Research Writing in Academic Disciplines

12 Methods of Discovery

by Pavel Zemliansky

Regardless of the academic discipline in which you conduct research and write, at the heart of the research and writing processes lie the same principles. These principles are critical reading and writing, active and creative interpretation of research sources and data, and writing rhetorically. At the same time, as a college writer, you probably know that research and writing assignments differ from one academic discipline to another. For example, different academic disciplines require researchers to use different research methods and techniques. Writers in different disciplines are also often required to discuss the results of their research differently. Finally, as you probably know, the finished texts look different in different disciplines. They often use different format and organizational structure and use different citation and documentation systems to acknowledge research sources.

All these differences are rhetorical in nature. Researchers and writers in different academic disciplines do what they do because they have a certain rhetorical purpose to fulfill and a certain audience to reach. In order to make their research understood and to enable others in their intellectual community to follow their ideas and theories, academic writers conform to the expectations of their readers. They follow the research methods and procedures as well as the conventions of presenting that research established by their academic community.

As a college student, you have probably noticed that your professors in different classes will give you different assignments and expect different things from you as a researcher and a writer. Researching this chapter, I looked for the types of writing and research assignments that professors of different academic disciplines assign to students at the university where I work by browsing websites of its different departments. As I expected, there was a considerable variety of purposes, audience, and research methods. I saw assignments ranging from annual accounting reports assigned in a business class, to studies of various countries’ political systems in a political science course, to a web search for information on cystic fibrosis in a cell biology class. All these assignments had different parameters and expected writers to do different things because they reflected the peculiarities of research and writing in the disciplines in which they were assigned.

This variety of assignments, methods, and approaches is universal. A study by Daniel Melzer examined the kinds of research and writing assignments students in various colleges and universities across the nation receive in different disciplines. Melzer shows that students in various academic disciplines are asked to conduct research for a variety of purposes, which ranged from informing and persuading to exploration and self-expression (91). Also, according to Melzer’s study, students in different disciplines researched and wrote for a variety of audiences, which included not only the instructor of their class but also their classmates and wider audiences outside of their classes (95). 
Despite this variety of goals, methods, and approaches, there are several key principles of source-based writing that span different academic disciplines and professions. These principles are outlined in the following sentences:

  • The purpose of academic writing is to generate and communicate new knowledge and new ideas.
  • Academic writers write “from sources.” This means that new ideas, conclusions, and theories are created on the basis of existing ideas and existing research.
  • Academic writers examine their sources carefully for their credibility and appropriateness for the writer’s goals and objectives.
  • Academic writers carefully acknowledge all their research sources using source citation and documentation systems accepted in their disciplines.

So, one chapter or even a whole book cannot cover all the nuances and conventions of research and writing in every academic discipline. My purpose in this chapter is different. I would like to explore, together with you, the fundamental rhetorical and other principles and approaches that govern research writing across all academic disciplines. This chapter also offers activities and projects which, I hope, will make you more aware of the peculiar aspects of researching and writing in different academic disciplines. My goal in this chapter is to enable my readers to become active and critical investigators of the disciplinary differences in research and writing. Such an active approach will enable you to find out what I cannot cover here by reading outside of this book, by talking to your professors, and by practicing research and writing across disciplines.

Intellectual and Discourse Communities

My contention throughout my research has been that, in order to become better researchers and writers, we need to know not only the “how’s” of these two activities but also the “why’s.” In other words, it is not sufficient to acquire practical skills of research and writing. It is also necessary to understand why you do what you do as you research and what results you can expect to achieve as a result of your research. And this is where rhetorical theory comes in.    
Writing and reading are interactive, social processes. Ideas presented in written texts are born as a result of long and intense dialog between authors and others interested in the same topic or issue. Gone is the image of the medieval scholar and thinker sitting alone in his turret, surrounded by his books and scientific instruments as the primary maker and advancer of knowledge. Instead, the knowledge-making process in modern society is a collaborative effort to which many parties contribute. Knowledge is not a product of individual thinking, but of collective work, and many people contribute to its creation.

Academic and professional readers and writers function within groups known as discourse communities. The word “discourse” means the language that a group uses to talk about what interests its members. For example, as a student, you belong to the community of your academic discipline. Together with other members of your academic discipline’s intellectual community, you read the same literature, discuss and write about the same subjects, and are interested in solving the same problems. The language or discourse used by you and your fellow intellectuals in professional conversations (both oral and written) is discipline-specific. This explains, among other things, why the texts you read and write in different academic disciplines are often radically different from one another and even why they are often evaluated differently.

To examine your place in discourse communities, complete “Writing Activity 6A: Analyzing Intellectual and Discourse Communities” in the “Writing Activities” section of this chapter.

The term “community” does not necessarily mean that all members of these intellectual and discourse groups agree on everything. Nor does it mean that they must be geographically close to one another to form such a community. Quite the opposite is often true. Debates and discussions among scientists and other academics who see things differently allow knowledge to advance. These debates in discussions are taking place in professional books, journals, and other publications, as well as at professional meetings.
Rhetorical analysis is a key skill in critically examining sources. Complete “Writing Activity 6B: Rhetorical Analysis of Academic Texts” in the “Writing Activities” section of this chapter.

The Making of Knowledge in Academic Disciplines

In the preceding section of this chapter, I made a claim that the making of new knowledge is a social process, undertaken by intellectual communities. In this section, we will look at one influential theory that has tried to explain how exactly this knowledge-making process happens. The theory of knowledge-making that I am talking about was proposed by Thomas Kuhn in his much-cited 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Although, as the book’s title suggests, Kuhn was writing about sciences, Kuhn’s theory has now been accepted as relevant and useful not only by academic disciplines outside of natural sciences.

According to Kuhn, the change in human knowledge about any subject takes place in the following steps. At first, an academic discipline or any other intellectual community works within the confines of an accepted theory or theories. The members of the community use it systematically and methodically.  Kuhn calls this theory or theories the accepted paradigm, or standard of the discipline. Once the majority of an intellectual community accepts a new paradigm, the community’s members work on expanding this paradigm but not on changing it. While working within an established paradigm, all members of an intellectual community have the same assumptions about what they study and discuss, use the same research methods and approaches, and use the same methods to present and compare the results of their investigation. Such uniformity allows them to share their work with one another easily. More importantly, though, staying within an accepted paradigm allows researchers to create a certain version of reality that is based on the paradigm that is being used and that is accepted by all members of the community. For example, if a group of scientists studies something using a common theory and common research methods, the results that such investigation yields are accepted by this group as a kind of truth or fact that had been experimentally verified.

Changes in scientific paradigms happen, according to Kuhn, when scientists begin to observe unusual phenomena or unexpected results in their research. Kuhn calls such phenomena “anomalies.” When anomalies happen, the current paradigm or system of research and thinking that a community employs fails to explain them. Eventually, these anomalies become so great that they are impossible to ignore. Then, a shift in paradigm becomes necessary. Gradually, then, existing paradigms are re-examined and revised, and new ones are established. When this happens, old knowledge gets discarded and substituted by new knowledge. In other words, an older version of reality is replaced by a newer version.
To illustrate his theory, Kuhn uses the paradigm shift started by the astronomer Copernicus and his theory that the earth revolves around the sun. I have also used this example in the chapter of my book dedicated to rhetoric to show that even scientific truths that seem constant and unshakable are subject to revision and change. To an untrained eye, it may seem that all scientists and other researchers do is explain and describe reality that is unchangeable and stable. However, when an intellectual community is working within the confines of the current paradigm, such as a scientific theory or a set of research methods, their interpretations of this reality are limited by the capabilities and limitations of that paradigm. In other words, the results of their research are only as good as the system they use to obtain those results. Once the paradigm use for researching and discussing the subjects of investigation changes, the results of that investigation may change, too. This, in turn, will result in a different interpretation of reality.

Application of the Concept of Discourse Communities to Research Writing

Kuhn’s theory of knowledge making is useful for us as researchers and writers because it highlights the instability and changeability of the terms “fact” and “opinion.” The popular perception of these two terms is that they are complete opposites. According to this view, facts can be verified by empirical or experimental methods, while opinions are usually purely personal and cannot be verified or proven since they vary from one person to another. Facts are also objective while opinions are subjective. This ways of thinking about facts and opinions is especially popular among beginning writers and researchers. When I discuss with my students their assumptions about research writing, I often hear that research papers are supposed to be completely objective because they are based on fact and that creative writing is subjective because it is based on opinion. Moreover, such writers say it is impossible to argue with facts, but it is almost equally impossible to argue with opinions since every person is entitled to one and since we can’t really tell anyone that their opinions are wrong.

In college writing, such a theory of fact and opinion has very tangible consequences. It often results in writing in which the author is either too afraid to commit to a theory or points of view because they are afraid of being labeled subjective or biased. Consequently, such writers create little more than summaries of available sources. Other inexperienced writers may take the opposite route, writing exclusively or almost exclusively from their current understanding of their topics or from their current opinions. Since “everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” they reason, no one can question what they have written even if that writing is completely unpersuasive. In either case, such writing fails to fulfill the main purpose of research, which is to learn.

What later becomes an accepted theory in an academic discipline begins as someone’s opinion. Enough people have to be persuaded by a theory in order for it to approach the status of accepted knowledge. All theories are subject to revision and change, and who is to say some time down the road, a better research paradigm will not be invented that would overturn what we now consider a solid fact. Thus, research and the making of knowledge are not only social processes but also rhetorical ones. Change in human understanding of difficult problems and issues takes place over time. By researching those problems and issues and by discussing what they find with others, writers advance their community’s understanding and knowledge.

Investigating Histories of Academic Discussions

The subjects of academic research, debates, and disagreements develop over time. To you as a student, it may seem that when you read textbooks and other professional literature in your major or other classes you are taking, you are taking in permanent and stable truths. Yet, members of academic communities decide what topics and questions are important and worth researching and discussing before these discussions make it to the textbook of the pages of an academic journal.

As a student, you will be invited to examine the history and development of an issue, problem, or question in your major or other academic disciplines that interests you. In other words, you will be a historian of an academic discipline whose job will be to trace the development of a topic, question, or issue important to one academic community.

How far you will take this project will depend on the time you have, the structure of your class, and the advice of your instructor. For example, you may be limited to conducting a simple series of searches and preparing an oral presentation for your classmates. Or you may decide to make a full-length writing project out of this assignment, at the end creating a research essay, an I-search paper, or some other written document presenting and discussing the results of your research.

In either case, try to follow the following steps during this project. Depending on the instructions from your teacher, you may work by yourself or with others.

In order to select an important issue or question that is actively discussed in your academic or professional community, first look through the textbooks in your major or any other academic discipline you are interested in.

Next, conduct a library search for journals in the field and briefly look over what topics, issues, or questions they are concerned with. Conduct a web search for reliable sites where these professional discussions are taking place. If you are taking a class or classes in the discipline you are studying, discuss this assignment and the emerging topic of your investigation with your professor. Try to find out how this topic is explained to the general public in popular magazines and newspapers.

Remember that your goal at this stage of the process not to learn and report on the current state of this discussion (although such reporting may be a part of your project), but to investigate its historical development as an issue or a problem in the academic discipline of your interest.

Develop a general understanding of the current state of the issue or topic you are interested in. Be sure to include the following elements:

  • What is the topic of discussion?
  • What evidence of the topic’s importance for your academic discipline have you found?
  • What is being said about the issue and by whom?
  • Are there opposing sides in the discussion and on what ground do they oppose each other?
  • What arguments do all the sides in the discussion use?

Conduct research into the origin and the history of your topic.  The time range of your investigation will depend on the topic you choose. Some academic discussions go back centuries while others may have started only several years ago. Your research sources may include older textbooks, academic journals, and conference procedures from years past, even articles about your subject written for popular magazines and newspapers and designed to reach non-specialized audiences. As a historian, you will need to cover the following areas:

  • What was the first time the topic or issue got significant attention from the professional community? Keep in mind that your job is not necessarily to pinpoint the exact date when the first publication on the topic appeared or the first discussion about it took place, although finding that out certainly will not hurt. Rather, try to find out the general time period when the discussion originated or the topic was attracting attention from academic professionals.
  • What events in the academic world and society as a whole may have triggered the discussion of this topic? Since the academic world is a part of society as a whole, academic interests and discussions are usually somehow connected with what society as a whole is interested in and concerned about.
  • What are a few key figures and events that contributed to the prominence of the topic or issue you are investigating?
  • Can you identify times of paradigm shifts for your subject? What event, both in the academic discipline and in society at large, may have caused significant shifts in people’s thinking about the issue?
  • Can you try to predict the future development of the discussion? Will it remain an important issue in your discipline or will the discussion end? Why or why not? What factors, events, and people, both in the academic worlds and in society as a whole, may contribute to this? How do you suppose the discussion of the topic will evolve in the future? For example, will the questions and issues at stake be revised and redefined?

Chances are that during your research, you saw some significant developments and shifts in the ways in which your academic discipline has understood and talked about the issues and topic that interest its members.

To illustrate the process of historical investigation of an academic subject, let us look at the hot issue of cloning. What began as a scientific debate years ago has transcended the boundaries of the academic world and is now interesting to various people from various walks of life, and for various reasons. The issue of cloning is debated not only from the scientific, but also from the ethical and legal points of view, to name just a few.

Cloning: Current Perspectives and Discussions

Since I am not a scientist, my interest in the subject of cloning is triggered by an article on stem cell research that I read recently in the popular magazine Scientific American. I know that stem cell research is a controversial subject, related to the subject of human cloning. My interest in stem cell research was further provoked by the impassioned speech made by Ron Reagan, the son of the late President Ronald Reagan, at the Democratic Party’s National Convention in the summer of 2004. Reagan was trying to make a case for more stem cell research by arguing that it could have helped his father who had died of Alzheimer’s disease.

I conducted a quick search of my university library using the key words “human cloning.” The search turned up eighty-seven book titles that told me that the topic is fairly important for the academic community as well as for the general public. I noticed that the most recent book on cloning in my library’s collection was published this year while the oldest one appeared in 1978. There seemed to be an explosion of interest in the topic beginning in the 1990s with the majority of the titles appearing between then and 2004.

Next, I decided to search two online databases, which are also accessible from my university library’s website. I was interested in both scientific and legal aspects of cloning, so I searched the health science database PubMed (my search turns up 2,549 results). Next, I search the database LexisNexis Congressional that gave me access to legislative documents related to human cloning. This search left me with over a hundred documents.
I was able to find many more articles on human cloning in popular magazines and newspapers. By reading across these publications, I would probably be able to get a decent idea about the current state of the debate on cloning.

Cloning: A Historical Investigation
Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996 by British scientists and died in 2003. According to the website Science Museum, “Dolly the sheep became a scientific sensation when her birth was announced in 1997. Her relatively early death in February 2003 fuels the debate about the ethics of cloning research and the long-term health of clones.”

I am tempted to start my search with Dolly because it was her birth that brought the issue of cloning to broad pulic’s attention. But then I recall the homunculus—a “test-tube” human being that medieval alchemists often claimed to have created. It appears that my search into the history of cloning debate will have to go back much further than 1996 when Dolly was cloned.

Cloning: Signs of Paradigm Shifts
Living in the 21st century, I am skeptical towards alchemists’ claims about creating a homunculus out of a bag of bones, skin, and hair. Their stories may have been believable in the middle-ages, though, and may have represented the current paradigm of thinking about the possibility of creating living organisms in a lab. So, I turned to Dolly in an attempt to investigate what the paradigm of thinking about cloning was in the second half of the 1990s and how the scientific community and the general public received the news of Dolly’s birth. Therefore, I went back to my university library’s web page and searched the databases for articles on Dolly and cloning published within two years of Dolly’s birth in 1996.

After looking through several publications, both from scientific and popular periodicals, I sense excitement, surprise, skepticism, and a little concern about the future implications of our ability to clone living creatures. Writing for The Sunday Times, in 1998, Steve Connor says that Dolly would undergo tests to prove that she is, indeed, the clone of her mother. In his article, Connor uses such words as “reportedly” which indicates skepticism (The Sunday Times, Feb 8, 1998, p. 9).

In a New Scientist article published in January 1998, Philip Cohen writes that in the future scientists are likely to establish human cloning techniques. Cohen is worried that human cloning would create numerous scientific, ethical, and legal problems. (New Scientist, Jan 17, 1998 v157 n2117 p. 4(2))

Let’s now fast-forward to 2003 and 2004. Surprisingly, at the top of the page of search results is the news that the British biotech company employees cloned Dolly. Does this mean that cloning is dead, though? Far from it! My research shows debates about legal and ethical aspects of cloning. The ability of scientists to clone living organisms is not in doubt anymore. By now, political and ideological groups have added their agendas and their voices to the cloning and stem cell research debate, and the US Congress has enacted legislation regulating stem cell research in the US. The current paradigm of discussions of human cloning and the related subject of stem cell research is not only scientific but also political, ethical, legal, and ideological in nature.

The historical study project as well as my illustration of how such an investigation could be completed should illustrate two things. Firstly, if you believe that something about human cloning or any other topic worth investigating is an undisputable fact, chances are that some years ago it was “only” someone’s opinion, or, in Kuhn’s words, an “anomaly” that the current system of beliefs and the available research methods could not explain. Secondly, academic and social attitudes towards any subject of discussion and debate are formed and changed gradually over time. Both internal, discipline-specific factors and external, social ones contribute to this change. Such internal factors include the availability of new, more accurate research techniques or equipment. The external factors include, but are not limited to, the general cultural and political climate in the country and in the world. Academic research and academic discussions are, therefore, rhetorical phenomena that are tightly connected not only to the state of an academic discipline at any given time, but also to the state of society as a whole and to the interests, beliefs, and convictions of its members. 

Research Activity: Interviewing Academic Professionals

In order to learn more about the conventions of academic discourse, interview a professor at your college. You may wish to talk to one of the teachers whose classes you are currently taking. Or you may choose to interview a teacher whom you do not yet know personally, but who teaches a course that interests you or who works in an academic major that you are considering. In either case, the purpose of your interview will be to learn about the conventions of research and writing in your interlocutor’s academic discipline. You can design your own interview questions. To get you started, here are three suggestions:

  • Ask to describe, in general, the kinds of research and writing that professionals in that academic field conduct. Focus on research goals, methods, and ways in which research results are discussed in the field’s literature.
  • Discuss how a specific text from the academic discipline, such as a book or a journal article, reflects the principles and approaches covered in the first question.
  • Ask for insights on learning the discourse of the discipline.

Establishing Authority in Academic Writing by Taking Control of Your Research Sources

Good writing is authoritative. It shows that the author is in control and that they are leading the readers along the argument by skillfully using research sources, interpreting them actively and creatively, and placing the necessary signposts to help the readers anticipate where the discussion will go next. Authoritative writing has its writing and its writer’s voice present at all times. Readers of such writing do not have to guess which parts of the paper they are reading come from an external source and which come from the author themself.

The task of conveying authority through writing faces any writer since it is one of the major components of the rhetorical approach to composing. However, it is especially relevant to academic writing because of the context in which we learn it and in which it is read and evaluated.

We come to academic writing as apprentices not only in the art of composing but also in the academic discipline that we are studying. We face two challenges at the same time. On the one hand, we try to learn to become better writers. On the other, we study the content of our chosen academic disciplines that will become the content of our academic writing itself. Anyone entering college, either as an undergraduate or a graduate student, has to navigate the numerous discourse conventions of their academic discipline. We often have too little time for such navigation as reading, writing, and research assignments are handed to us soon after our college careers begin. In these circumstances, we may feel insecure and unsure of our previous knowledge, research, and writing expertise.

In the words of writing teacher and writer David Bartholomae, every beginning academic writer has to “invent the university.” What Bartholomae means by this quote is, when becoming a member of an academic community, such as a college or a university, each student has to understand what functioning in that community will mean personally for them and what conventions of academic reading, writing, and learning they will be expected to fulfill and follow. Thus, for every beginning academic writer, the process of learning its conventions is akin to inventing their own idea of what university intellectual life is like and how to join the university community.

Beginning research and academic writers let their sources control their writing too often. I think that the cause of this is the old idea, inherent in the traditional research paper assignment, that researched writing is supposed to be a compilation of external sources first and a means for the writer to create and advance new knowledge second, if at all. As a result, passages, and sometimes whole papers written in this way lack the writer’s presence and, as a consequence, they lack authority because all they do is re-tell the information presented in sources. Consider, for example, the following passage from a researched argument in favor of curbing video game violence. In the paper, the author is trying to make a case that a connection exists between violence on the video game screen and in real life. The passage below summarizes some of the literature:

The link between violence in video games and violence in real life has been shown many times (Abrams 54). Studies show that children who play violent video games for more than two hours each day are more likely to engage in violent behavior than their counterparts who do not (Smith 3). Axelson states that some video games manufacturers have recognized the problems by reducing the violence in some of their titles and by rating their games for different age groups (157). The government has instituted a rating system for videogames similar to the one used by the movie industry in an effort to protect your children from violence on the screen (Johnson 73). Alberts and Cohen say that we will have to wait and see whether this rating system will prove to be effective in curbing violence (258).

This passage lacks authority because every sentence in it is taken from an external source. Where is the writer in this paragraph? Where are the writer’s voice and interpretations of the research data? What new insights about the possible connection between video games and real-life violence do we get from this author? Is there anything in this passage that we could not have learned by reading the sources mentioned in this paper? This writer has let external sources control the writing by composing an entire paragraph (and the rest of the paper is written in the same way) out of external source segments, and nowhere in this passage do we see the author’s own voice, persona, or authority.

So, how can the problem of writing without authority and without voice be solved? There are several ways, and the checklist below provides you with some suggestions:

  • Always remember to use research for a rhetorical purpose—to create new knowledge and convey it to your readers. Except in rare cases, writers are not compilers of existing information. Resist the urge to limit your research to simply summarizing and quoting external sources. Therefore, your ultimate purpose is to create and express your own theories and opinions about your topic.
  • Talk to academics or professionals to find out what constitutes authoritative writing in their field. It could be the presence of a strong voice, or the use of particular research methods and techniques, or a certain way to present the results of your research.
  • Create annotated bibliographies to make sense of your research and make the ideas and theories you read about your own.
  • Use only reliable sources.

Works Cited

Kuhn, Thomas. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.
Melzer, Daniel. 2003. “Assignments Across the Curriculum: A Survey of College Writing.” Language and Learning Across the Disciplines. (6.1): 86-110.


“Methods of Discovery” by Pavel Zemliansky is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US


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