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Acknowledgement and critique

Respecting peers in research

As we talked about in week two, it’s essential to reference the sources of information and ideas, accurately and fully. But while we have to make it possible for others to find and read our sources, it’s not enough. It’s possible (and unfortunately all too common) to cite the work of other scholars only in a legalistic way – to avoid plagiarism. But the way you refer to the work of other scholars is also your way into the conversation that academic writing represents. Writing about others’ work, asking questions, and relating their ideas to your own, is the way to show respect for their efforts, take them seriously, and acknowledge their influence on what you’re thinking and doing now. What’s expected in a literature review is not just superficial references to the work of other scholars, but engagement with it.

In week one we talked about some of the problems that often arise in doing a lit review, one of which is reluctance to ‘critique’ the work of others. We’ve noted that the word ‘critical’ has a specific meaning in an academic context. It doesn’t mean being negative, it just means asking lots of questions and giving a fair and honest appraisal. Pointing out a limitation or problem is extremely helpful, if it’s done properly. When you bother to really think about how someone else’s work does or doesn’t help you do your own, you’re engaging in a serious conversation, and that’s a compliment – even when you disagree.

In writing, you’re acknowledging other researchers, but you’re also addressing readers of your own. In this course for example, we’re shaping the interaction so there’s a balance between giving information and inviting your input, so you can feel welcome to speak. Being an informal environment with nothing too serious associated with your performance, you’re free to agree or disagree, come and go as you please, leave early or stay late, depending on what else is going on in your life, whether you find this conversation boring or interesting at any given moment, and how you want to work.

Even in a more formal study situation, the relationship between writers and readers is still negotiable – there are ways of making readers feel involved in the presentation of information, and able to do more than passively listen and agree. Sometimes citation is a way of appealing to the knowledge writer and readers share, or offering ideas for what readers might develop further in their own research. It’s at the sentence level that subtle variations in tone and stance are made, helping to shape the reader’s sense of being (or not being) understood and included. It’s in the moments when texts don’t seem to be working very well that we can learn interesting and valuable things about how language works, and what resources a writer could use to make their communication more effective for the intended readers.

Conversation starter

  • Do you think of texts as mainly information, or equally expressions of attitude, and negotiation between people?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to ‘position’ yourself as an author in the sea of published voices you are referencing?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult, when you read a sentence, to imagine how else it could have been worded?

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This article is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong