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Arguing for your research

Everything from paper abstracts to grant proposals to fellowship applications, at every level from an undergraduate independent study to a full grant proposal as a faculty member, requires one key task: convincing the reader that your research project is any good. Usually "good" more specifically means: does it solve an important problem? Does it address an important issue? Does it explore important unexplored territory? And, if you haven't done it yet, do you have the right tools to solve/address/explore it?

In general, I'm not a huge believer in "formulaic" writing -- the idea that every body of writing ought to be formatted the same way for best results. Especially in creative domains, so much power can be wielded in breaking traditional structures. But for scientific writing, especially project proposals or article submissions, I do find that it really helps to not have to think about how to structure something and instead just plop down a default outline. If it does happen to make sense for the writing in question, it's great -- heavy scaffolding laid down can save time when later editing the details. Philip Guo talks about this kind of scaffolding in terms of the hierarchical structure (tree, outline) of written text that mediates between the messy undirected web of concepts in our head and the linear string of text that communicates to the reader. I like this framing in general; I want to talk more specifically about the contents of a certain kind of top-level outline.

A formula that I have found especially helpful for everything from abstracts to grant proposals is something I learned from CMU's Global Communications Center, the so-called novelty moves. This strategy proposes three steps:

  1. Establish the territory;
  2. Identify a gap;
  3. Fill the gap with your research.

I have been presenting this structure to the undergraduate students I'm advising this semester in a little bit more detail; my version goes (operative words bolded):

  1. Motivate the research area.
  2. Provide context of what has been achieved in that area.
  3. Identify a gap or a compelling research question.
  4. Describe the approach we're going to take to fill or explore it.
  5. Describe the impact our work will have on (1) if we're successful.

The interesting thing to me about "structures" like these is that they're always given in sequential (list) order, the same way the final writing product will be, but what they really pertain to is an argument structure. Each step of this plan serves a communicative purpose, and the sequence as a whole satisfies a communicative goal.

A bunch of my prior research has focused on formalizing narrative structure for written text or games that are designed to entertain, to tell stories leading to rich emergent interactions between characters. With so much thinking about the structure of scientific arguments, I've instead been thinking of the structure found in those. In fact, my postdoc project at UCSC involved a formalization of proceduralist readings, which are effectively arguments about what a game means. We realized that we could use logic programming techniques to construct these arguments from a set of hand-authored rules (paper coming out soon!).

Each line of the novelty moves serves a purpose -- in conjunction with some axiomatic assumptions (e.g. "My reader believes field X has value"), the line in the argument serves to satisfy the goal "convince the reader that my research solves an important problem related to field X (which they believe has value)." If it doesn't work toward that purpose (or if the reader can't infer its purpose to that end), it will confuse the reader; if one of the assumed inferences or axioms doesn't hold, the reader will fail to be convinced. Of course, formal logic was originally invented for the purpose of formalizing arguments, so it's no surprise that their structure winds up looking very proof-like. (Then again, the inference rules that occur in human cognition are pretty different from those used in formal logics.) It seems like a perfect opportunity to unify narrative discourse generation and formal logic.

So there you go. I've been so fixated on research that now I want to do research on research writing.


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