Communication research takes various forms, such as peer-reviewed articles in academic journals, competitively selected or invited book chapters, or detailed monographs on singular topics. Regardless of the forum, research needs to be well organized so that readers can grasp its key points and contributions. The organization of research reports combines form and content, since authors have to make a sound argument, using both to meaningfully impact readers and the broader field. Effective organization has as much to do with particular styles specified by the forum (i.e., academic journal, book), as with the underlying argument sought to be made, and the authors’ subjectivity. This entry focuses first on style guidelines and organization of research reports, then explores how to make an effective argument and how to address subjectivity of the researcher.
Different forums for communication research specify particular styles to organize material. Generally, academic journals and books in the social scientific tradition (e.g., research on interpersonal communication, organizational communication, media studies) employ the style guide of the American Psychological Association (APA), whereas those skewing toward the humanities (e.g., rhetorical studies, critical-cultural communication) adopt the guide of the Modern Language Association (MLA) or the Chicago Manual of Style. These distinctions are not watertight. For instance, several studies of interpersonal communication might take on a more humanities hue and use MLA or Chicago style, and there are several outlets that accept only one specific style for all submissions (regardless of epistemology) or are open to all styles. While the styles have distinct instructions on micro-aspects of writing research (e.g., headings, citations), they have in common a broad commitment to making a clear argument.
The type of publication also influences the organization of research. For instance, in literature reviews, the emphasis is on highlighting how extant scholarship has covered an issue, usually on the basis of an underlying theme. This thematic arrangement prevents a haphazard listing, or even a purely temporal order that might falsely suggest a simplistic linear progression of research, but allows a more nuanced understanding to how scholarly understanding of the topic developed. This thematic arrangement also makes the literature review more relevant and accessible to readers, who might not be aware of the complete history of the topic.
On the other hand, empirical studies synthesize past scholarship to further their main goal of presenting new findings and arguments. Empirical research includes textual and rhetorical analysis, interviews with participants, surveys, focus groups, ethnography, social network analysis, and analysis of secondary data sets—or a combination of these. The research report begins with a broad introduction to the goals of the study, then reviews existing literature and/or theoretical frameworks, details the methods used to collect and analyze data, presents the study’s findings, and concludes by discussing its implications. While this format is arguably more common in social scientific projects, humanist research also adopts a similar argument frame, with slight modifications—for instance, the methods of data collection and analysis might be less prominent, or blended with preceding discussions of theory and extant scholarship.
Guides on effective academic writing suggest five key directives. First, scholarly writing should attempt to be simple, avoiding elaborate prose and favoring sentence construction that gets the message across easily. This might be challenging for some writers, given the need to use disciplinary jargon and cite extant research in academe. However, effective reports explain technical terms, sometimes citing previous research, rather than take readers’ knowledge for granted. The relevant style guide (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago) also usually offers suggestions on how to properly cite references without disrupting the flow of the sentence.
Second, an effective manuscript must outline and answer the “so what?” question. This usually happens toward the beginning of the introduction (where the author explains what he or she is studying and why), or in the discussion section at the close (where the author explains the study’s implications). The author might focus on theoretical contributions of the study, detailing how and why it will help advance present knowledge on the topic studied. The best manuscripts will, however, also focus on practical or practice-based implications, focusing on the relevance of the research to everyday life beyond academia. Importantly, “practical” may be interpreted broadly, depending on how different communication scholars approach their topic—it might translate into actual interactions in everyday life, implementation of specific policy in public life, or deeper understanding of and engagement with human nature.
Third, effective organization requires reviewing the contributions of past research, so that the present study is shown to advance existing knowledge. Early research that has influenced thinking on the topic should be cited, but the author should then move on to more recent scholarship in the direction the manuscript is headed. This means recounting any divergence of research trajectory, explaining why this was important, and clearly identifying theoretical and/or methodological gaps in the literature, so that the author’s manuscript can be positioned as filling the identified gap(s).
Fourth, research reports (especially social scientific research) should include a detailed section on the procedures of collecting and analyzing data, for readers to follow how the author came to his or her conclusions. This means going over how research participants were sourced, explaining why, and detailing key demographic details (e.g., gender, income levels, race) for studies involving human subjects. For studies involving textual analysis rather than humans, similar parameters apply—why particular texts were chosen, how they were obtained, and key features of the texts. Manuscripts should then elaborate upon how this data was sorted and analyzed to produce the author’s findings. This includes specifying the statistical procedures adopted to analyze quantitative data (together with validity checks to ensure these tests were applicable), and analytical guidelines used for qualitative data. Initial modifications of the data should also be reported (e.g., coding “dummy” variables for some statistical procedures, generation of first-order themes for qualitative analysis). Explaining methods clearly helps build author credibility.
Finally, manuscripts should provide evidence for their claims. Quantitative reports should provide relevant parameters and tables showing the numbers behind the success or failure of particular statistical tests (APA guidelines specify how results should be written). For both social scientific and humanist qualitative studies, authors’ claims should be supported by excerpts, quotes, reflections, and other sources, so that these claims are in fact “grounded” in data. Arguments can be either deductive (stemming from the application of existing theory), inductive (drawing on data to suggest new theoretical relationships), comparative (comparing two or more cases to illustrate similarities and difference), or a combination of argument types. Regardless, readers should be able to trace how the author’s claims follow from the stipulated method of data analysis and are supported by data.
An important issue to consider while organizing research reports is the subjectivity of the researcher, or the intellectual and emotional position of the researcher vis-à-vis the study. Researcher subjectivity is tied to considerations of researcher reflexivity, dealing with the entire project, not just the task of writing, and transcends different epistemological approaches. It is also concerned with mindfulness, [Page 1460]or the strategic use of particular language to make an effective argument. Quantitative social science research generally sees the researcher as standing apart from the issue studied, so that writing research is a “neutral” enterprise, necessitating the use of active voice and third person. However, some strands of qualitative research increasingly center researcher subjectivity, so that authors are called to describe their prior involvement with a particular site or topic, and even adopt first-person voice. Such strands recognize that writing research is not neutral, but a performative act whereby authors privilege some particular interpretations of the data through their arguments. Accordingly, academicians are urged to consider how their voice, experiences, and skills shape the process of writing.
See also Authoring: Telling a Research Story; Citations to Research; Data; Literature, Determining Relevance of; Literature Review, The; Literature Reviews, Strategies for; Methodology, Selection of; Publication Style Guides; Writing Process, The
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