Who Is Your Research Question Good For?

When you’re trying to choose a good research topic, there’s no silver bullet.1 But a fruitful search begins with your working to “see what is questionable.”2

Your research question can be one of two types: known or unknown. And at this point, the first-who principle raises its head yet again.

That is, your question is known or unknown according to whether it’s known or unknown by your audience.

Questions for Whom?

If your audience doesn’t know of your question as a question, they might think it’s already been resolved. Or they might consider it a non-issue.

In any case, if a question isn’t known by your audience, it falls into the category of unknown questions. Unknown questions can be some of the most exciting to ask and seek to answer.

But they do come with the added burden of clearly showing why they’re worth asking. If your research is answering a question that’s unknown by your audience, it’s up to you to demonstrate why your question is askable.

Why is it something that requires an answer for your audience? (And no, because you need to choose a topic isn’t a sufficient reason. 🙂 )

Helping Questions Arise

Once you answer that question for your audience, you’ll have created the room you need to show them the answer to the question they now know. You’ll have created what Lloyd Bitzer calls a “rhetorical exigence”:

Prior to the creation and presentation of discourse, there are three constituents of any rhetorical situation: the first is the exigence…. An exigence is an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something wanting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be.… An exigence is rhetorical when it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse.3

An exigence is a key ingredient of any rhetorical situation that exists among you, your audience, and the constraints in which you make your argument.4

It’s a question that demands an answer. And it demands that answer not only to give you an opportunity to present an argument but also to satisfy your audience’s concern for the exigence’s resolution.

What this means is that—to whatever degree your question is unknown by your audience—you need to help your audience have the problem your question expresses.

Otherwise, they aren’t going to know your question as a question, as an exigence that demands a solution. And if your audience doesn’t see your research as addressing an exigence, you’ll have a hard time keeping their attention—let alone persuading them of your answer to a question they don’t think needs to be asked.

Conclusion

Once you settle on a research question, the first-who principle still applies. If your audience recognizes that you’re answering an exigent question, you’re good to go.

But if they don’t, you may need to do some preliminary groundwork to show why your audience should find your new question pressing.


  1. Header image provided by Oliver Roos

  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. and trans. David E. Ligne, 1st paperback ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 13. 

  3. Lloyd F. Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968): 6–7; italics original. 

  4. Bitzer, “Rhetorical Situation,” 6; see also Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 370–87. 

Why You Need to Ship for Feedback after Distribution

The only way to know whether you research is publishable is to ship it.1

You can and should ship for feedback. And good shipping for distribution is still shipping for feedback.

That’s true before publication because it will help turn any “no’s” you receive into improvements in your research.

But even after publication, the best shipping for distribution still includes an openness to feedback.

Shipping for Feedback after Publication

After a piece has been published, responses might be positive, or they might be negative. Often, they’ll be some of both.

But you’re shortchanging yourself if you only consider either the positive or the negative responses.

The positive ones are most encouraging. You need that. The negative ones are probably be most educational. You need that too.

Just like when you ship for feedback to improve your work before seeking publication, it’s nice when critical responses aren’t trolling. But even when they are, it’s possible to read past that.

And the more you open yourself to look past the emotions bound up with having your work critiqued, the more you’ll be able to learn from those reviews and use them well.

Your openness to feedback even after publishing might even give you new ideas or help you produce better work in the future.

An Example of Using Feedback after Publication

One example is Tom Wright’s Justification.2 In that book, he’s responding primarily to John Piper’s Future of Justification, whose subtitle makes its critical stance fairly apparent, A Response to N. T. Wright.3

But Justification doesn’t just restate arguments Wright had previously made. It includes some distinct, new approaches to the debate about justification in Paul.

Justification shows an openness to provocation, an openness to critique, that leads to adaptation and attempts at refinement.

You might fall on either side of this debate between Wright and Piper, or you might take the choice for “none of the above.”

But in any of these cases, Wright’s Justification provides a helpful example of the kind of adaptability that can and should go along with shipping, even when you’re shipping for distribution.

A Concluding Encouragement

So, there are two ways to ship your work. You can ship it for feedback. Or you can ship it for distribution.

But even when you ship for distribution, shipping well means being open to feedback you might receive, whether before or after publication.

Shipping for feedback is primary. Yet that shouldn’t be the only shipping you ever do.

By continuously shipping only for feedback, you avoid shipping something for distribution that isn’t entirely perfect. But you also miss out on actually contributing to the discussion.

Shipping only for feedback doesn’t allow you to help the who that your research is really for in the first place.4

So, don’t get stuck. Work, write, rewrite, revise, and ship—ship both for feedback and for distribution—recalibrate and revise where necessary, and ship again.


  1. Header image provided by Bench Accounting

  2. N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009). Since its initial publication, the volume has also been re-released with an updated introduction (2016). 

  3. John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007). 

  4. For a similar point, see Stanley E. Porter, Inking the Deal: A Guide for Successful Academic Publishing (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), 160–162. For the principle of the priority of who over what, 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. 

How to Ship Your Research for Distribution

You have to ship your research in order to find out whether it’s publishable.1

You can and should ship for feedback. But you also can and should ship for distribution.

Shipping for Distribution

The other way to ship a project is to ship it for distribution. This is “firm shipping” where you’re committing to a particular form of your research that you’re wanting to get to your who.

It’s the kind of shipping you do when you’ve done your due diligence and you’re ready to call the project finished.

Where you ship to for distribution will depend on who you’re trying to reach. Your who might listen to podcasts, attend live talks, read journal articles, or work through monographs.

In each case, you’re going to ship for distribution to the folks who can help you get your research into those different channels, be they podcasters, conference organizers, editorial boards, or acquisition editors.

… and for Feedback

That said, the best shipping for distribution still entails shipping for feedback.

You might not feel the same level of tentativeness you do in shipping your project for feedback.

But whatever you ship isn’t going to be the last word on your topic. So, it’s best to recognize that up front.

Even when your work is “done,” even when you’re shipping for distribution, you’re still able to learn. And your best shipping for distribution will be shipping that’s open to other’s responses, whether positive or negative. It’s a shipping that stays teachable.

Conclusion

This kind of shipping for distribution is hugely advantageous. By contrast, if you ship for distribution without openness and teachability, you’re setting yourself up for a bumpy ride.

The whole point of shipping is that it’s the one thing you can do to test whether your research is, in fact, publishable.

And in that test, the outcome isn’t predetermined. The answer might be “yes,” or it might be “no.”

The “yes” is definitely nicer to hear. But if you’re not open to the value you and your research gets from the reasons for a “no,” you’ll seriously limit where you can find a “yes.”

On the other hand, if you’re shipping for feedback even when you’re shipping for distribution, you’re open to that sort of value. You’re open to continuing to improve your work so that it’s more likely to get a “yes” the next time around.2


  1. Header image provided by Bench Accounting

  2. For discussion of how to turn a “no” to your advantage, see Stanley E. Porter, Inking the Deal: A Guide for Successful Academic Publishing (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), 89–102 

How to Ship Your Research for Feedback

To learn whether your work is publishable, there’s no escaping the need to ship it.1

Who your research is for will determine what it means to publish it.2 But even when you have the same who, “shipping” can take either of two primary forms.

These forms depend on your goal in shipping a particular project—in particular, whether you’re shipping (1) for feedback or (2) for distribution.

Shipping for Feedback

One way to ship a project is to ship it for feedback. This is “soft shipping.”

It’s shipping because you’re making your work available to one or more people besides yourself. But it’s “soft” because of the goal you have in shipping.

You’re wanting feedback that you can use to improve your work. In doing so, you’re recognizing, by definition, that the work that you’re shipping isn’t done.

So, there’s some additional tentativeness in shipping for feedback that isn’t as present when you’re shipping for distribution.

Some good examples of shipping for feedback include, if you’re a student, submitting your work to your professor. It can also include things like

  • sending your work to peers for an informal review or
  • presenting your work at conferences where there’s opportunity for feedback to you from a respondent, an audience, or both.

Feedback from Whom?

The key is that you ideally want to ship for feedback to folks who have a few specific characteristics, like

  • Knowledgeability. They don’t have to be an expert in your particular topic. But they have to have enough related knowledge to provide feedback.
  • Execution. If someone agrees to give you feedback or attends a conference session you’re presenting in, it’s best if they actually convey their feedback to you. It doesn’t much help you to improve your work if folks evaluate it but then don’t express their evaluations to you.
  • Honesty. It’s nice to hear your work is great. But that’s not why you ship for feedback. You ship for feedback to get honest input on what you might be missing. So, you need to ship to folks who are willing to tell you that.
  • Good-will. This is a balancing element to honesty. You want folks who will tell you what they honestly think. But you probably aren’t too excited about having your work trolled.

Conclusion

The more of these kinds of characteristics you can find, the better your feedback is likely to be.

At the same time, you might not always be able to find all of these characteristics in folks to whom you might ship for feedback. But even if some are lacking, take that feedback with the corresponding amount of salt, use it for what it’s worth, and keep pressing forward.


  1. Header image provided by Bench Accounting

  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. 

When Do You Need to Wait to Ship?

You want to know whether your research is publishable.1 I’ve suggested the only way to answer this question is to ship the best work you can do and see what happens.

But should you always ship everything when you think it’s ready? Or are there some times when you need to wait to ship?

Start with Who

When deciding what your research should be, you need to start with considering who it’s for.2

The same is true when you’re deciding what it means to publish your research.

And not surprisingly, the same principle applies when you’re contemplating shipping your work.

The key questions are

  1. Is your who a professor in a degree you’re doing? And
  2. Is that degree in any way related to the research you’re considering shipping?

If not, then there’s nothing stopping you from moving ahead. But if so, you’ve got a couple other boxes to check to make sure you ship at the best time.

If You’re a Student …

When writing as a student, there’s at least one special case where you might both have a purple cow and need to wait to ship it.3

Beyond this, there might be more. I think the thoughts I’m sharing here generally apply. But definitely above these, you should prioritize the particular requirements you’re under for your program.

Still, the general principle you want to consider carefully relates to the uniqueness of your future work in your program. That way, you can avoid inadvertently creating difficulties for yourself by publishing your research in certain venues too soon.

A good example is that a PhD thesis or dissertation generally needs to make a unique contribution to scholarship. Sometimes, the same can be true at the masterBut if you’ve already published in a journal a key part of what you were hoping to do for your dissertation, you might find that your institution won’t any longer consider that dissertation to make a unique contribution.

Even though you published the article, the key point may be that you’ve published it. And given that it’s published, it’s out there. Saying the same thing (or something substantially similar) in longer form may mean that that’s no longer unique.

On the other hand, if you publish a key finding when teaching orally in your faith community, it might not raise any eyebrows at all. The who for your dissertation may be sufficiently different from the who for your oral presentation that your dissertation’s who still finds that project to be a unique contribution.

Conclusion

So, as a student, you need to clearly understand what a particular kind of publication might commit you to.

Then, you can decide whether you’re okay with that. Or you can treat what you’ve created as part of a larger research project that you’ll ship once you think the larger whole is clearly purple.


  1. Header image provided by Kai Pilger

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

How Do You Know What Color Your Research Is?

For research to be publishable, it needs to be remarkable.1 It needs to be extraordinary—like a purple cow is extraordinary among typically black and brown cows.2

Who your research is for will help determine what shade of purple it should be, or what counts as remarkable.3 But whatever shade that is, it’s still a shade of purple, still a kind of remarkable. It’s not a kind of mundanity, not a shade of black or brown.

And it’s quite easy to spot a purple cow, or remarkable research—except when it’s not.

That ambiguity begs the question, “How do you know what color the cow really is?”

If you’re evaluating your research for yourself, how do you know whether you’re right in seeing it as publishable? If you receive negative feedback (whether from someone else or from your own internal critic), how do you whether your research really is publishable?

The answer to these questions comes in two parts.

1. Recognize colorblindness is possible.

First, you have to recognize the colorblindness or bias you or others might have either for or against your work based on how it appears.

You or your reviewers might be seeing purple, black, and brown, exactly where they are. Any of you might rightly see a piece of research as publishable or not quite there yet.

Or you or your reviewers might be seeing black or brown for purple, or purple for black or brown. Any of you might see publishable research as not really there or vice versa.

Recognizing the possibility of this colorblindness doesn’t do much to definitively answer the question of whether your research is publishable.

Still, it’s a necessary preliminary without which you can’t come to the second step that will ultimately answer the question.

What Publishing Is: A Reprise

But before I come to that second part, let me come back to what I’ve proposed as the essential core of what publishing is.

In publishing,

  • you open your research to examination by others and
  • others examine your research where you’ve made it accessible.

The point that bears stressing here is that you can only directly control the first of these two aspects of what publishing means.

Whether others will expend the effort to engage and examine your research is ultimately up to them.

You can and should use your best judgment to discern the what that will be best for your who. And that judgment is something you can improve over time.

But what others do (or don’t do) with your research isn’t something you can directly control. At best, it’s something over which you have only indirect influence.

What does this mean then for answering the question of how to know whether your research is, in fact, publishable?

2. Ship your research.

It means, simply, that this isn’t a question you can answer by yourself. You need others to help you answer it.

You can and should do the best you can to make sure your research is clearly purple. Others might agree or disagree.

But whatever their assessment, your core responsibility is to “ship” your work, or make it available. In that way, you start the process of testing whether it is, in fact, publishable.4

If the “others” that constitute your audience agree, that’s great! If not, what have you learned?

What you haven’t learned is that your isn’t publishable. What you have learned is that it didn’t look publishable to the folks that rejected it.

It’s still an open question as to who’s right and whether your research actually is publishable. But you can only get to the answer to that question by … wait for it … shipping it again.

By all means, learn from the feedback you got about what didn’t look purple in the process of your work’s rejection. By all means, revise your work as best you can so that you think it will look more clearly purple the next time around.5

Conclusion

In the end, you can only know whether your work is publishable by putting it out there, shipping it, and seeing what happens.

Publication isn’t something you can directly control. So, focus instead on what you can control—sitting down, producing research that looks purple as best you can honestly tell, and putting it out there to see whether you get agreement or suggestions for improving its hue.


  1. Header image provided by Kordula Vahle

  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). 

  3. 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). 

  4. For more on the importance of making creative work available for others, see Seth Godin, The Practice: Shipping Creative Work (New York: Portfolio, 2020). 

  5. On the importance of revising rejected material and putting the revised version back out for publication, see also Stanley E. Porter, Inking the Deal: A Guide for Successful Academic Publishing (Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2010), 89–102.