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What this handout is about

Kenneth Burke famously describes academic writing as an “unending conversation.” This handout offers strategies you can use to get a sense of the conversations in your discipline, centering on academic journals. The process will take time—maybe the first year or two of your grad program—but taking the time will help you develop a much clearer sense of your interests in the field and of how you can contribute to it.

Finding key journals

There are many academic journals, ranging from widely read “flagship” journals to specialized journals. You can try some of the following methods to locate the journals that are shaping your field.

  • If journal articles are commonly assigned as reading in your coursework, identify which journals publish more of the articles you enjoyed most or felt were most relevant to your research interests.
  • Speak with multiple instructors in your department about the journals they read. They likely have a set few that they follow and may even have a list to share with you.
  • Use the UNC Libraries’ Subject Research Guide. After you locate the guide for your field, go to the recommended databases. Enter search terms that reflect your interests into each database. For help crafting a search query, you can consult sources like Modern Librarian Memoirs or the Medical College of Wisconsin Libraries.
  • Note the titles of journals that appear frequently across the results from your initial searches. For best results, filter your results to just academic journals. The journals that reoccur may well be the flagship journals for you.
  • Schedule a research consultation with a subject specialist through the UNC libraries. These experts can help you with class projects, research projects, and pursuing personal interests. They can also help orient you to the available resources and answer questions that have come up on your search. Take advantage of this amazing resource. The librarians love to help you!
  • Set up journal alerts to see what’s happening in the current conversations. You can set up automatic notifications for new issues of your disciplinary journals and many other things. Skim the titles to see what people are interested in, and read as you can. See this Current Awareness Guide from the UNC Health Sciences Library for options and procedures.

Mining the journals

  • Skim the table of contents for each issue of each journal dating back for as many back issues as you have time for. Don’t click on anything—just skim to titles to survey the kinds of topics that people in your field have been reading and writing about recently. What topic trends do you notice? Identify buzzwords, phrases, and approaches that repeatedly appear in one journal, or appear across multiple journals.
  • Notice the names of scholars who appear frequently across your selected journals, or who appear when scanning for your interests. You can widen the net if you’d like to. When you search these scholars’ names, are there other publication venues that come up? Related topics that you could learn more about?
  • Notice the citation information that many journals publish with the article titles, like how many times the article has been cited by other publications. The number of citations indicates the article’s impact on the field. Most journals publish a list of the most-viewed and most-cited articles they have published. See an example from the Quarterly Journal of Speech by scrolling to the bottom of the page.
  • Learn the vocabulary. Click on a few articles that look interesting to you and notice the keywords and the subject terms that are included in the result page. Keywords are supplied by authors and can show how people in the field refer to the same thing with different words (e.g., in applied linguistics, “second language writing” or “L2 writing”). Noticing keywords helps you become conversant in your discipline’s language. Subject terms are category labels, the overarching terms assigned by the database editors. See this detailed description of keyword vs subject searches for more details.
  • Note your interests. As you read, pay attention to what piques your interest for further study. These topics may have potential for your own work.
  • Build a reading list on topics of interest and include the most-cited articles in that area. Use a citation manager. Citation managers are tools that allow you to collect, organize, and annotate articles for future use—and more. See the UNC Health Sciences Library citation manager comparison tool to learn more about everything they can do to make your life easier!
  • Build a synthesis matrix. Build a spreadsheet that allows you to look at information across multiple articles to compare information from various voices in the conversation. The categories you develop should emerge from the kind of articles you find. See example matrices on Autism, Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, and Translingualism.

Mining the bibliographies

The bibliography at the end of every scholarly work is a map of the intellectual influences on that work. Reading the bibliography can help you discover which articles are key texts in your field, which other disciplines get cited in your field, and even obscure but fascinating articles you wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

  • When you encounter interesting articles, either from your courses or from your own searching, look carefully at their bibliographies. What do you notice? Is there an article that appears in several bibliographies? If it’s widely cited, it may be important for you to find it and read it yourself. Are there authors who appear repeatedly? If they’re important figures in the areas you’re interested in, search for more work by these scholars. Pay attention to publication dates to see how their work has evolved over time.
  • Notice the range of disciplines that appear in the bibliographies in your field. Try to open your mind to the interdisciplinary possibilities for your own research interests. Investigate areas you’re curious about by skimming a few of those journals.
  • Let it marinate. Find ways to review and articulate what you’re learning. Talk to people about what you’re learning to make that learning more complete.

Entering the conversation

Even when you’re in the early stages of grad school, you can begin to imagine how you’ll eventually contribute to the unending conversation of your discipline. As your expertise grows, you’ll be able to respond thoughtfully to other voices in the field. You can begin to develop a sense of your discipline’s publication process now. Here are some ways to identify and get a feel for how to start connecting your work with the places where conversations happen in your field.

  • Each journal has a page called “information for authors.” What kinds of information can you find on the information pages of several different journals?
  • Each journal has an editor, as well as an editorial board. Identify the current editor, and search the journal to see if you can locate an Editor’s Statement. What kinds of information can you learn from several different statements? What resonates with you?

Each of the above tasks can be iterated over time as a strategy for continual engagement with your field. If any of these strategies works best for how you read and learn, try doing it on a regular basis. Welcome to the conversation!

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, 4th ed. New York City: W. W. Norton, 2018.

Swales, John M. and Christine B. Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students, 3rd ed. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2012.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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