craig dennis howard

Strategizing group research


A Gannt chart is an excellent tool for organizing group research, but a research strategy needs a little more. Check out or some free Gannt Charts.

I see research groups get stuck all the time. Graduate students, and those setting out to do research in groups, can get bogged down and tripped up at dozens of spots in the process from conception of an idea to publication of a completed study. Collective intelligence matters less in the process of research than strategy does in seeing the task through to completion. I’ve put together a few thoughts to help research groups strategize their process of working together.

Disclaimer: Putting these ideas down in a document was inspired by two blogs I follow. I am a big fan of two online blogs where senior faculty tell it like it is to doc students: Karen Kelsky’s the Professor is In and Matt Might’s Computer Science Blog. Both of those blogs offer great tips for doc students and others trying to do research, but I haven’t found this particular topic on those blogs—some of these ideas might be there under different terms than the one I use- strategizing group research.

1. Write down a strategy. I am surprised by how few groups seem to actually have a research strategy written and shared among group members. I think some of the fault lies in the terms we use to do research. Research strategies are comprised of more than just research methods. Of course, without the knowledge of methods a study will never get off the ground, but the knowledge of a research method can give a group a false sense of security that they know exactly how to get a study done. Coursework in a research method simulates a research environment much like an aviation simulation mirrors really flying a real plane. In a methods course, errors will not kill you, nor kill the study; they will just provide opportunities for learning. Errors in the real world can stop a study in its tracks. Research methods are so complex that having a controlled environment is often the only way to start in on the process of learning how to apply a method of data collection and analysis, but coursework takes place in an artificially controlled environment, unlike “real” research that happens in the real world. So this blog post is about those other areas that deter studies from finding their way into publication. A research strategy is usually a shared document that delineates who will do what, by when, and is all-inclusive, from IRB approvals to drafting tasks, from start to finish. It’s not set in stone, it’s a living documents that gets a group from start to finish on each project. I offer a few tips for creating a strategy to get the job done beyond the methods.

2. Document reasons for group membership. Students who have completed coursework in research methods often overlook the roles different people play in a research group. Perhaps this is because the experience of group work in methods coursework sets a stage where everyone is equal, and that aspect of the simulation is far from the truth of doing real research in the real world. In the real world, each member of a research group is there for a different reason, and those reasons are important. They significantly impact how group members are likely to behave. Each person needs a certain thing out of the project. Perhaps it is learning a new method, or perhaps it is getting a pub. Perhaps it is some stake in a research grant. Perhaps it is exposure to the experience. Whatever it is, it needs to be written down. Often, graduate students are not taught to do this in their coursework. These reasons are not addressed in methods coursework because they are not methods, but they are part of research in a group. Recognizing these roles is part of a solid research strategy. Methods classes rarely tell you to solicit and document the reasons people have come to a research group, but the practice informs all the members of the group and facilitates good will and understanding as the group moves forward with a project.

3. Recognize power dynamics in the beginning. Very often faculty and students are mixed. Sometimes junior and senior faculty are also mixed. When these contexts occur, power dynamics can get confusing. Students may solicit guidance from a faculty member who is not the leader on that particular study and their subsequent advice may be taken in undesirable directions for the leader of the group, or they may not recognize junior faculty are not exactly full equals to other members of the group. Sometimes a faculty member will refuse guidance as they might feel out of place, or if the leader is using the study as a teaching mechanism, for either a junior faculty or for a student. Recognizing positions of authority can help everyone navigate awkward moments and move on.

4. Discuss authorship and roles prior to the onset of the study. This is probably the most critical of the points I am making here. To be honest, the onus for this rests on those in lesser positions of power because they have the most to lose. At the same time, I am yet to encounter a faculty member anywhere who doesn’t want the process spelled out clearly – so do not be hesitant in approaching any faculty member leading or participating in research with questions about roles and authorship. It often happens is that the group is so busy in doing the work that they forget to stop and make some decisions about the strategy to get each aspect of the project done, or he needs of certain members are overlooked. There are dozens of websites out there with guidelines to determine who is first author, but the truth is, it is often the highest ranking faculty member who sets the rules. For my own work with students, my policy is always the same: If you have written the first draft of the paper, you are the first author. If I am invited to be a subsequent author, my name will appear last no matter how many students are included in the byline, and I will read and edit the draft that is submitted as well as the final proof, and those are the only drafts I will read from start to finish. I think most faculty members have some sort of general policy but rarely put it in writing because of the many different contexts they encounter. My own circumstances are pretty limited so I can put forward a blanket policy at this point in my career. While a discussion of roles and authorship may seem trivial, I have seen plenty of cases where studies develop in one direction or another where the roles and tasks were not clearly spelled out at the start, confusion ensues, papers never make it to submission, and there’s a fair bit of “I thought you were going to do that part.”  Everybody loses in such a case. I suggest that all groups doing research have the authorship discussion up front to.

5. Have a contingency plan. A contingency plan is a plan B should members not be able to complete up their assumed role. The plan should ensure that the study makes it through the process even when things pop up, and thing generally do pop up. From my experience of multiple-author research, the contingency plan generally rests on the shoulders of the first author. For example, when there is a deadline ASAP, it’s the first author who sucks up the final touches and provides the momentum to get the product out the door, even on tasks agreed to by others. If the policy is addressed openly, feelings are not hurt and members can proceed, if nothing else, at least informed. The plan especially comes into play in cases where one is waylaid by illness, taking kids little league games, a death in the family, or any of a number of reasons that put obstacles in the path to publication/presentation. From group to group the first author position may means something different. In my experiences, the first author position had a specific meaning that was to-often unspoken– it’s not only (and not necessarily) the one who did the bulk of the work. It signifies who was the driving force behind the research itself, and who is taking responsibility for its completion. Of course, the mores of practices change among fields and institutions, so having the contingency plan discussed ahead of time can be a welcomed insurance policy for guilt and hurt feelings should the unexpected arise. When members are from a variety of cultures, straightforward addressing of the circumstances of contingency becomes even more important.

6. Avoid assuming that formulating the research design determines first authorship. While practices may vary among institutions and fields, the authorship discussion may also bring to light some important nuances of research we rarely get in methods courses. Just because one person came up with one idea does not mean the study itself is “theirs.” There’s a lot that goes into research. When groups meet, dialogue often results in new ideas. Group members new to a group may feel slighted if their assumptions about credit are not fulfilled in the practices of the group. In my own experience, faculty do not require first author position for every study they guide; however, in some cases, a particular study may be of particularly importance, either to a long-term trajectory or for some other reason. As long as the role of the study and value of the credit for it are addressed early on, the authorship discussion is a comfortable one. Faculty accused of “stealing” students research ideas are less likely research thieves than they are guilty of not having the authorship discussion up front. A lot of this could be mitigated by avoiding assumptions about how group work results in credit. Unfortunately, as it is often the responsibility of the student, and not the faculty member, rarely does the faculty member initiate the discussion or put forward these ideas at the start.

7. Several studies can be written on the same data, but this means a separate strategy is needed for each. Planning ahead and deciding who is writing which study from a given project is needed in order to do this. Few projects are at this phase in the early stages. Simply designating one person as “doing qualitative” and another as “doing quantitative” doesn’t avoid conflict in the future because the terms are not accurate descriptions of research.  In my experience, “qualitative” is too vague. Simply equating “quantitative” with anything study that contains numbers is also too vague. I would avoid the both terms in deciding who is doing what. If a project is in the early stages, and multiple studies are planned, some things may need to be worked out prior to the strategy and authorship discussions. In those cases, it is helpful to anticipate revising the strategy as you move forward.
The final three points might be specific to scholars in education. I don’t know enough about other fields to speak to how research groups might work most productively in those fields.

8. Look beyond the quasi-experimental study. One of the problems research groups have is that newer members may only see as far as the experimental aspect of the research. While many research designs in education will fall into this category of quasi-experimental study, there is much more to look at in most projects.  There is the design of the intervention, close inspections of learner experiences, stakeholders’ accounts of a practice, and methods articles, just to name a few. Very often, these other aspects of the study are the most interesting part, once you dig into them. And the experimental study itself may face larger obstacles to publication than new members are ready to tackle: quasi-experimental studies are often closely read for precise usage of research terms, such as the proper labeling of the data, the correct usage of words like “control group” and necessary treatment of what makes them “quasi” as opposed to true experiments, such as having a placebo. The literature review is perhaps the most foundational aspect of any study that gets overlooked, yet group members stepping forward excited to do the literature review are rare. The person who does the literature review is an important and often overlooked role.

9. Revisit the strategy when major changes occur. One of the most difficult things to grasp about the act of actually doing research is that research always reads linearly, but is almost never so in practice. Rather, the process is iterative. I might also add that is it not a bad idea to revisit the strategy after the initial grappling with the data by the group. Research questions are a work in progress until the proofs go to publication, in most cases. Initially viewing data under a general driving concept is great, but keeping in mind that the RQs can change as the project evolves can really empower a research group, and if all the members are aware that the strategy can be amended at any point, people can be encouraged to follow fruitful paths. Avoid getting stuck in “causes” and proposed calculations in the beginning. They can be elusive, especially in early stages when data has just been collected and is not fully prepared. Also, some calculations may or may not be worth the time to calculate until the group has grappled with some of the main ideas. You can always add calculations later at reviewers’ request. If you haven’t yet dug into the data, and done a few passes through with your analysis scheme, you can’t truly foresee what that data really means; and therefore, the initial strategy may have been naive. Seasoned scholars are not deterred by this, but newer members may feel discouraged when data shows the unexpected.

10.  Share the strategy document when new members arrive, and revisit it at the end. The research strategy is more than a Gannt chart. New members need to see the progress that has been made to catch up quickly and contribute, and simply sharing a strategy document with new members can bring them up to speed in a non-biased way, especially is sub-studies have moved in directions of their own. It has value up until the final publication is sent out, and perhaps even after that. A group research strategy can function as a collaborative narrative of the twists and turns of the project. Group projects that last over extended periods of time can lose track of the rationale behind important decisions and expected outcomes. Revisiting a strategy after a projects nears the final stages can offer a lot in retrospect about how decisions were made and how those decisions played out in the end.

A tired topic: Wikipedia in graduate school

I don’t want to ever revisit this topic. Here goes.wikipedia-war-china-japan-rock-paper-scissors-demotivational-poster-1226442657.png

Each faculty member chooses to allow or disallow the citation of Wikipedia for different reasons. Here are my reasons with, of course, my rationale.

Wikipedia is a collective understanding of a topic. If a student cites such an understanding, then the citation is appropriate, provided the citation is complete with a date– dates are uniquely important with editable online content. If a citation of Wikipedia argues that information is an authoritative source, it’s wrong. Authority requires ownership of decisions and direct responsibility for what is claimed. To provide a citation to Wikipedia as an authoritative source reflects a misunderstanding of the media configuration in Inst Tech. In my courses, I ask that my students understand how the media works and what it means. So in my classes, inappropriate references to Wikipedia (Wikipedia as authority) are not permitted. My learners are expected to understand how media relates to information because that is a topic in Instructional Technology, and that includes understanding how a wiki, or any other real-time editable content, works. Having said that,Wikipedia is a wonderful resource to show what the public thinks about a topic, or what a group of people in the public think about a topic.

If one chooses Wikipedia as a source to show this, the date is extremely important. Public opinion changes and discussions naturally evolve. Therefore, I reject any citation of Wikipedia that lacks a date. Wikipedia also updates often. To present an argument that assumes otherwise is sloppy and misleading. Therefore, any citation to Wikipedia that lacks a date is not permissible in my courses. Again, doing so reflects a misunderstanding of the way information and media work together. Other instructors may accept such citations because what they teach is likely very different from what I teach.

The short answer one might get from some educators is that Wikipedia is a starting point but not an end destination—it should be used to find other sources. I don’t really buy into this either because at the graduate level, I expect more than following the work of whoever on Wikipedia. I expect my students to not release the responsibility of their understandings of topics to random individuals. There is no indication on Wikipedia about whether to not its sources on a particular topic are up to date. I suggest keeping that in mind when using Wikipedia as a launching point for research meant to have depth. It may or may not reflect the current state of public knowledge on a topic. Why do we want depth? Arthur Levine explains this better than I do.

Using and abusing the GRE in graduate admissions

I preface this statement with an acknowledgement that my views here are intended to stimulate discussion at Texas A&M–Texarakana and do not apply to my feelings about the use of the GRE at other institutions.

I have been asked to revisit the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) requirement for admission into the ITED program at TAMUT. I have tried to address the issue with as much clarity as possible, and have concluded, after closer inspection, that the policy of using the GRE as part of admissions criteria is not only inappropriate for TAMUT’s ITED program, but is also potentially misleading in making admissions decisions. This statement lays out my rationale and a proposed replacement to the GRE requirement.

There have generally been four purposes of the GRE in the admissions process. Those reasons are:

GRE test support materials

The industry surrounding improving test scores for admissions committees that will likely never read them.

(1.)  As a minimum cut-off used in order to manage large numbers of applications for programs where the application pool is larger than department or universities’ resources allotted to review applications.

(2.)  As a predictor of success in graduate school in order to locate learners who may need additional support once admitted;

(3.)  As an additional point of observation to compare similar boarder-line admissions candidates;

(4.)  As evidence of sincerity in a candidate’s desire for admittance to graduate study. I will address each point separately.

1. A minimum cutoff to manage large application pools

The ITED program is not presently overwhelmed with applications. To make a statement that this is the purpose for the requirement would be unethical. In an effort to make our admissions as transparent as possible, we should exclude this purpose from our application statements. This purpose is also advised against by the test developers: “A cutoff score based solely on GRE scores should never be used as the sole criterion for denial of admissions.” (from the ETS website.) Using the test in this way is misuse.

2. As a predictor of success

The test does not assess the skills associated with the program, and in doing so, provides no relevant measure of potential success in the program. ITED is a design program, but the test measures other types of knowledge not sufficient in the process of design. Design programs train learners to uncover unforeseen solutions, while the test measures how well a learner can mimic the test creator’s logic. Furthermore, even for more strictly academic programs, the use of the test as a predictor has been widely discredited (This Chronicle of Higher Education article and dozens of others).  Previous studies show that the GRE only explains 6% of the variation of first year scores, and even has negative correlations with graduation rates (Onash 1994). Using the test to predict success in the ITED program hinders our vision of who might actually be the most promising candidates because even high scores will have no relevance to program success.

3. Identifying students who may need support after admittance

The GRE measures analytical writing, verbal (primarily English language manipulations) and high school mathematics. Apart from the skill of constructing coherent and complex arguments explaining rationale, most of the areas measured on the GRE fail to align with problem areas common to the ITED program—difficulties in understanding and applying instructional and learning theories, and the technical aspects of computing and digital design.  Since the GRE does not identify problem areas, another criterion would be more appropriate for this purpose. For example, learners who have difficulty with digital skills could be identified early on via a digital artifact. They could be required to take a TAMUT basic computing course or web design course as a condition of enrollment. Using the GRE weakens our ability to detect these deficiencies in preparation for graduate study in Instructional Technology.

4. Evidencing sincerity in desire for graduate study

Were it the case that all applicants had access to the same financial resources, this might be a plausible use of the GRE. However, having no other purpose, imposing this financial barrier on the population that TAMUT is situated to serve is suspect on a number of levels. The price of the test may be equivalent in dollar value to each learner, but in terms of percentage of resources the cost may vary dramatically from learner to learner. Thus the practice of requiring the GRE may favor more financially well off students, and obfuscate the institution’s vision of the most qualified students. This dynamic works against our mission to provide equitable access to learning, and on these grounds cannot be assumed to discriminate fairly among candidates.

An alternative requirement: A designed artifact

In comparison to other institutions, an equal number use and forgo the GRE as a requirement. Among those that do require the test, we do not know why they use it. I can only conclude that the negative aspects of using the GRE on admission requirements outweigh the positive aspects of requiring the test. An alternative measure might provide the additional level of granularity some programs are searching for in their requirement of completion of the GRE. Thus, an alternative may prove to be a more useful and appropriate means of assessment for admittance.

One possible alternative is requiring a designed artifact. Requiring a designed artifact holds the potential to address the skills we hope to enrich in the ITED program- applied creativity and innovation in creating learning. An artifact of design can clue us into a candidate’s ingenuity, their ability to take information and apply it to real world contexts, and a learner’s tenacity to complete a design task. The practice may avoid the caveats presented with using the GRE as a criterion for admissions. Requiring a designed artifact may weed out learners who have little or no concept that ITED is a program where the creation of materials for learning is the primary objective, thus narrowing the pool to those who have a concept and desire to study in the program for which they are applying. A designed artifact also directly aligns with the learning objectives in the program and in so provides a more appropriate measure of potential success. Unlike the GRE, a designed artifact may expose learners’ limits in relevant skill areas, thus pointing to better means of preparing learners for graduate study in Instructional Technology in the early stages. And finally, requiring a designed artifact is a non-prejudicial practice, discriminating on relevant experience and knowledge as opposed to financial resources.


Onasch, C. (1994). Undergraduate Grade Point Average and Graduate Record Exam Scores as Predictors of Length of Enrollment in Completing a Master of Science Degree. ERIC Document No. 375 739.

Sacks, P. (June 8, 2001) How Admissions Tests Hinder Access to Graduate and Professional Schools. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Addendum on 4/3/2012

I presented the argument above to the education faculty in March. Subsequently, through consultations with Dr Bill McHenry, an alternative course of action was decided– an interview with supporting rubric for scoring the interview. The tentative draft of the rubric for scoring is as follows:

Interview Rubric ITED 2014

On April 10, this rubric was tested with a real, live, breathing student. Our ratings came within .5 point of each other. We fumbled with various questions which brought the rubric into a reality within th context of the interview into a reality. Kevin and I met for an hour afterwards to hash out some of the questions we felt produced the most clear cut and score-able answers. Those refined questions are:

1a. Describe something you designed?

1b. Describe how you use technologies you use now—in your teaching or other creative things that you do.  

2a. Explain how you handled a technological change in your work or creative endeavor.

2b. Describe a poor technological choice or poor technological implementation strategy in a learning context. How would you have done it differently?

3a. Where you see yourself in the field of Instructional Technology? How does what you like to do match with the tasks people who hold positions in this field actually do?

3b. If accepted, how will this degree help you meet your professional goals?

Forbidden words in Instructional Technology

Expanded title might read, Why I forbid students to use certain words when they describe a design, and the list itself

This week a student asked me to explain the differences among discussion boards, discussion forums, and blogs. I paused because I knew my answer was actually a blog post, and not really what a student wants to hear. I wondered if my answer held value for her the same as I felt it holds for me. I am someone who appreciates an accurate description of a design, but not a lot of people do. Maybe that’s because design communication is one of those things that really only get appreciated when it breaks down. So I paused, and thought about it, then I gave her and the whole class the whole long-winded lecture (via the Blackboard asynchronous message feature) about why it’s important to describe designs well. Here’s what I said.

picture of forbidden words

Editor Hugo Lindgren’s list of forbidden words at the NY Times Magazine. His list is far longer than mine, and thus suggests to me that after all, I am not such a bad guy. Check out his fill list at the link provided at the end of this entry.

The hard and fast difference among discussion boards, discussion forums, and blogs is nothing. They are all slang words for asynchronous configurations, and at this point in time, have generally become so varied in specific manifestations, that the terms are slightly more valuable than total gibberish. So to me, they all signify the same thing– asynchronous communication that needs to be described more accurately to be understood. Blogs are supposedly reverse chronological journals of substantial length. But of course there’s Twitter, the quintessential micro-blog with a character lengthy of what, 150? Obviously not very blog-like. Then you have discussion forums that have traditionally been open-access, threaded asynchronous messages that are persistent—meant to be knowledge development venues that stay available pretty much as long as those who contributed to them might ever want to retrieve them or look something up. Our limited access Blackboard forums erase themselves two weeks after the end of the course, so they are really not forum-like either.  The varied asynchronous communication configurations on Blackboard are given a bunch of these random titles simply for the purpose of selling the LMS to faculty who have better things to worry about than what is really a blog, and what is really a forum. (Incidentally, there is nothing done on Blackboard that can’t be done on WordPress for free, and Blackboard costs 20,000$ a year, just to run the platform. These sales tactics work really well.) The inaccuracy of these words in relation to their less than uniform manifestations is exactly WHY I give my students a list of forbidden words. “Blog, forum, discussion board, etc…” are all terms that are way too inaccurate for an instructional designer to use on the job without long explanations of what they mean in a given case. These are sales-language terms and inaccurate tech-slang, not design terms. I tell my students that clients may use them in talking to you, but you should not use them when talking to your clients. As an instructional designer, you need to know more than these vague words to talk about online learning, technology enhanced learning, or technology integration. While it may sound like a very small point I am making here, we are actually talking about a lot of money when it comes to the job itself. Imagine a design needs to be amended or reconfigured because of a communication error between client and designer. You’re likely imagining serious lost time, like entire weekends spent recreating a design to fix the miscommunication. If you’re billing by the hour, you might save your client (20 hours X 50) 1000$. If you’re doing this once a month, you’re 12,000$ more valuable as an instructional designer than your peers, simply because you use the right words when you sit down and talk about a design, not to mention the fact that your clients are happier and giving you more work. I say call a spade a spade, don’t use forbidden words, use accurate design terms, or, in this case, call your high-tech spade with embedded communication for learning a “persistent, asynchronous skeuomorph, affording multiple channel, limited access, converged CMC.”

The forbidden words

  • Web 2.0 (as if this ever actually meant anything anyway)
  • MOOC
  • Blog (Some Blogs are reverse chronological, some are chronological, and some are not even weblogs thus making them not blogs at all. The term is so misused it is no longer meaningful when talking about design. It’s ok if you say “this is my blog” because you have identified a specific Blog. However, if you say “It is designed like a Blog” the listener could be thinking one of one hundred different things.)
  • Wiki (“openly editable webpage” is far more accurate for some platforms commonly called “wikis”, otherwise wikis have so many versions it is hard to imagine what you mean, exactly)
  • Homepage
  • Social Bookmarks / Bookmarking
  • All proprietary words are forbidden except as archetype comparisons (e.g. Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, etc…)
  • Podcasts & Vlog (these are slang terms for uploaded video, but actually are aligned with not design, but content genre. Avoid these terms unless you’re analyzing content)
  • Chat room
  • All proprietary words are forbidden (e.g. Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, etc…)
  • Cell phone (no one knows what a cell phone is anymore because the concept of “phone” is gone when we text on a phone but make calls on computers, aka via VoIP, “Skype.” Avoid saying “phone” because everyone seems to suddenly get confused.)
  • Good, bad, best, better, worst, great, nice, ok, interesting, and information. These are all vague and confusing.
  • Computer ( I add this because different types  abound and unless you’re talking about a new one, such as wearable computing, you’re probably using the term in a way that could be much more precise with another word.)

The recommended terms

I preface this list of preferred terms with, “Here are words that are typically employed by professionals and demonstrate an understanding of emerging technology for instructional design: (You should use all applicable terms here instead of the ones above.) If you do not know any of these words, look them up.”

  • Synchronous/Asynchronous
  • Open access, single access, limited access, password protected
  • Persistent
  • Vertical / horizontal array
  • Handheld device
  • Computer-mediated communication (CMC)
  • Converged media, converged media CMC (or CMCMC)
  • Social Network /  collaborative access
  • Character allowance
  • Editable
  • Website
  • Images, Image-texts, imagetext
  • One-to-many / one-to-one / many-to-one / user-to-interface-  communication types
  • Multi-user
  • Password protected /  access protected
  • Responsive / unresponsive or “fixed” design (means the display does not adapt to the device)
  • Design tensions (I cannot stress learning this term enough. All designers use this word, and if you don’t recognize design tensions, you’re not analyzing very well. They are there in every design.)
  • Customizable
  • Learner experience
  • Video sharing site
  • Annotatable
  • Presence indicator
  • cloud storage

BONUS TERM: skeuomorph

The picture is graciously stolen from a New York Times Magazine article about their forbidden words list, linked here.

Publishing as a graduate student & tips for submitting a manuscript for submission

I have been asked about publishing as a graduate student, and have decided to share that opinion here with some pointers. I chose the blog as opposed to elsewhere because the blog is the venue for these perspectives—not a university website, not in-class materials. These views are not the views of Texas A&M University, nor do they really belong in any of the classes I teach. Publishing as a grad student is not part of my course; rather, it is part of how I see the experience of being a graduate student, what it should be, and what it is.

Some manuscripts require more work than others. Some of mine required my mentors to work pretty hard,

Some manuscripts require more work than others. Some of mine required my mentors to work pretty hard

Occasionally a paper written for a course actually has enough merit to be the raw construct of a paper worthy to be read by others. For advanced graduate students, writing for school is writing for publication, if you’re doing it correctly. At the undergraduate level, and in some parts of early graduate school, the act of writing is one of honing your thinking, sharpening the analytical knife, and learning to put knowledge to use. But in the later stages of graduate school, the healthy target is publication because the publication process is where coddling ends, and the writer faces the real challenge of expert review.

A student asked me, “But aren’t our professors experts?”  It is very likely your professor is an expert in the topic of the course, but your professor reads your paper with a completely different purpose than she reads articles for review. She reads your paper to see if you understand the concepts and procedures she taught you. She reads submitted manuscripts to see if the knowledge presented is a contribution to HER knowledge, not yours. This difference is subtle, but important. There is much to be learned in the process of publication, and the experience of the publication process while in graduate school is essential to understanding what it means to be a scholar. While I am not advocating that all final papers be submitted to journals, I am advocating that submission to publication is the ideal target for young authors, especially when those young authors are students who are interested in going into higher education or research.

I need to preface my tips for preparing a manuscript with a few warnings. Publication circles are small. Submitting a term paper for publication prematurely can get one’s name associated with low quality scholarship.  While publication is a worthy target, it’s also a target that should be approached with caution, preparation, and rigor. This blog post was inspired by student questions about my position on writing for publication at the graduate level, not because I advocate sending final papers to journals. That would be irresponsible, and counter-productive. I didn’t like getting papers written for class as an editor, and I got a few. Here are some things to keep in mind should you endeavor to publish from what you wrote in a grad school course.

1. Select the publication venue PRIOR to writing your paper. Imagining the readership of the magazine or journal while writing tends to force some students to re-think before they write. If you know real people will read it, you’re less likely to write far-flung ideas and more likely to explain your position in simple language. For some, imagining real people can also have the adverse effect of writers’ block. Let’s assume for now that that will not happen. Selecting the venue first can be influential in helping you accomplish tasks during the process as well. Searching that journal for articles on your topic and then responding to those articles directly in your paper can bring a stuck writer to some valuable insights early in the process of writing. This also provides direction for style and gives the work real meaning beyond the credits awarded for the course. It also leads into my next point.

2. Make sure that you have cited the journal to which you are submitting. This is valuable for 2 reasons. First, if you can’t cite the journal, your article probably does not belong in that journal. A great example is a paper I helped someone prepare for a games and simulations journal. The literature they were using was not from the journal to which they were submitting, even though the title of the paper and the title of the journal seemed to match. Under closer inspection, it was a poor fit. Preparation of that article for that journal would have been waste of time. The second reason is that each journal is a discussion in progress and the reviewers need to know that you’re up on the discussion taking place in that journal. Not all the reviewers are fully up-to-date on ALL topics being addressed in a journal. A paper that cites NO work in that journal is a good indication that the article was NOT written for that journal and would not be very interesting, or helpful, for those who read that journal for that topic. In fact, if it is truly outdated and uninformed, it will drive some readers away. Therefore, I know as an editor I was always suspicious of using up reviewers’ time with articles that were outdated or uninformed. Making sure there are a few substantive citations from that journal to situate the article within the larger discussion gives the reviewers and editor a means of deciding whether or not what you have submitted will be interesting for readers.

3. Anonymize. An “A” on your paper does not mean your paper is ready for submission. There are a number of tasks that need to be accomplished before the manuscript is ready to send off to submission. An obvious but sometimes forgotten task is to clean up and anonimyze the manuscript for review. If you have had to deal with peer or teacher comments, address as many of them as is applicable to improving the manuscript, BUT GET RID OF THE COMMENTS. Accept all changes, save as a clean draft, and remove your personal electronic stamp by (…if using MS Word) going to Microsoft emblem in the upper left->prepare-> then properties. Also make sure there are no remaining tracked-changes lurking at the end. Your goal is to make it to review; only a clean, anonimyzed manuscript will be sent out.

4. Save your acknowledgement for later. If you’ve had previous support by the teacher or classmates to help develop the manuscript, it’s professional and courteous to include an acknowledgement of that support, but NOT at the submission stage. Remove the acknowledgement if you’ve already placed it in. That acknowledgment goes back in after the first review. Also, you need to remove any language from the acknowledgement that could be interpreted as promotional, subjective, or identifies this article as coursework. Once the course is over, it is no longer coursework. The revised manuscript after review will likely be quite different from the manuscript you submitted. Remove any sentences in the manuscript that state or imply the manuscript was part of a course. If you have never written an acknowledgment, keep it modest and simple. Here’s an example I gave to one of my students. It’s not particularly elegant, but it’s a functional acknowledgement for someone who had not written one before.
I acknowledge the guidance of Craig D. Howard PhD, Assistant Professor of Inst. Technology at Texas A&M – Texarkana, the helpful reviews of XXX,YYY, ZZZ, and the anonymous reviewers at [publication name here]. I acknowledge the US Army Tuition Assistance Program for supporting the development of this article while I was deployed in Afghanistan. 

This particular student was in the active military at the time when he wrote this article and his study was supported by a US Army program. I cautioned him to check if there were any grant numbers or specific language that should be included, but honestly, I know very little about these legalities and a comment from a reader on this point would be very helpful.

5. Read the writers guidelines. These are also known as  “Instructions for Authors” at some publications. Check the publication’s website. Here’s an example of some writers guidelines at Tech Trends.

Writers guidelines invariably have little nuances that can slow down your article’s review. Get as many of these minor changes BEFORE submission. Sometimes an article gets to the top of the to-review list, a guidelines problem is uncovered (like a bio left in the article or style issue) and the article goes back to you for repair, only to go to the bottom of the list when re-submitted. Just off the top of my head, watch out for short abstract word limits and the publication specific spellings such as “m-learning” or a preferred way to write electronic mail (Email, email, or e-mail.)  Don’t be afraid to condense some of your text. Unlike some papers for school, longer papers have a more treacherous road to publication than shorter ones. (This is more of an issue in print journals than electronic ones.) Exceeding the word count on the writers guidelines can easily get you a rejection prior to review.

Along these same lines, if you have included terms specific to your institution, remove them. I have returned at least a dozen manuscripts to authors prior to review asking that the authors replace course numbers with course names. “In our course, w200, there were 4 instructors and 120 students over five sections.” No one wants to guess what w200 is, though we can if we must.

6. Craft your bio. The editor may need it quickly and having it handy and in the online system, or ready to be emailed saves time. Keep your bio under 100 words. I have seen 200-400 word bios that get an article pushed to a later issue based on space limitations. Remember, a shorter bio is more publisher-friendly than a longer one.  Your bio is always written in the 3rd person, and usually ignores your undergraduate education. I recommended to the students above to write his as follows:

Joseph Dotson is a Masters student at Texas A&M University – Texarkana and a [rank here]  in the US Army.

While this bio is short, it is important. Be careful about the name you use. You want the formal version UNLESS you’re going to stick with the informal version forever. I had to switch to “Craig D. Howard” once I learned there was a Craig Howard in New Jersey writing Jewish nostalgia. I am neither Jewish nor very nostalgic. This is one case where your middle initial is helpful for disambiguation. I know not everyone has a middle initial, but if you do, use it.

7. Register with the journal as an author, upload and SUBMIT.  Of course, be sure to read the submission steps. They usually tell you when you’ll be hearing back about the journal’s receipt of your manuscript.  Sometimes the confirmation is sent automatically via a bot, sometimes it’s an actual email from the editor. Can take anywhere from a couple hours to 2 weeks.  The time of the year plays a role as well. Both Tech Trends and IJDL were inundated with manuscripts during the first week of June, and received NOTHING in October and November. Be aware that holidays can slow the process down at every stage. My quickest confirmation was also a rejection. It took  Abbie Brown 3.5 minutes  to reject my article while he was the editor at Tech Trends. I considered that a success to because I learned something right away– if it can’t be anonimyzed, it goes elsewhere. Remember, just getting into the process is an accomplishment. If you are a student, and your article is rejected, CONGRATULATIONS! You just got more learning out of the course that you took than a large percentage of the students who paid the same tuition that you did.

Recent Talks at Indiana and Texas A&M Universities

On 12/2: I will be doing a talk in Susan Herring‘s CMC class on Dec 2. I am excited to be going back to talk to an IU informatics class. You can download the slides here.

On 11/16:  I gave a talk entitled Instructional design & design thinking: How we develop knowledge in instructional design and used some slides that students might find handy later on. I covered a definition of instructional design, what is and is not design knowledge, and how we might build design knowledge for learning contexts. This is contrasted to how we build knowledge about theories related to instructional interventions.

On 10/22:  I also gave a talk at Texas A&M University about my dissertation, but focused on the research methods. The links I used are below, along with the main points of what I had to say:

  • My dissertation: Higher Order Thinking in Collaborative Video Annotations: Investigating discourse modeling and the staggering of participation. (2012)
  • The new media created and studied I named Collaborative Video Annotations. I provide an example here
  • I focused this talk on three terms underlined here:  This was a quasi-experimental content analysis of learner discourse.
  • Every study has some big findings and some lesser findings. My big ones were: “Learners in the staggered conditions groups produced twice as much higher order thinking than learners in the basic condition. Learners in the modeled discourse condition produced three times as much higher order thinking. The staggering of learner participation also required no effort and thus should be a requisite design feature in online discussions.”

Information literacy and the predatory publisher

Addendum: Pay-for-publication and self-publishing, in my field, are the same thing. It is a dangerous proposition for pre-tenure faculty to take part in these venues as neither count for tenure, and neither should count for tenure. It’s been just over a year since I posted about this and new predatory publishers are still soliciting me and trying to get me to pay them for publishing my papers. Some have even promised 2 weeks from submission to publication for a fee. New solicitations include:

The darker side of academic publishing is now part of my teaching thanks to a few solicitations over the past few months from somewhat questionable publishers. These publishers wanted to add me to their reviewer list or their “Editorial Boards.” I use quotes there for a reason.  I have to wonder just what these editorial boards do. I am quickly learning that a knowledge of predatory publishing is required to understand educational research in an internet-connected world. One must be able to pick out what is worthy of citation and what is not. An email this morning reminded me to write this post.

an adorable bunny

Taken from the 2010 film entitled “Predators.” This image describes a visual conception of some less than ethical research publishing practices

While Macrothink Inc. is to credit on this occasion, previous solicitations to the most recent one have been similar. The business model is easy enough to understand given the context. Since faculty need to publish research to make tenure, there is a demand out there for the quick publishing of less-than-polished research, for cash payments. This means the authors pay the journal and the journal publishes the article. I have to question the quality of the research if there is financial incentive to publish it. Pay-for-publishing venues immediately raise concerns when there is such a dynamic in the process. What’s the barrier to publication if there is money behind the acceptance? I don’t find acceptance rates on their homepages.  Every couple of weeks I get a request to review for such a journal- sometimes it is a request to be listed as a “Board Member.” With so many requests, I have become even more skeptical. We also need to ask just what role the reviewers have in donating their time for others’ financial gain. Is it ethical to ask faculty to donate their time towards a service that is financially driven?

The dynamic inherent in pay-for academic publishing hammers home the need for information literacy– a point Howard Rheingold makes at length in his new book- Netsmart: How to thrive online, which calls again for more information literacy. His recent talk at AECT 2013 brought up some familiar themes. He calls it a crap detector, but the skill set does not propose any new questions that others such as Damico’s critical web reader have been propoising for years.

The email however provides excellent course material for an activity, because it violates basic tenants of information literacy–  the context of the communication should be studied before consuming the content. Below you will find a copy of the solicitation email from Macrothink. It is curious that the email signature is from “John White,” the email address is unrelated – “jet@macrothink,” and the registered name is “Leonard Bai.” These are great indicators of the nuances of reading skills that are required to make sense of email these days, a topic I addressed in An instructional paradigm for the teaching of computer-mediated communication here.  The tone of this solicitation struck me as the academic equivalent of the queen of Nigeria emailing me for a business transition and bank account information. If anyone is interested in doing a lit review on predatory publishing in Ed Tech or Inst Design, the field dearly needs it. There should be more out there about how to teach this in effective ways.

All is not lost; we have a more general resource to help us. Jeffrey Beal at UC Denver keeps a running log of predatory publishers. Macrothink, the originators of this email, are listed on Jeffrey Beal’s blacklist. I have copied the solicitation email I received yesterday into the space below. I have also removed their links (by adding XXX in the http space) because on the internet, links have meaning. I don’t want to appear as endorsing this publisher.


Dear Dr. Craig D. Howard,

I have had the opportunity to read your paper “An instructional paradigm for the teaching of computer-mediated communication” in Instructional Science and can tell from your work that you are an expert in this field. We are recruiting reviewers for the journal. If you are interested in this position of reviewing submissions, we welcome you to apply for. Please find further details at

I am John White, the editor of Journal of Education and Training (JET). Journal of Education and Training (JET) is an international, peer-reviewed online journal published by Macrothink Institute, USA. This Journal publishes research papers cover the whole range of education and training, aims to provide an international forum for the exchange of ideas, opinions, innovations and research on topics related to education and teaching. Professionals and researchers are encouraged to contribute their high quality, original works of the field.

It is a great pleasure to invite you to contribute your best knowledge and research. Your contribution will help us to establish a high standard. We use a double-blind system for peer reviews. The paper will be peer-reviewed by at least two experts. The review process may take two to three weeks. If you are interested, please find the journal’s profile at: and submit your manuscripts online. Or you can send your paper directly to the e-mail: If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the editorial assistant at

We would appreciate it if you could share this information with your colleagues and associates.

Thank you.

Best regards,

John White
Journal of Education and Training
5348 Vegas Dr. #825
Las Vegas
Nevada 89108
United States
Phone: 1-702-953-1852 ext.534
Fax: 1-702-420-2900

Update March 2014, they keep coming:

Dear Dr. Craig D. Howard,

We are reaching you because of your paper entitled, ‘Designerly Talk in Non-Pedagogical Social Spaces’, which was published in Journal of Learning Design, 2014 Vol. 7 No. 1, and were very impressed at its scope and contents. We know you are an expert in your research area.

Our journals named ‘World Journal of Education’ and ‘Journal of Curriculum and Teaching’, peer-review, published by Sciedu Press. They are devoted to publishing research papers in various aspects, fields and scope of the education, teaching, learning and other relevant subjects.

It is our great honor to invite you to submit your new manuscripts to us as one of the ‘Authors’ in our next publication.

For manuscripts submission, please visit: or and e-mail the manuscripts to or

If you are interested to be a member of our editorial board, please find the application form and details at: and send the application form to: or

We would appreciate if you could share this information with your colleagues and associates who might be interested in joining us as a ‘Reviewer’ or submit their manuscripts to us as ‘Authors’.

Thank you and we hope to hear from you and/or your colleagues and associates soon.


Ms. Sara M. Lee

Editorial Assistant

Sciedu Press


Mailing Add: 1120 Finch Avenue West, Suite 701-309, Toronto, ON., M3J 3H7, Canada

Tel: 1-416-479-0028 ext. 218

Fax: 1-416-642-8548



here’s the fine print:

Author Fees

This journal charges the following author fees.

Article Publication Fee – World Journal of Education: 300.00 (USD)
If the paper is accepted for publication, you will be asked to pay an Article Publication Fee. Please find payment information at: