The Contribution of Your Research

Nancy ArmstrongWhat 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:

  1. Foreground relationships with precursor research
  2. Describe shortcomings of precursor research
  3. 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)

Mark McGurl's The Program Era

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.

Finding and Using Sources: A Brief Guide

Photo of Mark Twain (A Primary Source)For some academic writers, finding good sources can feel tedious and tangential to the writing process. “I know what I want to say,” some students have told me; “I’ll find the sources I need to support my views after I’ve written my essay.” I try to explain to such students that research and source-gathering are part and parcel to the writing process, for how can one write compellingly about a topic without knowing what has already been said about it? Because traditions and conventions lie at the center of good scholarship, engaging academic work must always position itself within the conversation ongoing in its field or fields, regardless of whether it is confirming, qualifying, or railing against the ideas of its predecessors.

Academics often group sources into two categories: primary sources and secondary sources. While the classifications of primary and secondary sources vary between fields depend on how an author uses a given source, most sources can be easily grouped into one of these categories using the definitions below:

Primary Source: A primary source is an “original” material or “text”–that is, a material that does not explicitly refer to a prior material–such as a letter, poem, newspaper article, photograph, or painting. As the library at James Cook University describes, primary sources are materials that “have not been filtered through interpretation, condensation, or . . . evaluation.” They typically form the focus of academic research in the humanities, wherein scholars seek to explain the conditions that gave rise to the primary source material or certain facets that it exhibits.

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand, A Secondary Source

Secondary Source: A secondary source is a document that contextualizes one or more primary sources, such as a book, movie, theater review, a history textbook, or the essays that undergraduates and graduate students are constantly writing in their classes. These sources analyze, synthesize, and evaluate primary material and can, as a result, be useful tools for finding appropriate primary sources for one’s own scholarship.

By no means absolute, these classifications depend in large part on the way in which a scholar uses a document. A memoir, for example, might be used either as a primary source (if a scholar were examining the author or one of his or her friends characterized within it) or a secondary source (if a scholar were using the memoir to examine the setting or culture in which its author lived). But as challenging as it sometimes proves, understanding how one uses these kinds of sources and how particular sources have been used by other scholars in the past is a necessary step to producing academic work that is clear, aware, and original.

In addition to scouring the bibliographies of secondary sources, librarians and museums are also useful resources for finding good primary sources. Scholars can usually find good secondary sources by searching the catalogue in their university’s library or by performing searches in online databases such as LexisNexis, Academic Search Premier, and JSTOR. Good sources not only help students discover what they want to say, they also help scholars know what can be said and what is worth saying.

The Uses of Analysis: Rhetorical Analysis, Article Analysis, and the Literature Review

Literature ReviewRhetorical analyses, article analyses, and literature reviews are three distinct though frequently confused forms of responses often assigned to students regardless of their respective discipline. While each form provides a unique perspective into its subject or subjects, they are all useful kinds of criticism whose prevalence is a function of their impressive utility and versatility.

Rhetorical analysis, a composition class staple that is also common in the fields of history, sociology, literature, and business, is the narrowest of these forms. In rhetorical analysis, the critic demonstrates how a document or speech makes use of rhetorical strategies to persuade its audience of its author’s perspective. The three main categories of rhetorical devices–logos, pathos, and ethos–should be given particular attention when writing a rhetorical analysis. Each of these devices solicits the audience’s trust in a different way: logos, by appealing to its sense of logic, pathos, by invoking its emotions, and ethos, by demonstrating the author’s credibility as an expert on her topic. Because the word “rhetoric” describes the use of language to inspire emotion, rhetorical analyses have traditionally been limited to works of language–either literary or spoken–though some have tried to extend rhetorical analysis to subjects that are primarily visual, such as magazine advertisements and paintings. But whatever the subject, rhetorical analysis can provide the useful function of helping a student better understand the methods of persuasion that underlie so many pervasive speechwriting tropes and marketing campaigns. Not only can this analysis teach those students how to make use of similarly affective strategies in their own work, it also weakens the power those strategies may have over them, the way an explanation of a joke destroys its humor or a magician’s lesson destroys his magic.

Literature Review and Article Analysis

Article analysis evaluates the theme, thesis, and structure of an argument in an article of any academic discipline. In addition to summarizing the argument of a given article, a good article analysis also examines where the argument draws from–its critical or academic predecessors, its data if applicable, and its key terms–and how the argument builds to each of its main points. Because academic articles can prove difficult to understand, writing this kind of analysis can help students pinpoint exactly what an article claims and how it grounds those claims. Reading an article analysis can serve a similar function for its subject article that a book review does for a book: helping the reader understand the tradition, scope, importance, and quality of the work so that she can decide whether or not she would like to read it herself.

Literature reviews, employed by undergraduates, graduate students, and professors within every field, survey previous scholarship  on a given topic. In this form, a writer summarizes–and occasionally analyzes–research and articles, providing their hypotheses, research procedures, and findings, sometimes supplemented with brief assessments of the importance of the research in the development of scholarship on the topic the the literature review seeks to cover. The topics of a literature review can vary from incredibly narrow, such as, for instance, “Metaphor in Moby Dick,” to relatively broad, say, “Business development in the developed world.” In either case, literature reviews may incorporate aspects of article analysis into each summary of a piece of scholarship, a fact that can fuel confusion between the two forms. In addition to the presence of article analysis in literature reviews, another explanation for some of the confusion between these forms is their ubiquity in academic scholarship; like article analysis, literature reviews help scholars of every level and every field better understand the arguments of others within their discipline in part so that they can better position their own work.

Understanding “Style”

What Is Style?


Style guides offer sets of usage, typographical, and formatting rules that help writers better communicate with other readers and writers within their field. By collectively deferring to the rules of a single style guide, writers within a given field ensure a level of uniformity in the way they use and record language. A style, in this sense, functions on the page the way a dialect does in conversation: it provides meaningful rules that, because they are shared by both the producer and perceiver of the language in question, aid clear and concise communication.

Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style"Popular Style Guides:

Style manuals vary greatly in depth and focus depending on the audiences for which they are created. Because Strunk and White’s iconic The Elements of Style (1918), for example, is designed for a general audience, it does not provide guidelines for formatting or citing material, skills more important for journalists, publishers, and academics than for lay people who simply want to write clear prose. Instead, it reviews basic rules for syntax, usage, and punctuation that are essential for writing in any field. Other popular style guides such as the AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, and The MLA Style Manual offer sets of guidelines that address the concerns of particular fields.

Published by the Associated Press, the AP Stylebook, now in its forty-seventh edition, is the standard manual for short-form journalists. As a result, it addresses questions of primary concern to media organizations, such as how to format photo captions, how to use common sports terminology, and how to correctly reference cities, politicians, institutions, and countries. In addition to answering the kinds of questions common among journalists, the answers it provides are catered to the needs of journalists’ editors. This is perhaps most obvious in the guides’ rules for writing numbers (use figures above nine [i.e. “. . . seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 . . .”]) and for punctuating series (don’t use Oxford commas), which are both designed to save scarce newspaper space.

The Chicago Manual of Style, published by the University of Chicago, is the manual of choice for most book publishers and many academics. Now in its sixteenth edition, The Chicago Manual offers comprehensive guidelines to writing and formatting as specific as when to use a double question mark (don’t) and how to punctuate indirect one-word questions (i.e. “The question was not how but why . . .) which make it too long—1026 pages in its last edition—for most writers to be willing to read cover to cover. It is nevertheless an essential reference that every writing or publishing professional should learn to navigate so that she can answer style questions when they arise. Because of its academic- and book-centric audience, The Chicago Manual, unlike The Elements of Style or the AP Stylebook, offers guidelines for citing sources.


More recently the Modern Language Association (MLA), an association of U.S. professors and graduate students in the humanities, has published a manual designed for academic writing in the humanities called The MLA Style Manual. In the mere three editions since The MLA Style Manual was first published in 1985, the style guide has become widely accepted, along with The Chicago Manual, in scholarly writing within the liberal arts. Though more narrow in scope than The Chicago Manual, aspects of its guidelines have eclipsed Chicago‘s, namely its format for short in-text citations that are now preferred among many academics in the humanities.

Other important style guides address problems common in certain academic fields, such as The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, which offers guidelines for formatting tables and reducing bias in language popular in the data-heavy social sciences, and the American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style widely used by researchers and editors in the scientific community.

In order to ensure that writing manifests meaning in ways that its audience can best unpack it, process it, and locate its sources, writers must consistently implement the dominant style within their field. The first step to determining the style that best serves a given project is to consider what type of publication the writer would like her work to appear in.

Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes: Correct Usage

Because of their similar look and numerous usage rules, dashes can prove one of the most difficult aspects of punctuation even for experienced writers. Understanding a few guidelines for when and how to use each kind of dash can eliminate most usage problems.

The Hyphen:

Hyphens should be used in phrasal adjectives (also called compound modifiers) when they precede a noun (e.g., “They live in a roach-infested apartment” or “He is a right-handed hitter”) and in cases where two elements of a phrasal adjective precede the same word (e.g. “The study spanned several science- and math-related topics”). When a compound noun is part of a phrasal adjective, the compound noun should also be hyphenated, e.g, “I signed the case-drowned-prosecutor initiative to help the government get the funding it needs to try criminals.” Note that phrasal adjectives that follow verbs do not take on hyphens (e.g., “The hitter was right handed”).

The En Dash:

En dashes can be used in three situations: when specifying ranges, when contrasting values, and in place of hyphens in phrasal adjectives that have two or more elements that are open compounds. In the first case an en dash is used to show a range, as if substituted for the word “through,” e.g., “She visits New York September–November.” In the second case, an en dash is used to show contrasting values or a relationship between two nouns, e.g., “The score was 5–8” or “The Dodd–Frank Bill passed.” The third use for en dashes occurs with phrasal adjectives that contain two or more open compounds. Open compounds are compound words that are separated by a space, such as “real estate” and “World War II.” Instead of taking on a hyphen, phrasal adjectives with two or more of these words take on an en dash, e.g., “the pre–World War II years” and “World War II–era politics.” To make an en dash in Microsoft Word hold down Ctrl and the minus key (option and the minus key for Mac).

The Em Dash:

Em dashes can be used in a variety of situations with different meanings. Perhaps the most common is to explain an element in greater detail. A single em dash can function in this way, much like a colon, e.g., “Fear pricked my neck when I peered beneath the rock—maggots lined its crevices.” A pair of em dashes sets off an explanatory clause much like a pair of commas often do, e.g. “He alternately blabbered, gaped, and shuffled—his feet scraping across the ground as if bearing weights—while we, beside him, wondered what to do.” Em dashes are particularly useful in series (such as the example above), where adding a pair of commas instead of em dashes can render the sentence difficult to read. They can also be used either alone or in pairs to indicate sudden breaks or swerves in thought, e.g. “I wanted to go—didn’t I?—to the symphony” and “I was indeed wondering—anyway, I don’t like thinking about that.” An em dash can similarly be used to signify interrupted speech, e.g. “‘Frankly, I would love—’ ‘You never loved anything,’ he said.” To create an em dash in Microsoft Word use two hyphens, each connected to their surrounding words without spaces, and Word will automatically substitute an em dash.