Research Paper as Academic Storytelling

Academic writing is an act of storytelling. A research paper must follow many boring rules and norms of the scholarly community — and yet it is useful to view academic publishing as telling of engaging stories. Let us start from the beginning.

Opening section. A good research paper tells a good story that is set in motion in an introductory section, right from the first paragraph and sentence. A good story starts from an issue or topic that your reader can relate with and allows to proceed quickly to your own plot. It is often particularly difficult to get the very first sentences and paragraphs right, as we do not usually have a neat boilerplate such as “a long time ago, in a far away galaxy…” for our academic narratives. In short,

…an academic reader wants to learn quickly what is the issue motivating the study and why it is worth studying.

A careless start can derail the reader, who then becomes hostile to the story you want to tell, simply because it is not what he or she expected it to be. Typically, in the introductory section you want to pin down a research question, identify the literature(s) the work contributes, and briefly tell about the methods and theories the paper draws upon. This is to make it easy for the reader to relate to the work or to stop reading if it is not his or her cup of tea. The purpose of the introductory section is to tackle an implicit question academic readers constantly pose to everything they read.

Why should I continue reading this?

The introductory section also needs to suggest how the story ends by outlining the findings and contribution. This needs to be done in a way that whets the curiosity of the intended audience without rushing to the conclusion, which is not too different from a Hollywood movie. Moviegoers can usually guess from the first few scenes whether the monster will be slain, who will die or survive, and so forth, because they recognize the genre of the story.

Why literature review? To understand the role of literature review in a research paper, it is important to understand what is academic knowledge. We can summarize a couple of thousand years of epistemological quarrels and philosophy of science by saying that academic knowledge lives and evolves in discussions between academics. The most important medium for this are research publications.

Academic knowledge does not live in publications per se but in scholarly debates that the publications facilitate.

From this perspective, ‘literature’ means roughly ‘a body of academic knowledge’ that evolves along with a collection of related publications. The purpose of the literature review is, then, to synthesise a particular body of academic knowledge that is relevant to the research problem, to suggest how that body could be taken further. Lots of quotations and citations do not necessarily amount to a useful literature review that should be rather seen as a compact backstory to motivate the current research effort.

If you cannot connect your research with a body of academic knowledge, it is not academic research — however innovative, practically important or personally exciting the work is. Importantly, this means that academic stories are always sequels; there is no other option than to continue where a previous episode left off.

The role of theory. Theories come in different sizes and shapes. Theory may be called an assumption, conceptual framework, model, typology and many other things, but it is always an abstraction and simplification of reality. A useful theory brings forth those entities and relationships in the phenomenon of interest that help answering the research question, and ignores many others.

A theory loads the story with an underlying logic that all actions, episodes and entities in the world seen through that particular theoretical lens must obey.

The validity of some theories can be tested using empirical evidence, while others are merely ways of seeing and, by implication, not seeing the world. ‘Testing a theory’ can be a valid objective for a paper but it can also result in boring, painting-by-numbers type work. The best advice I ever got regarding theories is that you do not prove or believe in theories, you just use them. This is roughly equal to a well-known aphorism “all models are wrong, but some models are useful”.

Finally, there is no theory-free or atheoretial research. The need to explicate theoretical assumptions behind a particular research effort varies, but there are always some conceptual assumptions driving the research. Take, for instance, usually implicit ceteris paribus clause in most empirical research efforts. Therefore, even if you do not have a section called ‘Theoretical framework’ (or something similar) in your paper, don’t be fooled to think that your research is not driven by theory.

Research design. The purpose of a section on research design is to communicate the logic and the logistics of the research so that the reader can assess the credibility of findings. The section achieves this by communicating key decisions and facts that allow the intended audience fill in the rest based on their parallel research experiences as there is never enough space to report all the details.

A paper needs to justify its overall choice of research strategy such as a case study, econometric modeling or an experiment, which can be understood as sort of templates for academic stories. Research strategy guides how different ingredients such data, theories, questions and methods are brought together. Obviously, it is also important to describe how and what data were collected, and how did the data analysis proceed.

The most important test for a research design is that different parts of the story fit seamlessly together.

How and how much to write about each part of the research design depends on the academic sub-community the paper is speaking to. If everybody in the community uses the same methods, there is probably less need to justify the choice as such and the paper can concentrate on showing that the canon has been meticulously followed.

Image by Zennie Abraham (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Finally, an attempt to bring together incompatible parts as a research design can result in an unholy hybrid — a lame Predalien that is neither scary nor funny, despite its great ingredients. This does not mean that unconventional combinations such as sharks and tornados could not work, a point firmly proven by total four Sharknado sequels.

Toward the climax — findings and analysis. It is occasionally difficult to distinguish between findings and, on the other hand, analysis. Sometimes it makes sense to report the collected evidence as findings that are then consequently analyzed, wheres other times the findings seem to emerge from the analysis. If you have a good answer to this conundrum, let me know…

A findings and analysis section works the reader rigorouly through the analysis of empirical evidence. The section should be as exact and detailed as possible without wasting space for trivial details, which is of course easier said than done. You need both to a) establish the answer to the research question and to b) demonstrate how did the answer emerge from the empirical evidence, following the stated research design and theory.

Just like great science fiction and fantasy, individual academic narratives draw much of their power from how they build a shared world.

How does this part of a paper actually look like depends to a considerable degree on the actual research design; bear in mind, however, that the power of storytelling, academic or not, is in that the emerging story communicates more than the sentences, equations and illustrations used to convey it. This is possible because an academic story takes place in a world erected by previous episodes that allow the story to harness incredibly strong intertextuality between academic narratives. Simply put, your reader already knows the concept of the force, and what is the matrix so that you can build on these fundamental concepts.

Discussing and concluding. The climax of the story should take place somewhere between the latter part of findings/analysis and discussion. It is a moment of realisation that the answer to the research question is solid and its exciting implications start to become clear to the reader. A powerful discussion states the answer to each research question and expands the relevance of the study by juxtaposing the answers with literature.

The purpose of a discussion section is to crystallize the contribution of the study against previous literature.

The final section of the paper should restate what the reader must remember from the study, in a quote-friendly form. The monster is now slain and the story is over so let the reader depart quickly. Pointing out key limitations of the study can help readers assess the scope and credibility of claims made in the paper, but avoid trivial boilerplate sentences often starting “more studies are needed…”.

Finally, if the monster was not slain for good, or its angry sibling could seek revenge in the future, this is a good place to hint such an opportunity for a sequel. Solving a research problem often amounts to fighting Greek Hydra — you cut one head and the monster grows seven more in its place.