Guidelines for students

The context of writing dissertations for assessment imposes requirements that are in some respects different to those for a journal article. One version of this difference is that a dissertation must convince the examiner/tutor that the writer has been through certain processes and understands every aspect of the subject matter that is essential. The reader of a journal article is not particularly interested in why the writer came to the path they chose nor, more generally, in the writer's concerns, motivations etc as such. The reader wants to be interested by the article.

 The problem of conversion from a dissertation to a journal article can become compounded by adherence to aspects of systemic lore. For example, in a dissertation it is appropriate to claim 'I became curious about  ...' because curiosity is a prescribed stance, and by making this statement the writer is demonstrating their conformity to (and therefore their knowledge of) the currently approved doctrine. It also opens up the possibility of showing that the stance of curiosity has been used productively and appropriately to lead the writer on to useful exploration of ideas etc. But the same statement appearing in a journal is likely to evoke the response 'so what'. Unless the reader has already been given very good reasons to become curious about what excites curiosity in the writer, they will wonder why they are being told what made the writer curious. On the face of it they would have no more interest in your curiosity than in knowing what you had for breakfast.

 Now this is a bit unfair (I am trying to make some fairly elusive points) and also too sweeping. You will have seen from descriptions of the Journal that we want to exemplify in what we publish the systemic principles that we believe are generally useful. So we certainly want to encourage, for example, incorporating reflexivity, and more generally making the systemic principles within the article explicit. But this must be done within the basic task which is to interest the reader in the argument, claims, and conclusions being offered. For this purpose it is sometimes appropriate to refer to ones own processes, but this should be done judiciously and never depend on the idea that the writer's interest is enough to justify filling up space on the page. The justification must come from the material, the argument, the evidence, the relationship to what has been written in the past, and the interaction of all of these with the reader's understanding and interests.

 So, reference to personal experience may be used for emphasis, to lighten the touch, to indicate the provenance of a claim, or for other reasons of style. It must never be assumed to be a justification for what is said.

 Another version of this point is that an article must relate to a broader context than a dissertation. While a dissertation is legitimately about a specific work context, an article is only workable if there are more generalisable implications. Again, this may mean that it is appropriate to talk in detail about a specific context, but it is essential that the grounds are given for supposing that the implications apply elsewhere.

 The complementary point is that a dissertation will appropriately go into considerable detail to prove competence in standard aspects of thinking, but an article has to be shorter. This means not duplicating material that is already available in print. There is quite a judgement here, of providing enough of a description so that the reader who is not very familiar with, say, Maturana's principles, can follow the article without having to break off to go and read something up in the library, but the reader who is familiar with the material does not become put off by reading a necessarily simplified and abbreviated version of something they know in detail. In practice, the space available in a journal is always restricted (valuable) and so we tend to err on the side of keeping background information to a minimum wherever possible.

 Next, beginning to go in circles, there is a stronger onus within an article to justify every claim. Partly this is because the reader cannot be assumed to share any assumptions, as would be assumed within a specific training context. So this too is about making sure that all readers can be confident that the paper is worth their time and effort to read. Also, because a published article, which must stand scrutiny maybe 10 years later, demands more rigorous justification. Justifying claims does not mean providing positivistic proofs for every statement, but: 1. every claim should be accompanied by the information that will enable the reader to judge how much reliance to place on it. Various kinds of claim: '87 research studies all conclude...; Bateson said...; On the basis of 20 years clinical experience I judged ...; ... (Cronen & Pearce, 1992; Lang, 1993; God, 0); it seems reasonable to suppose...'; all indicate to the reader enough of the basis for the statement that they know how much weight it can carry. 2. Enough of the claims that go to make up the argument should have fairly strong validation, otherwise the reader is left knowing that you are convinced, but without any reason for them to be convinced as well.

 A related issue is the need to make sure that information is properly attributed. This is always important, but in a published article it is especially necessary to do this conscientiously both so there is no suspicion that you are passing other peoples' ideas off as your own; and so that the reader is given the source that they can consult if they want to follow it up.

 Concretely, a text that has continual reference to the writer or their habitat raises suspicion. In most cases, 'this lead me to think in terms of X' can be translated into something like: 'this suggests that X would be a fruitful alternative way of conceptualising'. 'I prefer X..' should translate into ' . .X is preferable'. If the first statement cannot be made general in this way, then it strongly implies that it is only in the thinking of the writer that the connection can be made. Alternatively, maybe it is a way of avoiding having to justify the claim as anything more than a personal opinion or preference. In either case, the question arises of why it should be of interest to the reader.

 Staff who read dissertations are competent, concerned, conscientious and concentrating. And they have to read your paper whether they want to or not. Journal readers will rapidly abandon a paper they find difficult, irritating, unrewarding or hard work. So an article must be well written and make things as easy as possible for the reader. Additionally, it is always worthwhile to ensure that the reasons that you think make the article important reading are pointed out to the reader. This is not a detective story where the reader will be content to wait for the last page to find out what it is all about - they need to be told early on what the paper offers them, and probably reminded at strategic points about what is coming or, eventually, what has been delivered. Within this, the article should be a short as is compatible with its doing the job. This is very different to a dissertation where extra material is often necessary to show the examiner that you have knowledge over a broad range. An article is not there to prove anything about you (so we pretend), but to convey a message. It will only do that successfully if it keeps tightly focused on its objective. One implication of this is that it will be extremely difficult to write an effective article unless you are very clear what the objective of it is. Editors have a reputation for coming back saying 'put more in and make it shorter'. Most times this is perfectly possible.

 The core of all this is that a dissertation is there to inform the reader about the writer, while an article is there to inform the reader of something they did not know/understand/suspect, and that (by the time they have finished reading it) they find it worthwhile to know. For any public communication, the needs of the reader/listener are always a higher context marker than the needs of the writer/speaker. Unless the higher context is kept specifically in mind, the communication is unlikely to fulfil its purpose

 Of course, if you are very famous, none of the above applies. (but most people that famous are already dead).


Peter Stratton. LFTRC