On some interpretation of the word “scientist,” I am a scientist. In practical terms, that means that I publish a lot, and that when I publish, it’s in journals with names like Genome Biology or Suicide and Life-threatening Behavior, or in conferences with names like American Medical Informatics Association Annual Symposium. That whole “publish a lot” thing is important, and in order to convince people to publish scientific work, you need to convince them that what you’re writing about is something new.
A common trope for convincing other scientists that what you’ve done is new is by saying some version of “no one has ever published anything about this before.” …or at least, not very much–not enough. But, how do you convince an editor that no one else has ever written about your topic? The best way that I know of is to tell the reader what has been written about the topic that’s close to, and relevant to, what you’re doing, but not quite what you’re doing.
Here’s a version of the convince-the-reader-that-they-should-trust-that-you-know-what-is-and-isn’t-novel-because-you’ve-read-a-ton-about-the-topic strategy in action. Note that the author doesn’t assert that what they’re writing about has never been written about before–they tell you about a bunch of stuff that has been written about on closely related topics (citing eight specific other works on the subject), and then asserts that there’s still an open question (which, of course, they will answer in their paper):
Having been beaten about the head and shoulders with eight citations on the topic, the reader is pretty likely to accept that you know what has and hasn’t been done here.
Here’s another take on the strategy. The following paragraph follows a fairly detailed discussion of 76 (that’s seventy-six, for those of you who, like me, are so old that you have trouble reading numerals on screens) related papers, books, etc.:
The author isn’t letting you decide for yourself what that pile of references means from the perspective of their work–they’re telling you what it means. That extra step of summarizing is actually the author taking the opportunity to place their work relative to everybody else’s, which lets them show you how their work is different from all of the stuff that ‘s been done before.
These laborieuses pensées (never miss a Montaigne allusion, say I) came to mind while ordering breakfast the other day in Ted’s Bulletin, a cool restaurant in Dupont Circle (or maybe Adams Morgan–I never know where to draw the line between them) with a damn fine breakfast menu. Perusing said breakfast menu, I noted the following:
Now, I know what a burrito is. I also know what a “breakfast burrito” is–you would expect it to have eggs and other traditionally American breakfast stuff within. I also know what the Walk of Shame is. Here are some definitions, scraped from the wonder that is the Internet:
Casting about for reliable sources to cite in this blog post, I came across the following in Brett Lunceford’s paper The walk of shame: A normative description, in the journal ETC: A Review of General Semantics.
One notable thing about this paper is that in it, Lunceford takes a nice approach to the why-you-should-believe-me-when-I-say-that-no-one-has-done-this-before move. Here’s where he asserts that what he’s doing is novel (new):
Did you catch that footnote (endnote, actually) at the end of the first sentence? Let’s track it down:
The “only” in I could find only one article implies “I looked hard.” The description of what the article does and doesn’t say on the subject implies “I actually did read the paper.” Personally, as an editor, or as a reviewer, or as a reader, I find that convincing. Sure, it’s possible that the writer of something like this just did a really shitty job of searching–but, that’s not the most obvious conclusion to draw, and most people are going to accept this support for the novelty of the work if they don’t actually, personally, know of relevant prior work that you’ve missed–and if they do, they’re doing you a favor by telling you about it, right? Brett (the author of the Walk of Shame paper) sees it this way himself. As he put it to me in a recent email:
I was wary of writing that I couldn’t find anything else on the topic, because there is always a risk that someone will then respond, “You idiot! How could you not know about XYZ’s article on this very topic?” But Penn State had an amazing library with a wide range of sources available to me, so I figured if I couldn’t find it there it was likely not available. But that risk is why most people seem to hedge their bets, as we saw in some of the earlier examples here.
(I didn’t tell Brett that the earlier examples were all from my papers. I also didn’t tell him that I didn’t realize that it sounded like I was hedging my bets–d’oh!)
As it turns out, Brett’s paper is also an interesting example of how you find a novel topic, as well as the role of your literature review in convincing not just the reviewers, but yourself that you are following a new line of thought. Brett himself again:
In the field of rhetoric, we are much less concerned with novelty in the subject than we are in a new and different reading of the topic. After all, there are many people still combing over speeches by MLK and Lincoln. So I was under less pressure to find novelty than someone in the sciences. For me, it was genuine surprise – how have we as a scholarly community managed to overlook this? I did not set out to discuss the walk of shame, though. Rather, the walk of shame came to me. When I was teaching a course in small group communication, one assignment was to present an infomercial of a product, real or imagined. One student group presented a “walk of shame” kit. I asked if this was a major issue on campus, and they replied that some people would get up early to taunt those returning to the dorms. This was what got me thinking about the notion of shame. When I looked to see what had been written on the topic, I was surprised at how difficult it was to find anything at all. I found stuff in Cosmo and other popular magazines, but nothing else. It’s rare to find a topic so common, but so overlooked, so I wrote the article.
(That’s my emphasis.) Now, just because you’ve established that something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean that you’ve established that it would be worth doing it. Brett takes this up head-on in the conclusion of his article. He actually combines it nicely with a technique called introducing a nay-sayer—that is, explicitly pointing out a potential counter-argument to what you’re asserting (or in this case, to the idea that anybody should be bothering to read what you’ve written). The conclusion to his article is as good of an ending to this blog post as I could have written, so I’ll leave you with his words:
The walk of shame may seem an inconsequential matter but linguistic practices that work to police female sexual behavior in this way are links in the chain of female oppression. These chains can–and should–be broken through critical evaluation of sexual norms and a redefinition of female and male sexual behavior. But before we can act, we must first begin with how we think about these norms–in short, we must begin with the very words we use to define ourselves, our actions, others, and our relationships.
la référence or la référence bibliographique : a citation, as in an academic paper. Frome Wikipedia: Une référence bibliographique est un ensemble de données permettant d’identifier un document publié, ou une partie de ce document, et d’y faire référence.
Not to be confused with…
la citation : a quote. From Wikipedia: Une citation est la reproduction d’un court extrait d’un propos ou d’un écrit antérieur dans la rédaction d’un texte ou dans une forme d’expression orale.