Concluding the thesis

I am co-supervising a PhD student who is handing in her thesis for examination in November. She is currently revising her whole thesis, working towards the conclusion (and finally, the introduction). Conclusions can be tricky things to write – pulling something as big as a PhD dissertation together into a final, clear chapter is not easy. It is both an intellectual and an emotional challenge, as conclusion-writing comes towards the very end of the process, and you are so tired, and probably feeling like there are no more coherent words or sentences in your brain. This post reflects a little on what a thesis conclusion is for, with some thoughts on how to construct one that does justice to your meisterwerk.

pulling ideas together

To begin with, let’s think a bit about what conclusions are for in a piece of written work. In undergraduate studies, students are typically taught that conclusions are summaries. You restate the thesis, or main claim, of your paper, reiterate what each paragraph has said that contributes to that argument, and then bring it all together with a firm final sentence or two that says something about the relevance of the paper, or argument. There should be no new information, just a summing up of what has already been said. Sometimes you are allowed recommendations, depending on the discipline. It makes sense, then, that we progress into postgraduate studies believing that we are writing summaries whenever we conclude (a paper, or a journal article, or a thesis). I have seen many conclusions like this in postgraduate, postdoctoral and early career writing. But, unfortunately, at these levels conclusions that merely summarise a paper the reader has just read are not adequate, or suitable. A shift is needed.

As Pat Thomson usefully argues in this post about writing a thesis conclusion, the conclusion to a thesis (or journal article) is not a summary of the whole. The summary part of a thesis conclusion should ideally be quite brief, and used rather as a springboard to the real work of the conclusion: using the preceding writing and research to show how the study has addressed the research questions, and in so doing, how it has made a valid, and useful, contribution to knowledge.

A strong conclusion shows your readers what your research means within the context of the field you have referenced in your ‘literature review’, and how in answering your research questions you have been able to speak back to this body of research in which you have located your own study. It answers your research questions, succinctly and clearly, so that your readers understand the overall claims of your study, the focus of your argument, the basis upon which you have advanced your argument, and the significance, meaning or value of that argument to your (their) field. It discusses – argues – for the place of your research within your field, and the contribution it is making.

arrows direction

There are a few ways in which you can approach writing such a conclusion (and Pat’s post above is very helpful here). There are also a few guidelines to consider in writing this vital part of your thesis.

To begin with, you do need to bring your reader up to speed with the thesis thus far. Examiners and other readers are unlikely to read your whole PhD in one go, so ending each chapter with a brief summary, and starting the next one with a short section that connects the present chapter to the previous one is a good idea for creating coherent connections between chapters, and is helpful for your readers. Thus, you should begin your conclusion with an overview, or brief summary, of the argument thus far.

Then, consider your research questions: what did you set out to do in this project or study? Your research questions could make useful sub-headings here, at least in a first draft, to help you organise your thoughts. Starting here, you can begin to pull out the answers you have found (in the ‘analysis chapter/s’) so that you can discuss the implications of your findings, their relevance in relation to your overall argument, and the way in which what you have found relates to the body of research to which you have connected your study. No new information: just an analytical discussion of selected aspects of your findings that are useful for answering your research questions, and further consolidating your argument.

Perhaps you have recommendations, on the basis of your findings and their implications for practice, and/or further research. You could include a section on these, discussing a step further the possible implications of your research in relation to your field. Something else that may be relevant to include here could be limitations to the size or scope of your findings: are there any that your readers need to know about, so that they don’t expect your study to have done something other than what it has done? Don’t just list all the things you could have done but didn’t do: think carefully about pertinent limitations that may represent counter-arguments you could defend or mitigate against.

At the end of the end, consider your argument again: what has your thesis claimed and to what end? Try to end your thesis with a paragraph that reiterates not just what your thesis has argued, but WHY this argument has relevance, or import, for your readers. What do you hope the outcome of your research will be? Why are you so passionate about it, and why do you think others should care too? Read a few thesis conclusions to get a sense of different ways of doing this, and check out Pat Thomson’s posts on conclusion writing, too. Then write a draft and share it with your supervisor for feedback.

It’s worth really taking your time and not rushing this chapter, even as it comes at the end when you are tired, and really just want to be done. End on the highest note you can: you owe yourself that much after all your hard work getting there.


Paper writing VI: Choosing the right journal for your paper

This should actually be one of the first posts in the series on paper writing, because my advice to writers is always to choose the journal before they write the paper. I received this advice several years ago, and it is really good advice. You may wonder why – surely you have to know what you have written about before you find a place to send it? I am arguing otherwise, and here is why.

In every piece of writing we do, we should be thinking about 3 things: audience, purpose and context. In other words: who am I writing to? Why am I writing this paper? And what is the debate/conversation/context my paper is part of, or that informs my paper? These questions need to be answered before you really get into paper writing, because if you don’t know the answers, you may end up writing a paper for yourself – a ‘writerly’ paper – rather than a paper meant to be read by your peers, so that they can engage with your argument, within your community or practice or research – a ‘readerly’ paper. The more reader-oriented your paper, the more likely you are to receive encouraging feedback from journals.


Once you have clarified these three issues for yourself, you now need to think carefully about where to publish your work. Where are these readers? Where are these conversations and debates happening? Where is similar research featuring? Initial broader issues to consider in choosing a journal may include: national or international journal? Closed or open access? Can you afford to pay page fees (will your university cover these for you)? Deciding, for example, to publish your paper in an open access, national journal, with or without page fees, will enable you to do quite a purposeful search. There are thousands of reputable journals, so having focused search parameters will save you time.

Now you need to hone in on specifics, once you have a list of relevant journals within your initially set parameters. Start with the focus and scope: what kinds of research does the journal publish? Here’s an example from Studies in Higher Education:

Aims and scope
Studies in Higher Education is a leading international journal publishing research-based articles dealing with higher education issues from either a disciplinary or multi-disciplinary perspective. Empirical, theoretical and conceptual articles of significant originality will be considered. The Journal welcomes contributions that seek to enhance understanding of higher education policy, institutional management and performance, teaching and learning, and the contribution of higher education to society and the economy. Comparative studies and analysis of inter-system and cross-national issues are also welcomed, as are those addressing global and international themes. The Journal will publish annually two special issues on topics of international significance to higher education.

If you can see from this that your paper might fit within this scope, go a step further and check out a few of the recent tables of contents, and abstracts (or even skim a few full papers of you can access them). If you are not sure, this extra step should help you.

Then look at the Notes for authors/contributors. Here you will find specific instructions about how articles need to be laid out, the preferred referencing style, the word limit and so on. Under this section you will also find information about submission fees and/or page charges (also called Article Processing Charges or APCs). If this is a reputable journal, this information will be readily available (see here for information about predatory journals). Note for yourself, especially, how long the article needs to be (including or excluding references/bibliographic information), and any other specifics you should consider while writing, like the referencing style and format of the paper. Getting all of this right as your start can save you a lot of time and fiddling at the end, trying to reformat a whole paper.

Other issues to consider are:

  • How many issues are published annually? The more issues they publish, the less time you may have to wait to see your paper in print. If the journal has a call for papers out for a special issue, see if your paper will be a fit – special issues are sometime easier to be considered for because they receive smaller numbers of submissions than general issues.
  • Their peer review policy. Who do they send your paper to, how many reviews should you get, what is the wait time, etc? The more transparent the journal is about this, the better for you.
  • Print and online, or online only? Or print only? Journals with an online option will often be able to publish your work as it is approved for publication, even if it is not yet in an issue. It will have a DOI, and be counted as published. It will then later be assigned to an issue as well. In effect, this means good things for you in terms of visibility, because your paper actually ‘comes out’ twice :).
  • Who are the editors? Do you know any of them by reputation or by their research? Do they have areas of specialism that connect with what your paper is about? Remember, the editors will be choosing peer reviewers, and also reading the reviews to make a decision about your paper. If you are writing about theory, methodology, or case studies that have no obvious tie-in to any of the work the editors are interested in, or are doing themselves, perhaps reconsider. Try and find a journal where at least one editor has knowledge of the work you are doing.
  • Submission via email only, or an online platform? Email only is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that if the journal is slow and not great at communication (sadly happens too often), email is the only means of finding out about the progress of your paper through the peer review system. A friend of mine had to wait over a year for a response to her polite email requests for updates! Online submission systems enable you to check on the progress of your paper yourself, as they are updated at each stage of the process.
  • Wait times for publication. What is the average review period for the journal (how long do they think it will take them to respond with reviewer or editors feedback)? How long, on average, does it take them to publish papers from date of submission? Most journals should be able to indicate this. It’s a useful piece of information, because you need to know how long you can expect to wait. TIP: only ever write to editors and politely ask for updates AFTER the longest time they state has passed. I.e., if they say a maximum of 6 months, only write after 6 months.

journal books.jpeg

General advice to end with is to choose at least 3 relevant journals, that have similar word limits and submission guidelines. You may not be successful with journal 1, so having at least 2 back-up journals you have researched and know about makes the whole process less daunting, and less time-consuming.

You can write a paper and then ‘shop’ for a journal, but I think a more focused, purposeful and efficient way to go about this is to choose your journals (essentially your readers and context) first, and then be readerly in your approach to the paper. In my experience, as a writer and an editor, this leads in most cases to a more encouraging – and oftentimes successful – peer review process.

Predatory publishers: what to look out for

I posted last week about predatory publishers, and avoiding the ‘quick fix’ that many of them seem to offer researchers. In this post, I want to look in more detail at how to spot a scam, so that you can avoid falling into the trap. I know a few bright scholars who have been caught by these publishers – not all of them are true scams, and many of them are becoming better at creating websites and emails that look and sound real.

First things first, what is a ‘predatory’ publisher? Essentially, this is a publisher that may a) troll and Google Scholar, find recently published papers, and then track down the author. Or, b) set up a website, with many of the right pieces in place, and spam people in academia with more general ‘Calls for Papers’-type emails. In the first instance, authors receive a flattering email, telling them that their paper {insert title here} is exactly the kind of thing the journal/publishing house/conference is looking for, and inviting them to send anything they may be working on to that journal, or develop the paper into a book, or use it as a basis for a keynote lecture. Some of these emails are pretty obvious, but these publishers are getting cleverer all the time, and there are different ways in which they create predatory journals in particular.

One way is through hacking a real journal, and then creating a bogus site, setting up an email account and sending out spam emails. This is usually pretty easy to track down – just type the ISSN, or journal title, into Google and spend a few minutes looking around carefully. If it’s a scam, it should come up fairly quickly. You can also look at this archived copy of Jeffrey Beall’s well-known list of predatory publishers and journals.

But, in some cases things do look legit, even after the Googling. This is an example I received recently:

Impact Factor (0.351)

Call for Papers

Publication and peer-review process: All manuscripts are reviewed by the Editorial Board and qualified reviewers. Decisions will be made as rapidly as possible, and the journal strives to return reviewers’ comments to authors within 4 weeks.

The editorial board will re-review manuscripts that are accepted pending revision. All accepted articles will be published online immediately after proof reading and formatting process.

ACADEMIA JOURNAL OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH journal welcomes the submission of manuscripts in:

  Agricultural Sciences
  Applied Biology
  Biological Sciences
  Cell Biology
  Chemical Engineering
  Chemical Engineering
  Civil Engineering
  Civil Engineering
  Communication & IT
  Computer Science
  Developmental Biology
  Engineering, All Fields
  Food & Food Technology
  Infectious Diseases
  Marine Sciences
  Marine Technology
  Medical Technology
  Nuclear Engineering
  Nutrition and Food Science
  Petroleum & Gas
  Plant Biology
  Population Biology
  Signal Transduction
  Solid State Technology
  Space Science
  Veterinary Science
Indexing Body and Partners:

Impact Factor (0.351), Covered by CABI, Google Scholar, Open J-Gate, Journal Seek,  DOAJ, Union Catalogue, University of California Library, National Library of Sweden, Scholars Portal, University Library, Saskatchewan, The University of Georgia Library, Chemical Abstracts (USA), University of Oregon Library, University of Groningen Library, State Library of New South Wales, Colorado State University Library, Ghent University, Belgium, WZB Library, Germany, Periodicos, Scotland Knowledge Network, Covered by SLUB

We invite you to submit your manuscript(s) to for publication. Our objective is to inform authors of the decision on their manuscript(s) within four weeks of submission. Following acceptance, a paper will normally be published in the next issue. Instruction for authors and other details are available on our website.

Best regards,
Prof. Lewis
Academia Publishing
ISSN 2315-7712

I typed the ISSN into Google and found this:

Screenshot 2017-08-15 11.17.41.png

Now it looks like a real journal, right? But the email I received was not from the posted email address. A little more digging revealed several identical emails posted on sites alerting internet users to scams, with different ‘editor’ names at the end. I was still not completely convinced that even the seemingly ‘real’ journal was real, so I Googled some more. I now think that this is a predatory publisher, and that probably all of its journals are predatory as well. Why? There are a few red flags and I’ll list them here:

  1. The LONG list of topics they ‘specialise’ in. Credible journals with scholarly reputations tend to specialise in more focused areas of their field, for example ‘Mediterranean Politics; Teaching in Higher Education; British Journal for Educational Technology; Environmental Earth Sciences. If you look carefully at their ‘About this journal’ or ‘Aims and scope’ pages, you won’t see a list of everything about education, politics or environmental sciences listed there. If a journal says it will publish anything you want to write about, beware!
  2. The typos on the home page. A credible journal that has a website with typos is a red flag for me. Proofreading is not that hard. If they are not paying attention to their brand image, what are they doing with your paper?
  3. The vague talk about article processing charges. I have published with journals that charge article processing fees. Many international journals do this now, especially for gold open access. BUT, these are only payable when your article has been peer reviews, for free, copyedited and typeset for free, and accepted for publication. Also, you are told exactly how much you will be asked to pay BEFORE you send in your paper, on the website. Many predatory publishers are known for asking for fees to be paid but it is not always possible to find out what these charges are upfront, as these are typically not declared online. If this seems like the deal with publishers you are looking into, don’t go there. Close your browser window and move on.
  4. The dodgy list of ‘indexes’. Good journals are well-indexed. This essentially means that they have been vetted as being of good standing by a group of peers, and they have coverage in terms of appearing on databases in library holdings, such as EBSCOHost and Ingenta, and in Google Scholar searches. Well-known indexes are the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), SCOPUS, ISI (Web of Science), the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS), the Norwegian List, SciELO (in South Africa), WorldCAT, Sherpa-Romeo. Google Scholar does not count as a database, and neither does a library. The DOAJ does count (the journal above lists this index), but if you search the DOAJ list this journal (above) is not on it.
  5. The Gmail email address: Not all gmail addresses for editors lead to bogus journals. In some cases, managing editors are independent, or journals are not housed at only one university, hence a gmail address, which offers no costs and good cloud storage. So, use this one with caution. Often, though, a gmail address, in conjunction with other warning signs, can be a sign that things are not what they may seem. Also, if there is no online submission platform, and only a gmail address, this should be a red flag.

Why should you be aware, and vigilant? There are a few reasons, but I will name just two of the most important ones: firstly, the peer review, and proceeding copyediting etc of your paper will typically be really shoddy at these kinds of journals. As I commented in the last post, good peer review, and editorial oversight, takes time, and cannot really be done well, consistently, in 4 weeks. So, you won’t get useful, thoughtful feedback, and you may end up with a paper you have put a lot of work into disappearing into the ether, or worse, being findable but embarrassing, as it won’t have benefitted from constructive critique, or professional editing. Secondly, because of the shoddy peer review, and a rushed publication process, these journals do not typically publish scholarship that advances knowledge and learning. We share our work with one another through journals, books, and so on to do just this, and we should all be concerned about the rise of fake, and predatory, publishers who are publishing scholarship with little value or credibility, or that may even be methodologically or factually unsound.

If you are worried at any point that you may be dealing with a predatory publisher, have a look here for excellent advice, especially with book publishers, and here, here and here for further advice on spotting predatory journal publishers. Take your time, ask Google, check with your peers, and proceed with caution. There are plenty of good, credible, well-managed open access journals out there for you to publish with.

I’ll post next week on finding a good journal for your paper, and some tips for creating a plan for publishing.

Predatory publishers: avoid the ‘quick fix’

I received an email this morning from a student, sadly not my first (or last I suspect), asking me to help her work out if an offer she received from a publisher to publish her thesis was legit or not. As you may suspect, it was not. I receive these kinds of unsolicited emails all the time, to publish a paper I have written as a book, or to draw on my recent journal article in a keynote at a random conference about everything, or to turn a paper into a whole book. I delete them all. But, I have published enough (and have worked in academic publishing long enough) to smell a scam or predatory publisher/journal/conference when these emails arrive in my inbox.


But what of less experienced authors? How are they supposed to know that they are potentially being conned into giving their hard work away to a publisher who has zero academic credibility, and may well charge them large amounts of money to publish their work? So many early career researchers are under huge amounts of pressure to publish, and this can make them feel a bit desperate. When I tell first-time authors they may have to wait up to a year to see their paper in print, they freak out a bit, especially because they don’t yet have a conveyor-belt of papers in various stages of development, or a position with status that gives them breathing room. When a seemingly legit email arrives then, promising peer review and publication within 4-6 weeks of receiving the manuscript, it can be mighty tempting to send the paper there instead.

In part, researchers fall into the traps presented by predatory publishers, then, because of this insane pressure to publish (or risk losing a postdoc position, or a chance at a teaching job, and so on). In part, though, I think they fall into the trap because they think that a year-long (or longer) wait between submission and publication is ridiculous. I have learned, from working with people who have yet to publish, or have not published very much, that few people really understand journal waiting times, and what goes into them. Thus, when they are offered a chance to publish really quickly, they may jump at it, believing that the process can actually happen, credibly and with due care, in 6 weeks.

Most credible journals will indicate that it takes a minimum of 16 weeks/4 months to receive a response if your paper has been sent out for peer review. If your paper is rejected, you should hear within 4-6 weeks of submission. Papers are generally reviewed/read by an initial editor or editors, who may then assign an associate editor, who is knowledgeable about the topic you are writing about, to manage your paper. This editor then has to choose peer reviewers, and find at least two people willing and able to review the paper within the stipulated time frame – anywhere from 30 to 60 days. Many reviewers submit reviews late, and this can slow the process. After peer review, the editor then has to look at the feedback and reach a decision on your paper, before sending it back to you with comments and a decision. If your paper is rejected, you will need to start again with a new journal, possibly having to make changes and revisions first. If the reviewers recommend revisions, these can take up to 3 months to effect. The paper may then only go back to the editors for re-review, or it may go back to one or more of the initial reviewers. This again takes a few weeks or more. Then the paper has to be copyedited, returned to you for author checking, and then typeset before it can be published, online or in print. Any journal that tells you it can do all of this in 6 weeks is lying to you, and is certainly predatory.

This journal, published by a large international publisher, gives you a one example of a typical publication process. Most journals of repute do work hard to process papers within 9-12 months of submission, but busier, higher profile journals do have higher rejection rates, and longer wait times because of the volume of research they have to process. Based on research into average wait times for peer review, revisions, possible rejection and resubmission to a different journal, and so on, Editage has useful advice for you on how to prepare your own publication schedule here. There will always be exceptions – sometimes you get lucky: the reviews are positive, the revisions are minor and there’s a gap in an upcoming issue, and you get published within 6 months of submission of your paper. But this is not, unfortunately, the norm.

To work in academia these days is to publish, and share your research with your community of peers and fellow researchers. It’s not just about climbing a totem pole at your university, or scoring the right kinds of ‘credits’ – although (for now anyway) this is part of the ‘game’. I prefer to think of publishing my work as taking advantage of opportunities to speak to my colleagues, here and further afield, about research I am interested in, and think is important. I write papers I would like to read, and papers I think will help or interest or even inspire the people I work with. This motivates me to write papers that credible, well-read, well-respected journals in my field will be interested in. If you are motivated to share your work with readers like you, you will look to the journals you read, find useful and enjoy as possible places to publish your work. And these won’t be predatory, low-impact, no credibility journals.

Screenshot 2017-08-15 10.14.28

Publishing in journals requires patience, fortitude, a thick skin, and a realistic plan.  When those seemingly too-good-to-be-true emails pop into your inbox, spend some time Googling the so-called journal before you jump at a ‘quick fix’. Publish your work where it will be seen, read, engage your readers, and make an impact on your field. The waiting will be worth it.

Paper writing V: answering the ‘so what?’ question

Writing papers for publication means making and supporting strong arguments. This is hard work: making a firm, well-crafted and persuasive argument takes time. But this time is worth taking because this is the most important aspect of your paper. Without a strong argument, you do not have a contribution to knowledge. And if you don’t have that, you don’t have a publishable paper.

Making arguments is not necessarily as simply as just saying ‘This paper will argue that’, and then making that argument. You also need to locate the argument within the field it is making a contribution to. You need to show your readers why your argument is relevant, or important, and worth their time and attention. This is what is often termed the ‘so what?’ question.

If you have ever tutored, lectured or coached other writers, where you have had to read and give feedback on drafts of their writing, you may have some experience of working with this tricky question, and its answers. You are reading a draft of a paper and you get to the end, and it has been full of interesting information, but you wonder ‘So what? Why have I read all of this? What’s the point?’

The first part of the answer to the ‘so what?’ question of this is the actual argument: ‘This paper is claiming that X is the case…’. It takes time to whittle down all the things you could write about to one tight, well-formed argument you can express in one or two clear sentences. But simply making your argument on its own is not enough. If all you do is make your argument, without considering why you are making it, you run the risk of locking your research into a potentially narrow context, and thus limiting your readership. You need to think about your readers, your audience: who are they? What do you need to consider in terms of making your (focused) argument relevant to them? What would they be able to learn, or gain in terms of their own potential research (or practice)?

In asking, and findings answers to, these questions about relevance you can find your way to answering the second part of the ‘so what?’ question: ‘Why am I making this argument? What is my contribution to my field?’ This is really important, and usually included firmly in the conclusion to your paper. It is important to make this clear, and argue for the relevance of your paper to the field, because this clarifies for the reader how you believe you are making a contribution to knowledge, and why you believe this contribution is relevant or necessary. You make this claim on the basis of your reading of the field, your identification of a gap that needs to be filled, and the research you have done to fill this gap.

Thus, there are two parts to the ‘so what?’ question and both need to be clearly answered in your paper. You need to state, and make your argument, and then you need to tell your readers why that argument needs to be made, and what your research is contributing to your field: a critique, an innovation in theory or methodology, an additional empirical case that explains a current problem in a new way, and so on. To answer both parts of this question in your own papers, then, make sure you ask yourself what am I arguing for (or against) in this paper, and why is this important to my field at this point? Answering both, clearly, will help you ensure that your contribution to your field is well made.