on the show?

[Kolodziejski] That’s right.

[Weber] Alright so I guess then you-I hadn’t realized that you wrote this initially as what maybe a fifteen­ page grad paper, is that right?

[Kolodziejski] It was a pretty solid draft by the time I got done with my seminar course and now I should mention we’re on the quarter system, this is at the University of Washington, which is on the quarter system. So the initial draft was written over about, about six weeks if I’m being really honest, and I’m-yeah I’d say it was probably twenty, twenty-five pages. I mean that’s a pretty robust draft and then I continued to work on that the next quarter. I substituted it for part of my comprehensive, which was really a great thing that the program at UW does. So I’d say I had an initial draft in march and then by the end of that summer, I was submitting it for review. No, not that summer, it was like a year and a half later. It took me, it takes a while, because you know when you’re in graduate school it takes a while. Fifteen months later from my initial draft, I submitted it to TCQ for review.

[Weber] Okay. So, what were, when you were writing this initial draft, what were some of the biggest challenges? If you can remember in putting that draft together, that paper for grad class?

[Kolodziejski] This is kind of a silly thing but one of the biggest challenges I had was actually reading the article itself because the article had been retracted and so every electronic copy that I could find had retracted in giant red letters across the article. And so, I was like trying to read around them.

[Weber] Read through, yeah.

[Kolodziejski] Yes.

[Weber] Like you know if the CIA had blacked things out or something yeah.

[Kolodziejski] Yes. Everything was redacted. That and I think just the initial concerns that often come with a new project of, “Am I going to be able to say anything interesting about this?” And then as you continue to work on the project, I think that shifts into being convinced that you’re not saying anything interesting because this is so obvious. And the fact that I was talking about things that are standard genre features of a research article, definitely made that voice go on longer in my head than it probably should have. But I was really lucky that I was working on this in the context of a class. I got to pitch ideas to classmates. I got some really helpful insight and feedback from them and then working with Leah was also really helpful for refining my analysis and just to kind of keep thinking. And then I had really good reviewers that pushed it to that next level I feel like.

[Weber] Great, so let’s take it there. So, you wrote this first draft for class and additional draft for your comprehensive exams, and you said between the beginning of writing and the first submission to TCQ was about fifteen months. Is that right?

[Kolodziejski] Uh huh, yeah.

[Weber] And presently as we know these projects go not necessarily fifteen months of solid writing on this project.

[Kolodziejski] No, no, yeah.

[Weber] But you know with other things thrown in, yeah you pick it up and put it down.

[Kolodziejski] Yeah.

[Weber] And then you send it to TCQ, you mentioned the reviewers, what did they say? What kind of feedback did they give you?

[Kolodziejski] Yeah, I had really helpful feedback, which it’s always nice to get constructive feedback, and so, I think it was just this great-this great process overall. It kind of worked the way it’s supposed to, you know you take a paper that you prepped for class or for a conference and you kind of keep working it and keep refining it, and then just keep getting good feedback along the way and incorporate that. So, most of what I got from the reviewers was just this recognition that it was a great artifact but just pushing me to refine the analysis a little bit more or take the analysis a bit further. And they did a really nice job of seeing things that were there implicitly in my article but not explicitly stated and getting me to bring them out, and then also one of the big things that came out of the review process, was I had initially used goodnight’s personal, public, and technical sphere theory in my article and that’s in the final version but one of the comments that the reviewer made was to like, “Be more refined in my use of it.” Because I had just kind of plugged it in, you know the way I’d learned about it as a-as a grad student initially. And the reviewer really pushed me to go back to the literature and look at some of the follow-up literature on that and to really refine my thinking on the spheres and use them in a more nuanced way. And I’m really-I’m pretty pleased with how that gets articulated in my article, thinking about them as like reading frames and how those reading frames might influence the interpretation one makes. And so, I was really-I’m really grateful for that feedback from that reviewer.

[Weber] That’s great and that is kind of what you want reviewers to do is to pull-help you pull the things out, because you even were worried, you said in your initial draft that, “Well it’s a little too obvious,” right, that ”I’m not saying-,” andit sounds like the reviewers helped you push further to go you know-to go further in your analysis and then to refine your use of the theory, which is the things you want the reviewers to be able to do. So then I presume that that led to the kind of revisions you made on the next draft?

[Kolodziejski] Yes, so let’s say that, submitted for a review, got the feedback back, and made some moderate revisions. I feel like the core of the paper was really still there but just made some you know significant changes, some minor changes, and then submitted it to be reviewed again, and then got asked for some additional minor revisions, which did not take long at all, and then the piece was finally published online, as you mentioned, in 2013, and then in print in 2014.

[Weber] All total you submitted it three times to TCQ, but the third time was pretty minor revisions.

[Kolodziejski] Yeah and then you get to do the fine-proofing process.

[Weber] Yeah, always everybody’s favorite part. Their editors are very good though. Their copyeditors are great.

[Kolodziejski] Yeah. (chuckle)

[Weber] So how long from when you started writing in this grad class to seeing it I guess online in 2013, what was the time span there?

[Kolodziejski] Spring 2011 was when I had my initial draft. June 2012 was when I submitted it for review and then I think it was June 2013 is when it was published online. So, about a year from when I initially submitted it to when it got published online, so then you add the fifteen months, so what is that? Like two and a half years?

[Weber]That might sound, if we have non-academics listening, they’re like, “Wow,” but that breezes through peer review and then you know it’s turned around very quickly. So that’s a not long at all

[Kolodziejski] They were really great, they got back to me in three months. So, I think I submitted in June and I had reviewer reports by September, so of course in September you’re gearing up for your next academic year so it takes you a while to revise, to make those revisions. So, a lot of it depends on you as the author, how much attention you have. Typically, we’re working on multiple projects at a time and then one of the challenging things, you know with working that, with something like the autism vaccine controversy, is that it keeps changing. Like new things keep happening and so any sort of framing that you have about like, “Here’s what’s going on in this controversy,” by the time you get back to a revision, it might have changed. So, that’s definitely a unique challenge for this piece as well as like staying up to date with the news cycle of this issue.

[Weber] Well and that’s probably why it was a good idea to choose something that was a little bit older, at least the initial piece. Now especially once it had been retracted.

[Kolodziejski] That stayed the same. (chuckle)

[Weber] Well this is interesting and aspiring. Hopefully there’s some grad students listening who realize, you know you can put something out based on the work that you do in your grad classes. You’re you know living proof, so. Well thanks so much. I enjoyed talking about this. It’s always fun to talk sort of the behind the scenes stuff and we’re often not as forthcoming about this as we could be in the field, so.

[Kolodziejski] Yeah, I’m happy to share and also looking back on my notes and seeing the timeline, I realized that, “Wow, this actually did go pretty smoothly.” It can definitely go otherwise, I’ve had those experiences as well, but when you’re in the midst of it, it just feels like everything’ s taking so long. So, it was kind of nice to get to revisit this from this side of things.

[Weber] Alright, well thanks Lauren. I enjoyed the conversation. You know good luck to you as you’re working and whatever you’re working on now. Hopefully it goes as easily.

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Episode 38