Editorial Office, Administrative Science Quarterly
The Toughest Challenge: Constructing Your Theory
Theory: An ASQ article must have a coherent theoretical story to tell. The majority of papers sent out for review at ASQ are met with questions or concerns about the strength of their theoretical development. Writing theory papers is tough! It’s also very valuable to your field and worth learning how to do well.
A theory is a set of concepts and their relationships that describe or explain a phenomenon. Your challenge is to write a manuscript that changes, challenges, or fundamentally advances our knowledge of the concepts, relationships, and models—the theories—embedded in one or more literatures. Here’s what that may look like:
- Change: You may extend what we know about a concept or relationship or provide empirical evidence about a concept or relationship that has been only theorized to date.
- Challenge: You may offer evidence that contradicts what we thought we knew or had theorized about concepts or relationships.
- Fundamentally advance: You may introduce a completely new perspective, concept, or set of relationships that had not even been considered before.
Ask yourself how your manuscript causes us to think about something in a way that would not normally be anticipated from extrapolations of existing work, thereby advancing future work in an important and useful way. Your motivation must be more than simply filling a gap in the existing literature; you need to convince readers that the gap is important to fill.
Research question: Your paper should have one main research question, stated clearly early in the paper—within the first 2 to 3 pages. To create a clear line of argument, drop any side issues. The paper’s introduction should make your theoretical motivation clear by showing the reader:
- This is the research question I’m examining.
- This is where it fits within existing research.
- In light of existing research, this is why the question is important—what theoretical contribution my study makes.
In the theory development section (following the introduction), you should firmly establish the importance of asking this question through reference to relevant literature or other evidence. You will use the literature in more depth in that section to motivate the theory behind your research question.
The argument that an issue has not yet been examined in this specific context is not enough of a motivation for your study and will not pass muster with reviewers. Nor is another scholar’s “calls for more research.” Some studies have not been conducted because they are not likely to add much.
It may be helpful to consider what theory is not: a figure with boxes and arrows, a list of variables, a set of hypotheses, and descriptions of empirical findings from other studies do not constitute theory. These are presentation aids in describing your theory, and the theory itself should motivate your use of any of them. The theory determines such things as what phenomena you should study; what sample you can reasonably use; what hypotheses, if any, should be tested; what variables you need to measure; and what the appropriate level of analysis is.
Jargon: ASQ is an interdisciplinary journal and therefore needs to use language that people in more than one field can understand. Look for jargon and field-specific shorthand. When you work on a study, you may find ways to characterize processes, name phenomena, and describe things that are not obvious to others. Is there a more universal way to say it? If not, explain your terms.
Figures: Any figures you use should be self-explanatory, so that a reader knows immediately what they are. They therefore need descriptive titles and labeling, and any terms used in them should be introduced in the text before the figures are presented. Figures can be helpful to summarize a complicated argument or relationships visually, but they aren’t helpful if they only repeat the text or if they confuse the reader. If they don’t add something beyond what is offered in the text, take them out.
Tables: You may want to include tables showing your complete set of correlations, robustness tests, etc. If you have so many tables in your submission that they could disrupt and overwhelm your story, give your reviewers a break by separating anything nonessential (anything your reader might consider supplemental) into an appendix. That way, reviewers have access to what they need without losing sight of your key argument and contribution.
Footnotes: Eliminate footnotes whenever possible, omitting extraneous material and moving necessary material into the text.
Quotations: Avoid using long quotations from the literature. A long academic quote takes the reader’s attention away from the development of your main idea, and scholarly quotes often introduce jargon. In quantitative papers, if you can improve the readability by paraphrasing the material, do so.
Quotes that are part of your data set are a different story. In qualitative or mixed-methods papers, quotes often serve an important purpose by letting you show your data rather than simply telling your reader about it. Select such quotes carefully so you’re using those that propel your story most effectively while being as concise as possible. You may have quotes in your data that are interesting but not tightly tied to your arguments; avoid the temptation to use them, instead selecting quotes that help you best show the reader how your ideas and findings developed.
Introduce all quotations in text, so the reader knows who is speaking and under what circumstances and can thus interpret the quote. If you want the reader to draw conclusions from a quote that aren’t obvious, make them clear.
The Search for an ASQ Template!
ASQ can seem intimidating compared with a journal that provides a template to guide an article’s structure. Our articles are long! They don’t all look the same! They contain SO. MUCH. THEORY.
The same things that make ASQ a challenge are also sources of opportunities for you to be creative with your writing. Our suggested article length is 45 pages of text or less (not including references, tables, figures, or appendices), but we won’t reject an article solely based on its length. And although many of our articles follow a similar construction (which we explain below), if your theory and data are better served by a different presentation, you have the flexibility to explore that.
With that said, we can offer some advice about how to approach writing an ASQ article.
Abstract (up to 250 words): Write the abstract in language that all readers can understand. Be direct, and try to avoid jargon, acronyms, or terms that require definition. A good abstract summarizes what the paper does and the question the paper answers, notes the research context, and gives a summary of the major findings. It doesn’t need to provide sweeping statements about the literature your study is speaking to. Keep the focus on what your study attempted to do, why, and what you found.
Introduction (generally 3 to 5 pages): We don’t require a specific page length for the introduction, but most often an effective intro will be 3 to 5 pages of double-spaced text (12-point Times New Roman). If it’s shorter than 3 pages, you probably haven’t explained your motivation and research question clearly enough. If it’s longer than 5 pages, you’re likely trying to do too much.
An introduction is not the same thing as an abstract. You should include a clear indication of your findings in the abstract, and thus you don’t need to include findings in your introduction. Instead, in the introduction, keep your focus on establishing the motivation for your study.
The introduction is where your research question appears. Any literature that you cite in your introduction should contribute to the development of that question. Use the information on page 1 of this document to remind yourself of how to set your work apart from anything that’s come before it—and how to show the reader that there’s an important reason for doing so.
A common problem we see in introductions is that authors pepper them with citations, starting from the first sentence. Not every idea requires citation; if you start your paper with one or more broad/obvious statements about your area of study, chances are you can write those sentences without requiring citations. Save the details (and the bulk of citations) for the theory development section of your paper.
When citations are required—anywhere in the paper, including in the introduction—try to cite only two or three references to support a single point. If possible, cite a good review piece to replace a long list of references, especially for a literature that is not central to your paper. And if you find yourself wanting to include four or more references to support any single statement, consider using “e.g.,” and listing the two or three that are most relevant.
The key takeaways for writing a strong introduction:
- Introduce your research question early and state why your study matters.
- Save your findings for later.
- Save your methods description for later.
- Be thoughtful about how many citations you include.
- Don’t repeat your abstract.
Literature Review/Theory Development
We can’t provide precise guidance on how long this section of your paper should be or how exactly it should be structured. Our best advice is to find a few papers published in ASQ that share similarities with your study, and see how those authors approached this section of the paper.
Broadly speaking, after your introduction, your next job as a writer is to show your reader how you developed the argument that motivated your study and how existing research played into that development. You aren’t trying to impress your reader with a laundry list of the literature you’ve read. Instead, carefully select examples from the literature that illustrate the steps you took in thinking through your research question and figuring out why it’s a good one.
This section should explore the theory that you aim to change, challenge, or fundamentally advance. It should introduce the reader to some important things research has shown about phenomena similar to the one you’re studying. It may illustrate a gap you’re filling with your work, in which case it should also show why that gap is important to fill. This section is your opportunity to enter the conversation with other scholars whose work has directly influenced or inspired yours.
If you develop hypotheses, they should appear in this section. They are best stated, one at a time, directly following the theory from which they are derived. The reader needs to be able to follow your thinking from point A (the prior research you introduce) to point B (the hypothesis you will test that could change, challenge, or advance the theory in that research).
If you conducted a qualitative study, this section should clarify what we already know from existing literature about your topic and why a qualitative study is necessary to answer your research question (perhaps developing theory about a process).
Methods: After you develop your theory and situate your work in relation to prior research, your next job is to explain the methods you used. This section should anticipate and answer readers’ questions about the validity of the study. Here you explain things such as:
- What sample you used and how was it derived
- How you collected the data
- What was measured and why
- How you analyzed the data
This section should provide enough information that the reviewers can understand your context and sample. It may not need to include every bit of detail about your methods, however. If your methodology was quite complicated or you used a lengthy questionnaire, for example, consider what is essential for a reviewer to be able to assess the validity of your results and what is supplemental. Anything supplemental can go into an appendix to improve your paper’s readability.
Results/Findings: Your goal in this section is to give a thorough and logical presentation of your results/findings without overwhelming the reader. Some tips for doing so:
- If you’ve used hypotheses, present results that relate to hypothesis 1 first, then hypothesis 2, etc. You don’t need to repeat your full hypotheses here—just remind the reader what each one proposed—and you should not repeat the theoretical basis for them.
- If you use tables in this section, introduce each table in the text, and make sure the table title clearly states what it reports.
- Avoid creating a single table that the reader must refer to over many pages of text. If you ask the reader to “see table X” over the course of multiple pages, consider whether the table can be separated into two or more smaller tables so the reader has an easier time locating the results you reference in the text.
- Make sure any terms you use in a table have already been explained in the text.
- Results that are clearly presented in tables don’t all need to be repeated in the text. Instead, use the text to give readers an overview of what you found and to highlight the most important results.
- Avoid presenting alternative interpretations of results in this section. You can do so in the discussion section if needed.
- Avoid comparing your results with findings from previous literature in this section. Again, this is best saved for the discussion section.
Discussion (generally 5 to 7 pages): Again, the page range is meant to be informative, not prescriptive. A very brief overview of your key findings is useful at the start of this section, but you don’t need to summarize all the results or to include a complete description of the theory on which your study is based. If your discussion simply repeats information presented earlier in the paper or summarizes what you’ve done, you haven’t used this section to its full effect.
A solid discussion interprets results that need interpreting and takes into account alternative interpretations. It also presents any limitations to the study and directions for future research based on those limitations or on anomalous findings.
Your goal in this section is to move the reader beyond your findings to some new conclusions that relate to your research question. A good conclusion should be an exciting addition to your paper—something you haven’t addressed in the earlier sections. Try to craft an ending that reminds the reader of your research question and introduces a larger, richer view of the problem you studied.
A well-crafted ending paragraph is difficult to write, but don’t settle for an ending that simply summarizes your findings. If you’re stuck, look at the beginning of your paper for a related, bigger idea. You want to leave the reader with food for thought. As a general rule, use no citations in your last paragraph. Instead, focus on your own ideas, and write them in clear, vivid language. You want the reader to remember your work, not research that you’ve cited.
References: This section is more important than you may realize! Check carefully to see that all references cited in text are in this list and that all references in this list are cited in the text. Reviewers and other readers who find references missing may wonder what else in the paper was carelessly done. A clean, complete list of references formatted according to the journal’s specifications demonstrates your respect for the journal and your seriousness about crafting the best possible submission.