What one’s academic research contributes to the existing literature is its claim to people’s attention. Whether in the field of medicine, the social sciences, or the liberal arts, all rigorous academic research must describe what its contents add to the knowledge already available. I encourage my students to think about what I call the “statement of contribution” as serving the function that a patent does for an entrepreneurial inventor or a copyright for a visual artist: it defines the intellectual property one has borrowed from elsewhere and stakes an official claim to a new idea. While academia lacks a formalized equivalent of a patent or copyright database for browsing these contributions, the archival nature of academic scholarship means that one’s explanation of the contribution of his or her research will, assuming it is published in a credible academic journal, persist in the libraries and electronic archives that future researchers will refer to.
Rigorous academic writing often follows a surprisingly simple format for identifying its own contribution to existing literature. Although the order and elements of this statement can vary, many effective “statements of contribution” follow the chronology below:
- Foreground relationships with precursor research
- Describe shortcomings of precursor research
- Distinguish one’s research from precursor research
Feminist and queer theorist Nancy Armstrong employs this format in her widely read essay, “Some Call it Fiction: On the Politics of Domesticity” (1990). Her “statement of contribution” makes clear how she has positioned her research against that of Marxist scholars:
This essay is written in opposition to models of history that confine political practices to activities directly concerned with the marketplace, the official institutions of the state, or else resistance of these. I write as one who feels that such models have not provided an adequate basis for understanding the formation of a modern bureaucratic culture or for our place, as intellectuals, within it. More than that, I regard any model that places personal life in a separate sphere and that grants literature a secondary and passive role in political history as unconsciously sexist. I believe such models necessarily fail to account for the formation of a modern bureaucratic culture because they fail to account for the place of women within it. (567-8, Literary Theory: An Anthology)
In these four efficient sentences, Armstrong articulates her oppositional relationship with the Marxist tradition that dominates scholarship on historical political practices, describes its shortcomings (that it ignores the practices, typically of women, that occur within the home), and identifies the addition that her research makes (examining the political qualities of practices within the home).
Mark McGurl’s “statement of contribution” in his preface to The Program Era (2009), a polemic on postwar fiction in America, follows a similar structure. His statement decouples him from commonplace critics of so-called “program writers” who bemoan the effect of the MFA program on fiction without actually examining its particularities and shows how his research contributes a more holistic account to the evolution of recent literary aesthetics.
Far from occasioning a sad decline in the quality or interest of American literature, as one so often hears, the writing program has generated a complex and evolving constellation of aesthetic problems that have been explored with tremendous energy . . . by a vast range of writers who have also been students and teachers. In telling the story of the period I call the Program Era, my effort has been to describe the constellation of aesthetic problems, the various positions and principles and instances of which they are made, in systematic terms. My hope is to begin to make sense of a field that has grown so large and internally complex that few scholars even attempt anymore to gather its splinters together. (ix-x)
In each of these deftly handled “statements of contribution,” the writer explains his or her claim to readers’ attention by showing both a knowledge of and an academic distance from the existing literature within his or her field. By describing what is unique about the author’s research, these statements advertise the knowledge that reading the full document–and only reading this document–can provide to readers.