Papers and Studies

A paper presents the results of study. Indeed, it often presents the results of a study, i.e., a particular attempt to answer a particular question. This goes for whether you’re a first-year university student who is taking a class and been given a prompt for a midterm paper or a full professor who has completed a five-year research project. Even if the only “study” you are presenting is your attempt to keep up with the required reading for the course, your paper will present what you have learned and, even if you have been struggling with question for decades, the purpose of your study was to learn something. A paper presents what you have learned through study.

But it does not present this learning in order to teach it to the reader. This is easy for students to understand since they are not expecting their examiners to learn anything from what they have written. They are expecting to be judged according to whether they’ve learned something that their teachers already knew. Even if they have the somewhat healthier attitude that I recommend, namely, that they address their reader as a peer and are imagining the reader as a student in their cohort, they are going to be imagining a reader who has already learned the same things. Scholars, likewise, don’t present their results assuming that their readers (also peers) will simply believe (and ultimately know) what they learned. In all cases, there is something much more important going on between the writer and the reader, something more critical.

A paper exposes the writer’s ideas to the criticism of their peers. The paper tells the reader what motivated the study, how it was framed, what methods were used, what was found, and what the writer thinks the implications of these findings are for theory or practice. At each point, the peer is qualified to tell the writer that they are wrong. The research question may not be interesting. The theory may not be compelling. The methods may not be credible. The results may not be valid (even given the method). And the implications that the writer draws may be unreasonable. By writing the paper, a scholar or student exposes their work to criticism on all these fronts. That’s why it’s so important to choose (to imagine) a reader that deserves some respect.

A peer is someone who studies things that are similar to the things you study and studies them in similar ways. They are motivated by similar questions, focused by similar theories, guided by similar methods, analyze similar objects, and are led to similar implications. Being a peer means that you are like them in these ways; it may even mean that you like them. But you definitely respect their competence to critique your work, their ability to notice things that could have been done better or even shouldn’t have been done in the first place. Your aim in writing the paper is, first and foremost, to let them check your work in this way. If they come away with some new insight into matters that interest them — if they learn something from you that they did not already know — all the better. But it’s their critical eye you’re looking for.

This means that each paragraph must be written to make its central idea as vulnerable as possible to criticism. You are telling your reader something you think is true (ideally, something you actually know) and presenting your best reasons to think so in the clearest possible terms. You do this with a sensitivity for the difficulty the reader will have with your idea. Will a competent peer need help believing, understanding, or agreeing with your claim? They will be critical of the support, elaboration, or defense you provide accordingly. And in each case, you’re simply and honestly explaining how you learned the truth you are putting before them. You are describing the study that came before the paper.

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