How Can You Make Your Research Remarkable?

The details of what makes a specific research project into a remarkable “purple cow” differ depending on the who that your what is for.1

Andreas Köstenberger, the long-standing editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, has one of the best, concise descriptions of what he looks for when assessing for JETS‘s readers whether a submission meets the bar of publishability.2

The Big Picture of Remarkable

When looking at this kind of description, however, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest for all of the trees it contains.

So, before digesting these comments, it’s worth stressing the bigger picture. The question “What will make my research publishable?” is essentially the same question as “What will make it remarkable?” or, more colorfully, “What will make it a purple cow?”

Additional details like those below are helpful and necessary. But they don’t change the bigger picture of what you’re aiming for.

At most, they tell you what specific shade of purple your research project should have for your audience. Your essential goal remains making your research purple, remarkable, extra-ordinary.

An Example Shade of Remarkable

With that bigger picture of the purple cow firmly in view, let me move to summarizing Köstenberger’s account of the shade he finds appropriate for JETS.

As Köstenberger structures his comments, he has four main criteria with a few add-ons. For clarity’s sake here, though, I’m going to unpack these broader criteria into 11 discrete elements.

For JETS, Köstenberger thinks “purple” research does the following:

  1. Treats all of the relevant primary literature as presented in that literature’s standard-setting edition(s).
  2. Treats all of the relevant secondary literature, whatever form it appears in (e.g., commentaries, monographs, journal articles).
  3. Addresses a preponderance of current literature, especially from within the past 10–15 years.
  4. Critically and substantively engages the literature, rather than merely citing it.
  5. Evenhanded, fair presentation of information.
  6. Directly engages objections and opposing arguments.
  7. Exhibits a mature, well-rounded perspective.
  8. Makes a contribution to scholarship by advancing beyond what is already known or accepted, even when advocating essentially those same positions.
  9. Fits the scope of topics the journal publishes, even if perhaps in unexpected or unique ways.
  10. Adheres to the journal’s stylistic and technical expectations. And
  11. Reflects what the author would be happy to have as the piece’s final form.

So, these 11 elements give you a sense of the particular shade of purple most appropriate for JETS.

Other Shades of Remarkable

But even if your project’s audience lies elsewhere, you’re still doing biblical scholarship. And you’re still wanting that scholarship to be publishable, you’re still wanting it to be purple.

You might need a slightly different shade of purple than is appropriate for JETS. But you’re still looking for a shade of purple.

The fact that both you and JETS are looking for purple biblical scholarship means that, while there will be differences in application, the 11 items listed above likely apply to your who also. After all, you’re looking for a different shade of purple—not a different color from the palette.

Let’s say, for instance, that you’re trying to publish your research in a sermon, but you say at one point, “Now, I wasn’t able exactly to decide what illustration might fit best here. So, I’m just going to skip to the next point. Come back next Sunday, though, and I’ll be sure to give this same sermon with a perfect illustration included.”

That’s not going to be good for encouraging your congregation to engage with what you’re presenting either at the moment or the following Sunday.

Given the difference in its genre, exactly this kind of situation doesn’t come up for JETS. But you can see easily how it violates principle 11 above to have your research in a form that you’d be happy with as its final form.

Conclusion

Multiple other examples could be given for how the 11-point list above might best apply for particular kinds of publishing for particular kinds of audiences.

But what you’re working on publishing in whatever venue is biblical scholarship. And that commonality means that there’s a strong family resemblance between what makes for purple biblical scholarship in one context and what makes for the same thing in another, albeit in a slightly different shade.


  1. Header image provided by Kordula Vahle. For the “first who, then what” principle, I’m particularly playing off of and adapting the discussions of Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 41–64; Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (New York: Portfolio, 2010). The “purple cow” metaphor I’ve borrowed from Seth Godin, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable (New York: Portfolio, 2003). 

  2. For Köstenberger’s full comments, see “Editorial,” JETS 44 (2001): 1–3. 

For Your Research to Be Publishable, You Need to Make It Purple

Who your research is for should determine what it will need to be and what it will mean to publish your research to that audience.1

Your audience might be specialists in biblical studies or not. But that fact doesn’t have any direct bearing on whether your research is good or scholarly.

If that’s all the case, however, what does it mean to for your research to be publishable?

In particular, can anything definite be said about what “publishable” means and that might apply across different audiences?

Is there some stable core to what it means to be “publishable” that you can then flesh out, shade, and understand more fully in the context of whatever particular audience a particular research project has in view?

There is. And the application sometimes might be more complicated. But the core task is fairly straightforward.

Determining whether research is publishable is essentially the same action as seeing whether a cow is purple.2

Did You See that Purple Cow?

When I was growing up, our family would occasionally take take road trips to visit extended family. And like any road trip of any length a fair amount of those trips took place in between major population centers.

In those “in between” spaces in the Midwest, when we looked out the side windows of the car, we frequently saw two things.

The first was corn … and then there was more corn. But in amongst all the corn were, second, cows.

Corn and cows. Brown cows, black cows. More corn, more brown and black cows.

For that area, all of that was quite typical, quite normal, quite unremarkable.

But what if, when we looked out the car window, we saw instead a plainly purple cow?

That wouldn’t be at all typical, normal, or unremarkable.

It would, instead, be quite exceptional, abnormal, and noteworthy.

Why Publishability Is Purpleness

A genuinely purple cow would be a pretty special thing. It would be something worth taking note of, worth engaging, worth remarking about. It would be remarkable.

And for that reason, the question of publishability essentially boils down to that of purpleness.

If your research is a brown cow in a field of other brown and black cows in between fields of corn, there might be nothing particularly wrong with it. It might be unimpeachably ordinary. But so long as it’s just ordinary, it’s not publishable.

You might make it available. But is it something you’re audience is going to find worth actually examining?

They might hear or read your research. But are they going to engage with it?

The odds are good they probably won’t.

So, what you’re looking for when you’re looking to create publishable research is research that’s remarkable, research that’s extraordinary, research that your audience finds worth active examination and not just passive absorption.


  1. Header image provided by Kordula Vahle. For the “first who, then what” principle, I’m particularly playing off of and adapting the discussions of Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 41–64; Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (New York: Portfolio, 2010). 

  2. The “purple cow” metaphor here and below I’ve borrowed from Seth Godin, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable (New York: Portfolio, 2003). 

Can Your Research Be for Your Faith Community?

Who your audience is will necessarily drive what it means to create publishable research for them.1 What you’re producing will change according to who you’re producing it for.2

As an emerging biblical scholar, you’re familiar with the standard forums and mechanisms for academic publishing. Depending on who you’re trying to reach, those can be perfectly valid whats to work toward with your research.

Some biblical scholars have contested whether scholarly research as such can happen in the context of faith communities.3

But faith communities are not, in principle, any less worthwhile whos for the what of your research than is the academy (and, indeed, vice versa).

Two reasons for this emerge from the principle of “first who, then what.” These are that

  • the who shapes the what but doesn’t alter its essential identity as research, and
  • teaching involves its own kind of scholarship, or expertise.

Research Remains Research

A faith community may or may not be your particular who for a particular research project. But a faith community, the academy, or any number of other possible whos can be perfectly valid audiences for your research.

Any given who should shape the what of your research. That’s true whether the who is the academy or a faith community.

But even when your who is a faith community, the what of your research is still research. Precisely as an emerging biblical scholar, you can publish your research to faith communities. And your doing so doesn’t somehow necessarily mean that your research isn’t well done or your scholarship isn’t scholarly.

It’s an oversimplified example, but the measure of a good mathematician isn’t how studiously he or she avoids presupposing the traditional answer to the question of the sum of 2 + 2. Nor is it how ready the mathematician is to come to a different answer about that sum.

It’s a matter of how well the mathematician follows the process for determining and demonstrates the amount of that sum.

Similarly, research that’s scholarly is research that’s well done. It’s not necessarily research that comes to—or avoids coming to—particular conclusions.

So, there’s no reason in principle why the who for your research couldn’t be your faith community, despite the differences in what your research will need to be for them versus what it would need to be for a different who.

Teaching Requires Scholarship

That said, it is true that, if your who is a faith community, you’re likely to have fewer biblical scholars (emerging or otherwise) in your audience than if your who is the academy.

Instead, you’re likely to have a greater proportion of specialists in other crafts besides biblical studies—be those crafts plumbing, air conditioner repair, dentistry, automotive assembly, or whatever.

That kind of audience creates a unique set of demands on you in publishing your research to them. A specialist academic audience would create its own unique set of demands.

And in each case, meeting your audience’s expectations is part of the “scholarship of teaching” that you need for that audience, to borrow Ernest Boyer’s phrase.

For instance, anybody with a fairly basic grasp of a complex subject can successfully make that topic obtuse. But describing a complex subject properly and making it clear and straightforward to a non-specialist on that topic—that’s a high-skill activity.

So, an audience of non-specialists doesn’t make your research not research. Nor does it necessarily reflect anything about its quality. But that who of your audience does drive what it means for your research to be “publishable.”

Conclusion

A lot more could be said about the relationship between biblical scholars and faith communities.

But for the present, suffice it to say that recognizing who your research is for is incredibly important. Whether your who falls in any particular group or has any particular characteristics is much less so.


As a final note, I’m particularly grateful to serve on a graduate faculty that recognizes the validity of both the church and the academy as whos for the what of biblical scholarship.

So, if you’re looking for a place like that to continue honing your craft as a biblical scholar, I’d encourage you to consider joining one of our fully online degree programs (MA, ThM, PhD) at Faulkner University’s Kearley Graduate School of Theology (KGST).

All of them involve live classes conducted by video conference to ensure you get quality, live interaction and instruction in honing your craft. You just don’t need to travel or pull up stakes and relocate to participate.

If you have questions about joining our community at KGST, feel free to drop me an email. I’ll be happy to help or to connect you with the folks who can.

(I’ll just ask for your patience if it takes me a few days to get back with you, depending on how many others email around the same time. 🙂 )


  1. Header image provided by Glen Carrie

  2. Here, I’m particularly playing off of and adapting the discussion of Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 41–64. 

  3. E.g., see Philip R. Davies, Whose Bible Is It Anyway?, 2nd ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield, 2004); Michael V. Fox, “Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View,” Society of Biblical Literature Forum, February 2006. 

What Do You Want Your Research to Be?

Once you’ve identified who your research is for, you’re then in a position to consider what you’re aiming to produce.1

This what could be described in various ways. But here, I’d like to suggest that what you, as an emerging biblical scholar, are aiming to produce in your research is something publishable.

If your who isn’t primarily folks who read academic monographs and journals, don’t worry. “Publishing” as I want to use the term here is broader than this.

What Happens in Publishing

In different contexts, what counts as “publishing” has different definitions. But what different kinds of publications share is that, in them,

  • you open your research to examination by others and
  • others examine your research in them.

If you technically make your research available to access but nobody examines it, it hasn’t fully been published.

In that case, your what hasn’t successfully addressed a who. It hasn’t reached anyone.

Your research is theoretically available to access. But nobody’s stopped to examine it.

There might be a who that wants it. But to them, your work hasn’t been published.

On the other hand, if somebody does examine your research, that necessarily means you’ve made it available to them.

Those two things together mean that your research is published.

What Publishing Is Depends on Who It Is For

Your “publishing” might take place in a book or journal if your who reads those kinds of publications. But “publishing” can take place in other modes as well.

These different definitions emerge because the who that consume different kinds of publications differs. And that who shapes and constrains the what that you need to produce for them.2

For instance, many Christian churches have a longstanding tradition for their assemblies called “the sermon” or “the lesson.”

If your who listens to these kinds of speeches, these can be good whats for your research to produce.

On the other hand, if your who reads technical journal articles and monographs, these kinds of speeches aren’t the way to reach them. They’re looking for a different what.

Conclusion

Of course, some biblical scholars have questioned whether scholarly research can happen in the context of faith communities.

And some faith leaders have questioned whether faithful research can happen in the context of certain scholarly communities.

Entering that debate here would take me too far afield. But suffice it to say here that neither group is, in principle, any less worthwhile a who for the what of your research than the other.

You might prioritize publishing to one. Someone else might prioritize publishing to the other. And those priorities might change with different research projects.

But in each case, the who of your audience will drive the what of creating publishable research for them.


  1. Header image provided by Glen Carrie. Here, I’m particularly playing off of and adapting the discussion of Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 41–64. 

  2. For further discussion of how the audience shapes the rhetorical situation for any given piece of argumentation, see Lloyd F. Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968): 1–14. 

Is Your Research for Your Professor?—Yes and No

For emerging biblical scholars, there’s plenty of writing needed to fulfill degree program requirements.1

In this context, your professor or supervisor may be your most immediate answer to the question of who your research is for.2

In one respect, that answer makes sense. But it’s also not the whole story because requirements within academic programs are seldom islands unto themselves.

Your Research Is for Your Professor …

When doing research required by your degree program, you are doing that research for its evaluator(s).

That might be your professor. It might be his or her grader, a committee, or even fellow students.

And in this context, you should always carefully observe any particular requirements a particular professor has for a particular assignment. (So, before going on, I should add that, while I think my comments here generally apply, certainly set them aside if necessary for a particular requirement you’re needing to meet.)

That said, there’s probably also a more or less explicit expectation (or hope) that you might look beyond the stated requirements of a given assignment as such.

But Not Only Your Professor …

Imagine if you were doing your same research project for something outside your degree program. What kind of an audience would that project then address?

And what does that extended audience tell you about how to craft a research project that matters?

If your project implies an audience like readers of academic journals or monographs, that who should shape what you produce in a particular way.

Or if your project implies an audience of non-specialists, that will shape what you need to produce in a different way.

Because Assignments Imitate Life

If you’re doing research outside what’s required for a degree program, your audience will be still more immediate.

You won’t have the dual “yes, your professor, but also …” dynamic involved. So, your audience’s relevance in shaping your research should be still clearer.

But even in research that a degree program requires, such requirements probably aren’t there solely because faculty need to assess your work.

Still less are they likely to be there because faculty really enjoy the act of grading.

Instead, a great many degree program requirements tend to imitate life outside that program. That imitation may be more or less clear, more or less directly. But it’s often there.

Theses or dissertations imitate monographs. Essays may imitate journal articles. Book reviews imitate, well, book reviews. And the list can go on.

So, try to lift your gaze to see what a given assignment imitates. The more you do, the more you’ll be able to identify the audience that kind of research would typically be for.

This additional context might not be fully explicit in the stated requirements for your project. But the more you can fulfill that implied audience’s expectations in your work, the more likely you are to fulfill (or overdeliver on) your professor’s.

Conclusion

So, yes. If you’re writing for a degree program requirement, you are writing for whomever from your institution will evaluate what you produce.

But on the other hand, your program requirement probably isn’t an end in itself. It’s probably only an intermediate stopping off point to some further end.

And clarifying that further end will give you a better idea of what really strong research toward it will look like.


  1. Header image provided by Glen Carrie

  2. Here, I’m particularly playing off of and adapting the discussion of Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 41–64. 

Who Is Your Research For?

The principle to “begin with the end in mind” proves helpful in any number of arenas.1

Your approach to your research is no exception. The clearer the idea you have of what you want to produce, the easier it will be to chart your path there.

Exactly what you aim to produce, however, isn’t the first question.

First Who, Then What

What you want to produce is determined by who you’re producing it for.2

To illustrate this principle, think of an academic journal article you’ve read recently. Then imagine that article was presented in pretty much its final published form at an academic conference.

What does that presentation look like? The presenter probably

  • does a good deal of reading to the audience from his or her manuscript that includes a number of technical details,
  • skips some portions of the argument for the sake of time, and then maybe
  • hurries through to conclude before time runs out.

In this scenario, the presentation is pretty creditable even if it doesn’t get incredibly high marks for delivery.

But now, imagine the same presentation in the context of a church Bible class rather than an academic conference.

The presentation’s content and delivery might be identical. But it’s liable to be received much less favorably because it doesn’t fit the context.

It doesn’t prioritize who the audience is in shaping what the presentation is.

In the first case, the presenter may get invited back to speak because the presentation was good. In the second, the outcome may be very different—even though the presentation was the same in both cases.

Conclusion

This hypothetical (but definitely true to life!) example illustrates that before you can decide what your research should be, you first need to decide who it’s for.

That who will necessarily shape any quality what. If what you produce doesn’t find an interested who to engage with it, it won’t do much good.3

So, before you get too far along with what you want to produce in any given research project, it’s always worth getting clear on who that research is for.


  1. Header image provided by Glen Carrie. For more about beginning with the end in mind, see Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 102–53. 

  2. Here, I’m particularly playing off of and adapting the discussion of Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 41–64. 

  3. On the importance of the audience in determining a rhetorical situation, see also Lloyd F. Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968): 1–14.