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They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing (my reading notes)

When I wrote my blog post on how to properly teach our students how to do Description vs Analysis in their academic writing, I linked to a number of resources. The one that Dr. Omar Wasow (Princeton University) recommended was “They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing“, edited by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein.


I do not teach argumentative writing (though CIDE, my institution, has a series of courses on this – which probably follow a different model because CIDE is a Spanish-speaking institution in a Spanish-speaking country), but I do teach courses in public policy where I need my students to conduct analyses. Since I teach all my courses in English, I needed a different model, particularly because I have noticed that sometimes students do not know how to write good analysis instead of providing very descriptive texts.

Omar’s recommendation is sincerely amazing. They Say/I Say is a relatively short book of templates that dissects how academic writing should engage in dialogue. I think the book is very well summarized in the following direct quote off of the text (p. 3):

“For us, the underlying structure of effective academic writing – and of responsible public discourse – resides not just in stating our own ideas but in listening closely to others around us, summarizing their views in a way that they will recognize, and responding with our own ideas in kind”

While the book offers a number of templates, the underlying logic of They Say/I Say is to enable students (and writers) to use those templates to create their own writing structures. That means, students can practice through adapting the They Say/I Say templates to the specific contents, disciplines and materials at hand. As Graff and Birkenstein say, you need to be “putting in your oar” (getting yourself involved in the writing)

#AcWri at the hotel in Copenhagen

Graff and Birkenstein author a large portion of the book, though a couple of chapters are invited. The first part of the book introduces models and templates to present others’ views and introduce what They Say. I’m not particularly fond of a few of the models they use to introduce ‘Standard Views” (”many people argue”, “since the dawn of time”, etc.) on pages 23 and 24, but the overall gist of the book is excellent and examples provided are super helpful, not only for students but also for early career scholars.

I particularly enjoyed Chapter 2, “Her Point Is – The Art of Summarizing” (pages 30-40) because one of the skills I teach my research assistants and undergraduate/graduate students is how to write rhetorical precis and synthetic notes. This chapter provides students with templates for how to write solid summaries that then can be converted into full-fledged memorandums.

Chapter 3, “As He Himself Puts It – The Art of Quoting” (pages 42-50) should be mandatory reading for students, particularly because of all the recent cases of plagiarism in academic writing. This chapter teaches students how to properly do quotations and highlights the importance of attribution.

I also think these two chapters should be read in conjunction (if I may be so bold to suggest) with my posts on writing memorandums and the Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (where you would be dumping your quotations). These chapters are also very good at helping students find the specific quotations they may need (particularly when the student is pressed for time and strategically triaging his/her reading packet for relevance).

Graff and Birkenstein show (in Chapter 4, “Yes/ No/ Okay, But – Three Ways to Respond“, p. 55-67) three different models of engagement with the literature (i.e. with what “They Say”): agreeing, disagreeing and somewhere in between. I tend to do a lot more contrasting in my own scholarly writing (i.e. “X argues that Z. However, I find that W”), but it’s very nice and useful to read different ways of engaging others’ arguments (AND the empirical evidence, which we often do not write about).

Home office in Aguascalientes

Perhaps the most important chapter for graduate students (not terribly important for undergraduates, in my view, but fundamental for Masters and PhD candidates) is Chapter 5, “And Yet – Distinguishing What YOU Say from what THEY Say, pages 68-75″. This chapter is key because the biggest challenge that graduate students tend to have in their writing (in my experience) is showcasing what THEIR own contribution is. This ability to produce text that highlights the writers’ own contributions is key when teaching description versus analysis in academic writing. I am also very glad that Graff and Birkenstein emphasize the importance of writing in the first person (”I find”, “I argue”, “I show”).

Chapter 6, which involves “inserting a naysayer into the conversation” wasn’t that appealing to me, to be perfectly honest. But Chapter 7 (”So What? Who Cares? Saying Why It Matters “, p. 92-100) helps the reader explain why the analysis presented throughout the paper may be useful. I am particularly fond as well of Chapter 8 (”As A Result: Connecting The Parts”, p. 105-117) because in this chapter Graff and Birkenstein demonstrate how to effectively tie an argument together by connecting all the different parts of an argument.

Graff and Birkenstein’s four strategies to connect sentences may make some educators cringe, because they use some of the connectors that often appear in lists of “words that should be banned” (also known as “wordy ways of saying things that you could more easily say in this other way”). Nevertheless, in my opinion, Graff and Birkenstein’s strategies are solid and I reproduce them right here (taken from page 108):

  1. Using transition terms.
  2. Adding pointing words.
  3. Developing a set of key terms and phrases for each text you write.
  4. Repeating yourself with a difference.

My office at CIDE Region Centro during and after writing a paper

Chapters 13 (written by Christopher Gillen) and 15 (by Erin Ackerman) offer really excellent advice on how to use the They Say/I Say model in the natural sciences (Gillen, p. 156-174) and social sciences (Ackerman, p. 175-192). I will definitely use Chapter 14 by Erin Ackerman to teach my undergraduate and graduate students how to use the They Say/I Say model in public policy writing.

Overall, the Graff and Birkenstein “They Say/I Say” book is a fantastic introduction to how to write arguments and craft text that will be read in both natural and social sciences. Adding Gillen and Ackerman’s chapters was a genius move by Graff and Birkenstein, because the examples they provide are specific to natural sciences and social sciences/humanities. The chapters I have highlighted in these reading notes could possibly be used in a short course on academic writing based on the They Say/I Say model, although an instructor may want to also add the “But Don’t Get Me Wrong – The Art of Metacommentary” chapter 10, p. 129-137.

While I think Graff and Birkenstein is most suited to teaching how to do academic writing in the English language, I am sure you could adapt some of the lessons the authors present to Spanish (a language in which I will be teaching this fall). Hopefully my reading notes will be useful to educators who teach academic writing and how to write research papers.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Glorifying busy, the cult of productivity and the constant contradictions within academia

With the generous funding of CONACYT, Mexico’s research agency, I recently launched a project on water conflicts in Mexico. I hired a number of research assistants to my lab a couple of months ago. I am a lead PI with my co-PI being an expert in social network analysis from CentroGEO, Dr. Adriana Aguilar. One of the key elements of the project is the deployment of fieldwork to study six different water-related conflicts across the country. This, obviously, necessitates the coordination of a large research group, and one (very fair) question that my lab members asked was “how will we distribute workloads and assign responsibilities?” This is a question that obviously necessitates the use of a project management software tool. A few weeks ago, I had asked my Twitter followers and Facebook friends for help finding the right project management software (I had used 5pm, BaseCamp, Micro$oft Project, but was recommended Asana, Trello, and others).

Puerto Vallarta Dec 2016 090

I offer this as as a key piece of context, because I have found myself for the past few weeks avoiding the never easy process of testing project management software that I know will be useful to my entire research team, and yet I haven’t made the time to test different project management tools. This is because, for better or worse, I have also conditioned myself to think of “producing” as “doing research, finding articles, analyzing data, writing up articles/book chapters“. It took me a while to realize that “producing” also implies “reading and grading undergraduate students’ essays, reading graduate students’ theses, writing letters of reference“. Or even testing new software. I avoid administrative work like the plague, but there are meetings that I can’t simply avoid because those short one-on-one meetups are the ones that allow me to give instructions on how funds should be allocated, deal with reimbursements, payments, etc.

Everything Notebook and travel kit

We have, in fact, glorified the idea of busyness, almost like a cult. Since grade school (see my threaded rant below), we have been conditioned to work on weekends. This is particularly true in academic life. To work all the time. Not surprisingly, my dear friend, Dr. Janni Aragon, also wrote about how we are conditioned to always being busy, since we are kids.

And I sincerely acknowledge that I have done the same, even on this blog. I have recommended my readers that they use even 15 minute pockets to do *some* writing. I have suggested that there are 7 ways to procrastinate productively. But as I’ve said before, several times already – academia itself as a profession and academic life is full of contradictions. Squarely against my “productivity tips”, I have written about how we can’t take shortcuts in academia and we need time to reflect and think and really process and soak ideas and mull over them, and think about their implications. I have written in praise of slow scholarship. This would seem, to those who don’t know me well, like a contradiction. But I believe it is not: I want to help you be a more productive academic, but I also want you to take time off, to take care of yourself, of make sure to slow down and don’t give into the glorification of busyness, don’t give into the cult of “productivity”. I have clearly said that there is no “magic bullet” for anything in academia. We are such a heterogeneous population that what works for me may, or may not, work for you.

And like Dr. Amelia Hoover Green said in her post on academia, productivity and mental health, I know that I can speak about taking time off because I’m privileged in the sense that my publication record is decent enough that my tenure case hasn’t been a concern at all. But I also want to acknowledge that this “go, go, go” mentality has had detrimental effects on my own health. I almost died of overwork, TWICE, in the last five years. This is not normal. This is not ok.

So let’s join Janni Aragon in her quest to “not glorify busy“. Busy should not be a status symbol.

One final note – I know I’m one of those people who says “I’m eternally busy”, which I definitely am. But I don’t use “busy” as a status symbol. I use “busy” as a signal to protect my time, and to teach myself to prioritize. I am eternally busy, but if an undergraduate student asks me to help him read an essay over, I WILL MAKE TIME. I am always on the go, travelling, researching, doing fieldwork, but I will connect to Skype at 3 am in the morning to have a conversation with one of my students on how she can deal with an issue at school. I am overwhelmed with the amount of work I have, but I will always make time to spend with my friends, go for a walk, or simply sit down and listen to whatever they need to share. I am fiercely protective of my time, and I know that I use the fact that I’m always busy as a signal, not that I feel like being busy is a status symbol, but as a means to show people in my life that I prioritize where I spend my time.

And sometimes, it’s important to spend that time, researching the best project management tools out there to share with my research lab members.

Or doing nothing and taking a few days off to relax on the beach.

Posted in academia, research.

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Distinguishing between description and analysis in academic writing

When I switched from chemical engineering (my undergraduate degree) to political science and human geography (my doctoral degree), I went through economics of technical change and international marketing (my Masters). But the chemical engineering component was still very strong during my Masters. I remember reading comments from a professor’s marker (yes, my professor didn’t even grade my essay!) saying “lacks analysis“.

Multiple laptops and desktop computer for #AcWri


Now, when I read student essays, or Masters/PhD theses, I find myself writing similar comments: “this is a very good description, but lacks real analysis“. I asked both the Political Scientists Facebook group (of which I’m proud of being part of) and the Research Companion Facebook group (a fantastic resource created by Dr. Petra Boynton, author of the book “The Research Companion”).

I received A LOT of really good feedback on both groups (who said that Facebook was only good for posting photos of your kids?) which I am detailing here (I’ve asked for permission to attribute whoever recommended a particular book or reading).

Political Scientists

  • The Craft of Research.(by Booth et al) Shane Gunderson, Cheryl Van Den Handel, and Jay De Sart recommended this book, which I have read and own. This is a book on how to undertake social science research, and it’s one I definitely recommend too.
  • They Say, I Say. Omar Wasow recommended this book, seconded by Jackie Gehring. Erin Ackerman, author of the “Analyze This: Writing in the Social Sciences” chapter of “They Say, I Say” book, mentioned that her chapter Chapter 13 is focused on social sciences’ writing and a few political science examples.
  • Empirical Research in Political Science (by Leanne Powner). I had heard of Leanne’s work before and I *thought* I had a copy of this book, but I think it’s one of the ones I lost at MPSA 2016 (don’t ask). So, I’ve requested an examination copy and will report back once I’ve read it.
  • Writing a Research Paper in Political Science: A Practical Guide to Inquiry, Structure, and Method (by Lisa Baglioni). Recommended by Mirya Holman, Mary Anne Mendoza, and Jay De Sart. I don’t own this book either, but the comments I read were that the book walks the student through the process of writing a research paper quite clearly. I’ve also requested an examination copy, and will report back once I’ve read it
  • Matthew Parent recommended a handout by John Gerring et al (yes, Gerring from case studies! The excerpt is from Gerring and Dino Christenson’s forthcoming book). I love both Gerring and Christenson’s work so I’m always happy to promote it.

I found through Google a few handouts, but these three were the ones that stood out to me, and were also the simplest for me to refer my students for a reading.

Over on The Research Companion Facebook group, I got a few responses.

I then searched my own Mendeley library for examples of good articles I had read that could show my students what analysis looks like, vis-a-vis descriptive text. Here are a few examples I tweeted.

The first one is from a World Development 2014 article by Alison Post and Veronica Herrera on public service delivery in Latin America (focusing on water and wastewater). Here, I wanted the reader to see how Herrera and Post set up a comparison between what the literature says versus what their own analysis shows.

This example comes from Kathryn Harrison’s 2002 Governance article comparing US/Canada/Sweden and dioxins control policy. This paper investigates the role of ideas, interests and institutions on policy change. In this example, I wanted to show how Harrison weighs evidence from each one of the three case studies and evaluates the differential impact that ideas, interests and institutions had on policy evolution.

I then used Josh Cousins and Josh Newell’s article on political-industrial ecology in Los Angeles’ water supply infrastructure to show the reader how Cousins and Newell present descriptive text on Los Angeles and its water supply and then connect it to the literature through analysis.

I used Megan Hatch and Elizabeth Rigby’s article on state-level governments as laboratories of democracy and their study of state-level inequality to show how you can use data (quantitative, in this case) to create an argument and dispel previously held beliefs/preconceived ideas/previous theoretical and empirical findings with their own.

I also used a paper by Melissa Merry on tweeting and the framing of gun policy using the Narrative Policy Framework. In this example I wanted to show how Merry mobilizes her empirical findings to construct a new measure and to explain the theoretical and empirical implications of her findings.

From David Carter and Chris Weible’s study of smoking bans in Colorado in 1977 and 2006, I drew an example where I show how Carter and Weible set up an empirical question (a hypothesis) and then use their data to explain differences between both smoking bans.

Another way in which researchers show they’ve done analysis is in case study selection. In this paper by Rob de Leo and Donnelly, they do a study of policy transfer and the adoption of the Affordable Care Act in Massachusetts. De Leo and Donnelly clearly outline the various reasons why choosing this particular case makes sense.

I am thankful to everyone who provided me with links to books, handouts, etc. And I hope this blog post will be useful to anybody who needs to teach analysis vs. description. I certainly will be using it with my own students and research assistants!

Posted in academia, writing.

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Moving forward and Will H. Moore-ing it forward

These past couple of weeks have been extraordinarily bizarre. On Wednesday April 19th, 2017, I found out that Will H. Moore had taken his own life. This pained me beyond what I imagined it would. I wasn’t Will’s closest friend by any measure. We had talked at several ISA’s, he had always been incredibly sweet and kind to me, and he asked me tough questions, both in person at ISA and online on Twitter, which made me reflect and rethink the way in which I approached my research. But more than anything, I saw Will H. Moore use his privilege to protect younger, up-and-coming, and vulnerable scholars. This made me admire him quite a lot, and I regret that I never actually told Will to his face how much I valued him and appreciated his contributions to political science, international relations, and the global community.

Others have written beautiful tributes to Will which you should read (here’s a sampler on the Duck of Minerva), and I stand in solidarity with all of those who were his students, family, friends, colleagues, coauthors. I was simply yet another member of the IR community he knew, and yet he made me feel like I was somehow a friend of his.

I felt a huge amount of “survivor guilt” this past week, and early this week. I had been enjoying my research, I had been really feeling like my work was moving forward, and then all of a sudden I also felt a huge amount of guilt. I, like many others who were much closer to Will, was mourning. Did I have a right to feel happy about my work and how my research was going? I felt that it was inappropriate. I almost felt guilty about being happy about my work, given that it hadn’t been that long since Will had passed away.

From the moment I found out about Will’s passing, I was unable to work well for a week. I was really discombobulated. I had JUST seen Will, and talked to him, in February of 2017 at the International Studies Association conference. I did some work, but it was limited, and I felt a terrible sense of loss. I was very angry. I have been very angry. Angry at the fact that academia puts an inordinate amount of pressure on professors and students. Angry at the fact that we are incredibly ill-equipped to help those dealing with mental health issues. Angry at the fact that I never got to tell Will how much I admired him. Angry at the fact that a mentor to many, someone who used his privilege to protect others, was no longer with us.

Now that a few days have passed and that I’ve had a chance to process my emotions, I feel that I should do something that I think Will would have liked. I’m going to describe how I plan to live my life moving forward. I had already been an advocate for destigmatization of mental illness, and a champion for a more human, humane academia. Will’s passing reignited my passion for this advocacy. So below, in tweets, is my manifesto for how I plan to Will H. Moore-it forward.

Rest in peace, Will.

Posted in academia.

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Writing synthetic notes of journal articles and book chapters

Earlier this week I shared Dr. Katrina Firth’s modified version of the Cornell Method’s Notes Pages. I used the Cornell Notes method in 2013 and really didn’t click with me, so I simply moved on. Had I discovered Katrina’s modified version earlier I probably would have “clicked” with the methodology much faster. Though her modification is basically shifting columns and text around, it really makes the page a lot more appealing and therefore, it’s really much easier to take notes.

Reading and #AcWri on the plane

Dr. Firth uses this modified Cornell Notes’ template to take notes off of her readings (journal articles, book chapters, etc.) She then uses those notes as prompts to help her write. I have a different but at the same time, kind of similar method. My strategy is different because I don’t take notes in the same format or template she does. HOWEVER. I do take notes off of my readings, and I use them as writing prompts.

The method I use to write my synthetic notes is very similar to a shorter memorandum (I’ve written about how to write extensive and detailed memoranda here, but for synthetic notes, I am looking at less than a page, almost like a rhetorical precis). There’s a number of good resources on how to write critiques of journal articles and book chapters, and how to summarize them, but here is my own method.

  • I start by copying the citation (already formatted) from Mendeley on to an empty page (either electronic or in my Everything Notebook).
  • I then proceed with a basic AIC content extraction (Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion). When I extract content using AIC, I don’t overlook the methods nor the data analysis, I simply summarize them, VERY, VERY BRIEFLY. I don’t type the headings “Abstract”, “Introduction”, nor “Conclusion”. I simply write a couple of paragraphs summarizing all the insights I gained from these. Since I’m very analog, I usually highlight those insights, or I scribble on the sides of the printed reading material.
  • I run through the middle of the paper rapidly (this technique is also known as skimming), and if I find something that catches my attention but I don’t have the time to delve in depth, I attach a Post-It adhesive note that protrudes ever so lightly off of the side of the page. That way, I know that I need to go back to that paper.
  • Since I learn better when I transcribe notes, I often copy verbatim my analog (in paper) synthetic notes off of my Everything Notebook into a digital file (usually in Micro$oft Word). I save the file with a brief summary of the article’s title, usually SN which is shorthand for synthetic notes.
  • I save all my synthetic notes into a folder, which is usually different from the folder where I have detailed memorandums. You should note that if you expand your synthetic notes, you may be able to easily create a very detailed memo. I don’t usually overwrite the synthetic note file, but I make a copy and use that document to expand into a memorandum.

Below you can check a synthetic note of an article I recently read on the social construction of water scarcity. This paper, may be deserving of having a memorandum written about it. Nevertheless, I wanted to assume I was doing a broad survey of the literature and therefore, wouldn’t have the time to really delve into the paper.

Below you can see photos of my summarizing (highlighting and scribbling) in each of the AIC headings.


Synthetic notes and photos from SEPP seminar May 2017 125


Synthetic notes and photos from SEPP seminar May 2017 124

Note that I always search the Introduction for the key claims – how does this paper contribute to our understanding of things? How does it shed new light? What kind of counterclaim to the conventional wisdom is the author providing?


Synthetic notes and photos from SEPP seminar May 2017 127

Synthetic notes and photos from SEPP seminar May 2017 126

I ran the AIC content abstraction, and then quickly skimmed the paper. I found two paragraphs really relevant to the paper, so I highlighted those (see photo below).

Synthetic notes and photos from SEPP seminar May 2017 123

Since I was not doing an in-depth memorandum for this particular journal article (at the moment), I only highlighted those parts that I found were really compelling. I also added a Post-It adhesive note on the margins of the article (I use arrow-shaped ones) to indicate where I found a quotation that should be included be it in a detailed memorandum or in the Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump corresponding to the topic (in this particular case, geopolitics of water).

Note that when I am not writing a full-fledged memorandum, I still look for key quotations to copy to my Excel dump.


I transcribed my highlighting and scribbled notes into a file, which ended up having the following paragraphs:

Mustafa, D. (2007). Social construction of hydropolitics: The geographical scales of water and security in the Indus basin. Geographical Review, 97(4), 484-501

This article links several important interrelated themes: the social construction of water scarcity, the importance of understanding cross-scalar dynamics, issues of water security and the link between water governance and security, beyond the traditional understandings of the securitization of water. Mustafa examines the Indus Basin, in particular conflicts of water supply and sanitation in Karachi and the distribution of irrigation water in Pakistani Punjab. A particularly notable element of this article is that goes beyond traditional discussions of geopolitics and hydropolitics that are usually associated with the transboundary water governance literature, and focuses on the subnational scales. While it would appear to the reader that Mustafa is making yet another case for the water wars literature, instead he specifically focuses on the importance of understanding how water institutions may perform poorly and instead of encouraging peace may exacerbate conflict. Mustafa follows the premise that resource scarcity is socially constructed. He also makes an interesting claim regarding how epistemic communities are more common at subnational scales but they have international ties. Mustafa also challenges traditional engineering-based thinking that focuses on technical solutions to irrigation problems, and instead argues that there is a disconnect between what water users need at the domestic level vis-à-vis water for agriculture (and the construction of mega projects). Mustafa also claims that it is the interconnectedness of water and security what makes it really hard to extricate the role of water in peace building and improving multidimensional views of security. Mustafa draws four main lessons: 1) dissonance between engineering and users’ agendas 2) non-responsive governance threatens human security 3) hydropolitics is basically power politics and 4) water can be a political resource harnessed by politicians to advance their own agenda.

As you can tell, I paraphrased text rather than quote. This is important, because I normally copy and paste quotations with exact page numbers both in the extended, detailed memorandum and in my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump. For me, synthetic notes don’t have the details I usually would need to write a paper, or a literature review. However, I could very well copy all my synthetic notes on to a single file and create an annotated bibliography.

Hopefully this description will help others write their own synthetic notes. This method works well if you apply it in the mornings and write synthetic notes of your readings, or if you are able to devote your buffer day to catch up on reading.

Posted in academia.

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Writing an annotated bibliography

One of the research products I find most useful for an academic, short of openly-accessible datasets and code for replication is the annotated bibliography. As I have noted before, I consider the annotated bibliography an intermediate step between a bank of rhetorical precis, a bank of synthetic notes, and a fully-developed literature review.

iPod March 2017 038

I consider developing annotated bibliographies an important activity. Thus the annotated bibliography is, for me, an actual scholarly product. It may come from “intermediate” materials, such as a set of rhetorical precis, or a group of synthetic notes, but in the end, the annotated bibliography is a scholarly product in and of itself. It should be readable and provide you with insight that you couldn’t get from the full set of articles or book chapters.

Components of a Research Paper Data

Generally speaking, you can see the annotated bibliography as an organized, systematic dump of all your synthetic notes (or rhetorical precis). Each entry starts with the full article, book or book chapter citation, followed by a short summary of the article. Some authors include the article or book chapter abstract, others don’t. Here are four models for how to create an entry for an annotated bibliography I really liked:

And here are two examples of excellent annotated bibliographies. The first one was created by Dr. Kathryn Furlong and Dr. Christina Cook on municipal water governance in Canada. The second, on community-based water governance, was created by Jingsi Jin with Kelly Sharp under Dr. Crystal Tremblay and Dr. Leila Harris’ supervision.

Literature Road Mapping

One element that links the rhetorical precis and the annotated bibliography is that in the annotation for each entry, you can make a value judgment as to what aspects you find more valuable or important of the article. When I write those judgments, I copy those notes (my synthetic notes) and insert them into my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump for that particular topic.

For example, I am currently writing on timing and sequencing (that is, on how specific events can lead to the creation of specific rules, norms and institutions). I could write an annotated bibliography on the topic (which I am not currently doing as I am writing a full paper, but it would be possible for me to do it as an intermediate step). Previously, I have written on how you can draw several of the most important ideas of a paper by looking at the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion (the AIC method).

The AIC technique DOES NOT substitute for an actual, in-depth read of a paper. But it does provide some basic ideas for an annotated bibliography. You should also be able to write most of the synthetic summary for a paper out of the AIC summary. The AIC also provides you with the foundations of a detailed memorandum.

Following the timing and sequencing example, I am reading Tulia Falleti’s “A Sequential Theory of Decentralization” APSR paper. In this paper, Professor Falleti proposes that the timing and sequencing of decentralization implementation have an impact on how intergovernmental relations result and what the specific outcome in this process will be. While the entire paper is important, I am mostly interested in the timing and sequencing components.

My annotated bibliography entry could very well just include a summary of the main points of Falleti’s paper:

Falleti, Tulia G. “A sequential theory of decentralization: Latin American cases in comparative perspective.” American Political Science Review 99.03 (2005): 327-346.

In this paper, Falleti proposes a sequential theory of decentralization where she defines decentralization as a process, looks at the sequence of events that decentralization processes follow, defines three types of decentralization and takes into account policy feedback effects and the territorial interests of bargaining actors. Falleti applies her analysis to four Latin American countries. Falleti shows that decentralization doesn’t necessary increase the power of governors and mayors, but instead this power is dependent on the sequence of decentralization reforms and the timing of these.

Normally, for papers I am reading at the overview/meso level, I would write a summary that is based on the results of AIC (Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion). However, since I find this article by Tulia Falleti quite important, I will write a detailed memorandum, and I will drop my highlights and scribbles on the margins into my Excel dump (Conceptual Synthesis).

As I have written before, I triage the full set of readings I plan to do, and I am strategic, focusing in more depth on those articles, books and book chapters that I know could very well provide me with key insights for a literature review. Being this strategic isn’t all that relevant if one is doing a very broad annotated bibliography. That’s why doing a citation tracing process around anchor authors is important. You need to make sure that you do in-depth readings when those are written by the key authors that you need to read for your literature review.

Hopefully sharing my processes will help people write their annotated bibliographies and their literature reviews!

Posted in academia, writing.

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How to undertake a literature review

I have been asked a few times for a blog post on how to conduct a proper literature review. This is hard to do sometimes because a lot of people have different methods to do their reviews of the literature (see examples here, here, here and here). I tweeted a few of the steps I undertake, but I figured the easiest way to do this was to actually write a full blog post with the protocol I follow. I usually teach my students (graduate and undergraduate) and my research assistants how to do each one of the steps, so I will be walking you through my own process, rather than any generally accepted version of a method for reviewing the literature. You can apply much of the research process (citation tracing, concept saturation, finding anchor authors and creating subheadings that are based on questions to be answered) to the process of creating an annotated bibliography.

#AcWri at the Radisson Paraiso Ajusco Hotel

Right now I am doing a review of the literature on online activism for environmental protection purposes. This isn’t a topic that is entirely new to me, because I do know some of the work and a few of the authors who have studied this particular issue, or at least online activism. Among these I can count Dr. Melissa K. Merry (University of Louisville), Dr. Dave Karpf (George Washington University), Dr. Deen Freelon (American University) and Dr. Meredith Clark (University of North Texas). Melissa’s work is specifically on how environmental advocacy organizations have used Twitter, so citations to her work, and the papers she cites are the backbone of the literature review. Deen, Dave and Meredith have researched online activism, so their publications should be part of the contextual components.

An element of undertaking a literature review that almost nobody tells you about is the serendipitous nature of finding a specific author. For example, while I have tweeted quite a lot, and I knew of the work of Dave Karpf on online activism because I followed him on Twitter, I didn’t know about the work of Melissa until she became my discussant at this year’s Midwest Political Science Association conference and I Googled her work, which is COMPLETELY relevant to what I am studying right now. I knew of Deen and Meredith’s work and their study of #BlackLivesMatter because I had followed it on Twitter. But it took me a citation tracing process based on Dave’s 2010 piece to find Heather Hodges and Galen Stocking’s article on Twitter activism against the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is VERY much specific to what I am researching now. So much of what I come across is actually rather serendipitous. Heather and Galen’s paper then became also part of the list of the anchor authors.

1. Identify the main topic and the anchor authors.

The first stage of undertaking a literature review is identifying the main topic for the review, and a few key authors, what I called in the previous paragraph, the anchor authors. For example, for this review I’m doing on online environmental activism I identified three articles by Melissa, one by Dave, as my foundation ones.

AcWri and literature reviews 018

2. Undertake a citation tracing process to check who is citing whom and whether you’ve reached conceptual saturation

As I mentioned in the prevous paragraph, from reading and summarizing Melissa and Dave’s articles, I found other authors who have done relevant and similar work, like Heather Hodges and Galen Stocking. I used citation tracing both in the case of Melissa and in that of Dave, and that’s how I converged on the Hodges and Stocking article (both Melissa and Dave were cited in their piece).

citation tracing online activism

3. Read, summarise, synthesise, WRITE.

Once I found more relevant articles, I started reading and summarizing them, and creating my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump. As I have mentioned before, while I create one for each research project I undertake, I don’t believe the Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump should be submitted as part of a project report, but it IS an important component. That is, your Excel dump should exist, and it should encompass all the literature you have reviewed, but it’s not a product that a funding agency might be interested in publishing or even posting online.

Tweeting for environmental NGOs Excel dump

4. Generate the main themes for your Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump and headings for your literature review, based on specific topics you’re researching.

The Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump will help you create headings for your literature review, provide you with accurate quotations for your paper, and give you a snapshot, bird’s-eye view of where your paper is situated and the gaps in the literature, but it is NOT an actual scholarly output. Annotated bibliographies, banks of synthetic notes and literature reviews are actual research products.

5. Repeat the process until reaching conceptual saturation.

Depending on how in-depth I want to go, I write rhetorical precis or synthetic summaries of each article, and then dump them into my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump for that specific topic. I may also want to create an annotated bibliography. But sometimes I am so busy that I simply go from the Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump to writing the literature review.

Most people I know write first an annotated bibliography and THEN, based on the results of their annotations, start writing their literature review. Since I am usually reviewing a body of works for a specific paper I am writing, I rarely have the time to write an annotated bibliography. However, something I may do is ask my research assistants to write an annotated bibliography on a broader topic and, based on that one, choose specific citations I may want to use for the literature review section of the paper I am writing.

6. Write the literature review as though you were answering questions about each subheading.

I usually break down the literature review, if it is a research product in and of itself (like the one we generated for the UC MEXUS CONACYT project) in headings and summarize how each one of the papers, book chapters and books I reviewed relates to each other within the literature, within each heading. So for example, if I were doing this literature review as a product itself, I probably would use a list of topics and headings like this:

  1. Introduction.
  2. The role of activism in policy change.
  3. Activist strategies’ repertoire: online and offline.
  4. Experiences of online activists’ in influencing domestic policy change.
  5. Environmental activists’ repertoires: online and offline.
  6. How do environmental activists use online strategies to influence policy change.
  7. Gaps in the literature.
  8. Conclusions.

Some authors, like Dr. Eduardo Araral, publish their literature reviews as scholarly pieces in international journals. This coauthored piece on Water Governance 2.0 is a really solid literature review with a critical component that provides additional insight than just summarizing the works published so far on the topic.

This paper by Benson et al is another good literature review published as a journal article (on water governance and integrated water resources management).

These pieces (by Miranda et al 2011 and by Batchelor) on water governance are not published as journal articles, but remain solid literature reviews.

This literature review by the Pacific Institute on voluntary standards in environmental regulation is also quite solid.

Overall, the exercise of undertaking a literature review is an important and necessary one for students both at the undergraduate and at the graduate level, and that’s why it is fundamental that we teach our students how to do them properly. Hopefully my post will answer some questions on how to conduct literature reviews!

Posted in academia.

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#GetYourManuscriptOut #SendOutFortNight (April 15-30th, 2017)

Almost three years ago, Dr. Steve Shaw (McGill University), Dr. Mireya Marquez (Universidad Iberoamericana Santa Fe) and I founded the hashtag #GetYourManuscriptOut. I was frustrated that I had SEVERAL papers whose conversion-rate-from-conference-paper-to-journal-article had been basically ZERO. So, I decided to look at my dormant papers and JUST GET THE MANUSCRIPT OUT. Throughout the years, since July 2014, I have been joined by many researchers who have found #GetYourManuscriptOut a supportive community for academic writing.

But, as I have previously written, I can very easily feel writer’s block. And yes, the reason why I wake up at 4am and start writing and write every single day is because I know that social media is addictive, and even with my own guidelines and tricks to avoid spending all day in social media, I can get easily distracted. That’s also why I have written about the hacks I use to trick myself into regaining focus.

So when Madeleine suggested that we commit to writing 500 words BEFORE starting social media, I was delighted. It’s hard for me to ALWAYS generate text, which is why I wrote about prompts I use to start writing.

But around the same time, I wanted to commit to submitting all the dormant papers I had to send out right about now. Let me explain: theoretically, my campus has two weeks of holidays right about now. I would LOVE to take these holidays. But I am way too busy as I am about to deploy fieldwork for four case studies. So, I moved my holidays towards the end of the summer and early December. And I will be working for the next two weeks. This means, while my campus will be empty, I can focus entirely on writing and research without having to worry about being interrupted by meetings and administrative stuff.


So, I invited my Twitter colleagues to join me in a #GetYourManuscriptOut #500words #FortNight. For the next two weeks, I will be focusing on getting manuscripts out.

I thought about creating a Google Spreadsheet to allow others to insert their own pledges, but in the interest of privacy, I decided against it. What I have done is to create my own Google Spreadsheets to track my own progress. Hopefully many of you will join!

Posted in academia, writing.

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Upcoming talk “Writing YOUR Way to your PhD (and Tenure): Doing Academic Work without Selling Your Soul”

you should be writingLike many political scientists, I will be descending on Chicago this week to present two papers at the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA). I was invited by Dr. Kelly LeRoux (University of Chicago at Illinois) to give a talk to her PhD students, and we decided to make it a public lecture. I have titled it “Writing YOUR Way to your PhD (and Tenure): Doing Academic Work without Selling Your Soul”.

Here is the abstract:

We read it on Sh!t Academics Says, on, we hear it from our advisors, colleagues and fellow students: “YOU SHOULD BE WRITING!”. Alas, getting words on paper (or on the screen) isn’t always as easy as people would want to make you believe. Writing is hard, and academic writing often times feels harder. In this talk, I will walk you through some of the hacks I have implemented to enable me to consistently produce scholarly research all the while maintaining some semblance of a personal and social life. From morning routines to daily naps, to achieving Quick Wins, to writing your to-do lists on the Everything Notebook™, I will share with you a few ideas that you may be able to implement in your everyday life.

Talk will be held at the University of Illinois at Chicago, 400 South Peoria St., Wednesday, April 5th, 15:00hrs (3pm). If you are in Chicago, feel free to drop by! This talk will be the basic backbone of my forthcoming book on my life as an academic.

Posted in academia.

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World Water Day 2017: Finally, the UN realized wastewater governance is important

This week, on March 22nd, we celebrated World Water Day. The theme for 2017 (and also the topic for the 2017 World Water Assessment Report) was the sudden realization that water that we use to flush toilets, wash dishes and produce goods and services is a waste unless we recover it (Wastewater: The Untapped Resource). All of a sudden, in 2017, the UN and its allied water agencies realized “Why Waste Water?”

Well, I would be a lot more impressed if I hadn’t been saying the same since, well, 2002. FIFTEEN YEARS.

One of the things that amazes me the most about studying water governance is the lack of interdisciplinary thought. To anybody who studies civil or environmental or chemical engineering, using water to wash waste is stupid. Using the basic mass balance equation, if you pollute clean water, you get wastewater and if you dispose of it, you’re losing it. Most water scholars I know who look at domestic (national-level) issues are concerned with access to clean water (and in Mexico, a large number of them are preoccupied with agricultural-use water). But I rarely hear anyone discuss the realities of how much wastewater we generate, how little treatment we provide and how few functioning sewage treatment plants we have. Social scientists seem to care very little about wastewater.

We ARE wasting water.

In my own research, I found that almost 60% of the wastewater treatment plants that were supposed to be operating in the Lerma-Chapala river basin in Mexico are actually functioning below capacity and suffering from poor infrastructure maintenance and lack of funding. Wastewater treatment is a function of local governments and yet, their water utilities are chronically underfunded and lacking in robust infrastructure and human capital.


You would have thought the world would have woken up to the fact that wastewater is an untapped resource decades ago. Heck, 2008 was the International Year of Sanitation. And yet, we still are just starting to focus, 9 years later, on how we can better treat and govern wastewater.

The other thing that bothers me is the lack of in-depth research on the topic of wastewater governance. I have read the WWAP report and it cites a lot of UN publications, but not the mainstream research I’ve found (or I’ve written) on wastewater and its governance. Given that my research on wastewater governance has been published since 2004, I am also slightly taken aback that the WWAP report didn’t cite me, not even on urban wastewater governance in Latin America, where I recently published a chapter on the topic. And it’s not like they didn’t cite publications in Spanish (they did, and I’ve published in that language too).

Anyway, I’m glad UN Water and the WWAP are appearing to be taking wastewater governance more seriously now, hopefully they’ll do something about it in the next few years, and I also hope it won’t be only lip service to the serious needs for wastewater treatment in developing countries.

Posted in World Water Day, academia, wastewater, water governance.

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