WRITING A RESEARCH PAPER IN A PRACTITIONER DISCIPLINE

 

Introduction: As a university student you have likely written research papers for some of your classes. A research paper is a specific type of academic document for which there are conventions, standards, and expectations.

In the past, most university courses and programs were in purely academic disciplines (e.g. English, Chemistry, History). Increasingly, however, universities also offer courses and degree programs in practitioner disciplines. A practitioner discipline is one in which the subject matter being studied is knowledge of, and the ability to work in, a specific profession. Practitioner disciplines cover a wide range of professions, from engineering and environmental science to homeland security, law enforcement, and the management of fire and rescue services.

Research papers are of importance in practitioner disciplines because they often provide a bridge between the purely academic research and the application of that research in actual practice. This poses certain challenges to you as the writer of such a paper; you have to interpret the results of academic research and determine whether and to what extent those results tell something about the profession.

Courses in practitioner disciplines are designed and taught exactly like courses that are more academic in nature: there are required readings, assignments, exercises, and so on. This means that research papers are very often required, particularly in more advanced (300- and 400-level) courses. There are, however, some special considerations that a student must keep in mind when writing a research paper for such a course.

Audience

Writers are always encouraged to consider the audience for a written document. In the case of a purely academic research paper, the audience is likely to be a professor (or a group of professors) specializing in the academic discipline. This means the writer can be confident that the audience will be familiar with the main principles and bodies of literature and research within the discipline; this audience will also have a deep understanding of research methodologies and techniques.

In a practitioner discipline, however, the concept of audience may need to be broadened. You may be asked, for example, to consider the possibility of a more general audience for the research paper. For example, your potential audience may include people who are professionals in the field but who do not necessarily have advanced academic degrees or training. This means they may know a great deal about the profession but not about the academic basis for some aspects of the profession.

Think of engineering, for example. A person who received a bachelor’s degree in engineering and who is now working as an engineer probably understands the principles of engineering quite well. However, he or she may not be aware of the research being conducted by professors of engineering at various colleges and universities or in large private sector organizations, nor of how the knowledge created by that research is transferred out to the professional at large.

For this reason, audience analysis is an especially important first step in the process of writing a practitioner discipline research paper.

Sources

In your academic writing you have undoubtedly used sources such as books and articles in academic journals. In writing for a practitioner discipline, you will continue to use such sources. You will also, though, sometimes use sources that are more professional than purely academic in nature. For example, in the field of emergency management a writer may consult an academic journal such as The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, as well as a more professional source such as the website of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

It is important to remember that there are differences between these types of sources. An academic journal typically reports on research that has been conducted according to strict standards of oversight. Further, the material published in an academic journal has been peer-reviewed; that is, before publication it has been reviewed by other researchers and specialists to ensure the research methodology is sound and the results are reasonably accurate.

By contrast, material published for professional purposes may be more descriptive in nature; that it, it may relate real-world experiences in the field rather than purely academic research into a problem. Also, professional material is unlikely to have gone through the peer-review process. This does not mean that the information is necessarily unreliable; it does mean, though, that you must be careful when drawing conclusions from specific information to broader, more general situations (see Guidelines for Analytical Reading in the Course Content area).

Topic

raLet’s consider an example. Suppose you are writing a paper for an environmental management class, and your instructor would like you to tackle the issue of the agricultural and horticultural uses of biosolids such as sewage sludge. It’s tempting, at this point, to title your paper “The Agricultural and Horticultural Uses of Biosolids.” If you do that, though, you’re going to run into trouble during your research; there is so much information available that you’ll likely be overwhelmed. Besides, even if you managed to get through all that information your paper would still be largely descriptive (you’ll just be describing the uses of biosolids in those situations) rather than analytical in nature.

Instead, suppose you look at the topic and try to narrow it down a bit. For instance, are there any important differences between fertilization practices in agriculture and horticulture? A little bit of research will tell you that there most certainly are differences, given that the end products of agriculture are intended for human consumption. You can now focus your research a bit on any aspects of biosolids that relate to human health. It won’t take you long to discover that there is quite a bit research on health-related issues with biosolids; for example, you’ll find a number of articles on research into the presence of heavy metals such as cadmium in sewage sludge.

At this point, you’ve refined your topic to something like “Health and Safety Issues in the Agricultural and Horticultural Uses of Biosolids.” This is a more manageable topic in that you can use the research you find to draw a distinction between agricultural and horticultural uses of the substances. You can continue refining your topic based on your research and on the particular curriculum of your course, e.g. “The Need for Regulation of Biosolids Usage in Agriculture,” or perhaps “Guidelines for Handling Biosolids in the Management of Public Lands.”

A refined, well focused topic not only aids you in evaluating and using your research but also helps ensure that you can write a paper that meets the expectations of length, number of sources, and so on.

Presentation: Like all research papers in university courses, those in practitioner disciplines are expected to follow the formatting requirements of a particular style guide such as that of the American Psychological Association (APA). The style guidelines cover not only the structure of your manuscript but also the format for citing sources.

If you are asked to use the APA format then, as a general rule, your paper should consist of the following four elements:

1. The Title Page. The title page of your paper has three parts:

· The running head, which is an abbreviated version of your paper’s title (for example, if your paper is entitled “Alien Abduction as an Emerging Human Resources Issue” your running head could be “Alien Abduction”). The running head should be placed in the upper left-hand corner of your title page. Note: the running head should also appear in the upper left-hand corner of every page of your paper, opposite the page number (see below);

· The full title of the paper, which should be centered on the page; and

· Your name, and either the institution’s name or (if requested by your instructor) the course number.

2. The Abstract. The abstract is a short (no more than 120 words) summary of your paper. The abstract should be by itself on page 2 of your paper (remember to include the running head in the upper left-hand corner before the page number).

3. The Body of the paper. In a practitioner paper this section should include an Introduction that describes the question or problem being studied; a description of the research that you reviewed, and a Discussion of how the research informs a resolution of the question or problem. On the first page of the body (usually page 3 of your paper) put the full title at the top of the page (centered and two lines below the running head/page number). The title should be double-spaced from the first line of your first paragraph. On every page of the body include the running head in the upper left-hand corner and the page number in the upper right-hand corner.

4. The References Page(s). Here you will list all the various books, articles, web pages, and other sources that you cited in your paper. This page (or these pages) should also have the running head in the upper-left and page number in the upper right-hand corner.

The sources you use in your paper generally must be cited in two ways:

1. Parenthetical Citation. This is citation of the source in the text of your paper where the idea, passage, or direct quote is introduced. APA parenthetical citation normally consists of three items:

· The author’s last name;

· The year of publication of the source document; and

· The page number (if you are citing a specific passage in the source document) or paragraph number when a work is not paginated.

Let’s say that, in the body of your paper, you wish to paraphrase a statement made on page 117 of Bernadette Macey’s 1999 book The Role of Abnormal Psychology in Organizational Theory. The parenthetical citation, which would appear right after your paraphrase, would probably look like this: (Macey, 1999, p. 117).

2. Reference Citation. Reference citations are those that appear on the References page(s) of your paper. These citations require a bit more information; the general elements are:

· The author’s last name and initial of first name;

· The date of publication;

· The title of the author’s specific work;

· The journal, book, or other source document (if the work you are citing is part of a larger document); and

· The publication information.

In our example from above, Macey’s book would appear on the References page as follows:

Macey, B. (1999). The Role of Abnormal Psychology in Organizational Theory. Baltimore, MD: Maryland University Press.

Please note that these items can vary considerably depending upon the type of source document. This is especially true of documents obtained electronically. You can view some examples of the APA citation for different types of sources on citationresources.cfm#apa.

Conclusion: Research papers in practitioner disciplines are very similar to those in more purely academic areas. When preparing such a paper it is worth paying special attention to the audience for the paper, the sources you will use in your research, and the need to have a suitable, well-focused topic for the paper.

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