The Good and the . . . Weak?

Blog “5”: The Good and the Bad: Discussion of what makes articles fail and succeed by looking at an excellent article and a weak one.

I’m hesitant to begin this weeks blog post (but I have little choice if I do not want to fail). The hours of coming up with research questions, designing a research program to get data that will answer your research question and then synthesize it all together in a well-written, engaging, thought-provoking paper is (quite frankly) astronomical in my opinion. Therefore, although I think it is a good exercise to critically examine other writing in the pursuit of figuring out what works and what doesn’t for the sake of improvement, I do not want to diminish the accomplishment of people that were able to get it done.

So, I will begin with the “weak” article and will be focussing on the weaker aspects for the purposes of this post . . . (let’s get this over with!)

Julien, D. G. (1993). Late Pre-Inkaic Ethnic Groups in Highland Peru : An Archaeological-Ethnohistorical Model of the Political Geography of the Cajamarca. Latin American Antiquity, 4(3), 246–273.

To begin, the abstract is not clear about what conclusions are made by the author and why it is important, there is in fact no hook that spells out for the reader why they should care. However, he has framed his research question by juxtaposing what is known and what is still equivocal in the historical documents regarding Cajamarca political organization prior to the Inka conquest, which he is examining (although he doesn’t say how he is doing this in the abstract).

In the paper itself, the organization is somewhat confusing. For instance, he has a short paragraph at the end of the first section describing the geography of the Cajamarca region after explaining his research questions, methods, and some of the limitations of the data he is using. While his writing is good, this sudden change isn’t explained in regards to the relevance to the preceding paragraphs. The next couple sections explain some of the regional history and the archaeological phases that have been constructed largely from ceramic and settlement data. In his writing there is often uncritical assumptions made between ceramics and the centralization or influence of “Cajamarca” people. In both sections that give an overview of the types of data collected and the current state of interpretation, I would have liked some discussion on why this data was chosen to answer his particular questions before giving the overview. He then goes into the data he has looked at, but the presentation of the data consists of somewhat long descriptions of historical texts to explain how he corresponded the historical toponyms with modern place names. This section I feel could have been condensed (although some might challenge how he made these connections), but it is tough to read through because there are a lot of hard to pronounce place names and historical chroniclers. After this, he has a section on estimating population sizes, and a description of the distribution of ceramic styles. There is no clear connection made between these various data sets until the discussion and conclusion sections which is hard for the reader going through the paper for the first time to get a sense of why we have moved from one data set to another and how they all connect until they’ve already read through 80% of the paper. Overall, I think the paper needed to state upfront many of the connections between data, method, and theory, as well as their actual conclusions and findings so the reader is not left wondering how it all connects until the end.

Now that we have survived that bit we can move on to the “good” article (I put it in quotation marks, because most articles have something good about them or they would be hardpressed to make it into publication)

Dobres, M.A. (1995). Gender and prehistoric technology: on the social agency of technical strategies. World Archaeology, 27(1), 25–49.

I chose this article because I found the writing to be particularly straight-forward and engaging. She clearly explained her thought process and reasoning behind many of the ideas, assumptions, and decisions (in regards to what data she chose to collect, how she went about it, and why) throughout the paper. Why I liked this so much was because in 1995 technology studies looking at social agency in archaeology were in some ways just getting rolling. The fact that she clearly laid out how to go about doing this type of research and why we should be doing this research as archaeologists at a time when there wasn’t a lot of research like this being done I think was crucial to the success of this paper. If she had not done so, it is likely other scholars would have had many more questions (than they likely already had) challenging her ability to do this type of analysis. The relevance of this paper by Dobres today highlights just how critical it was when it first came out to the state of the literature on the topic. Furthermore, she does an excellent job of not keeping the reader in suspense. She has laid out exactly what she is doing, why she is doing it, how she is doing it, and continually makes these connections when talking about her data. Therefore, when you get to the conclusion sections you’ve already been given much of the important information where she can then talk about its application to wider archaeological concerns and interests outside of this one case study.

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3 thoughts on “The Good and the . . . Weak?

  1. I agree with you regarding the cringe factor of reviewing other author’s articles, particularly ones written by established scholars. I also struggled to critique anothers work because I know the incredible effort it takes to try to publish one’s work. You made an excellent point that I find is missing in many published articles, particularly in physical anthropology, in that rarely does an author justify why certain data or samples were chosen. Along this same vein, I also feel that one must have a rationale and an explanation as to the methodology chosen as well. It sounds like your first article suffered from what I call the ‘grand finale syndrome’, where the reader has to wait until the conclusions to be dazzled by the meaning of the data-I have seen this many times in podium presentations and it was not until this class that I realized that this may not be the best approach to presenting the importance of ones research. I find it interesting as well that it is easier to write considerably on what is wrong or what we do not like about an article, however it is difficult to write on a well written article. Sometimes an article hits all of the proper structural and organizational components, but they clearly standout in an almost undefinable way that resonates with the reader.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with you both about the “cringe factor”!

    You write that, “In the paper itself, the organization is somewhat confusing.” I personally find that a poorly organized paper can completely “ruin” a paper as good ideas and key points become lost and confused in a jumble of words and thoughts. It takes a seriously patient reader who is willing to take the time to draw out the author’s arguments. I often scan an article and its abstract to decide whether I should engage in a deeper reading. The combination of a poorly written abstract with a poorly organized paper, likely means I will not be reading it. Am I guilty as the “scanner” or is the author to blame for their weakly constructed article?

  3. I agree with your emphasis of the methodology in both these articles. The methodology really sets the tone for how well you understand the rest of the study and lends credence to the author’s findings. If all this is well laid out, it makes for a very comprehensive article but if it’s confused or hard to follow, you’re left wondering where all this data is coming from.

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