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No Data? No Problem! Get Tenure Anyway

February 6, 2017

Over the years, tenure has gotten to be more and more difficult to achieve - especially as many universities work harder to raise their research designation and visibility. In some cases I have colleagues who teach three or more courses each semester and are still expected to churn out three (or more!) published articles each year. Where do any of us find the time?


Some of my junior colleagues have asked me how I have maintained an active publication record while balancing heavy teaching loads. Truthfully? It wasn't always easy. However, I had a number of strategies to ease my work burden so that I could maintain both high teaching and research requirements while still retaining my sanity. One of  go-to strategies has been to write non-data driven articles. 


Non-Data Driven Articles Are Easier Than You Think!


Although many of my colleagues (even many senior colleagues) have reported that they find non-data driven articles to be too difficult to write, the truth is that if you have a good strategy and message, they can be very easy to write and publish. Some of the most enjoyable manuscripts that I have written did not involve data collection! What kind of topics do not necessarily require data?

  • Policy analyses

  • Conceptual arguments

  • Critical assessments of the current state of practice or research in a given field

  • Analyses of how practice, research, and/or policies have changed over time

Such articles save time because you do not have to spend your energy collecting and analyzing data. Even for those who are well-seasoned secondary data analysts and systematic reviewers - such research requires a significant amount of time managing databases. Non-data driven articles also alleviate the stress you might experience between research projects when you have time to write, but have exhausted all of the data from your previous projects. 


Need some tips on writing a non-data driven article? Here are some tips:


1. Find a topic that others will find exciting and interesting!


For a journal to consider a non-data driven paper, they will want your topic and focus to drive future research, policy, and/or practice. What are common complaints in your field that no one has written about before? What topics do people in your field believe are important, but there is little research on? How can we make advancements in one area of your field using methods or approaches used in another field? How are government policies affecting your field?


For instance, person-centered care has become the hallmark of high-quality medical and nursing home care. However, little had been done in promoting person-centered care in home and community-based services for older adult. Hence, I co-authored a paper on the merits and challenges of extending such an approach to these services. It remains one of my most cited articles. In another example, after learning that federal policies that promote health information technology through financial incentives excluded home health care agencies from receiving such incentives, I co-authored a paper that discussed the merits and challenges of including them. 


One way to highlight the relevance of your article is to outline implications and directions for practice, policy, and/or research. Hence, your paper might not have involved data or new findings, but can still be relevant to other researchers. 


2. Make sure your arguments are cohesive and easy to follow. 


Being an ad-hoc journal reviewer and member of an editorial board I have read a number of non-data driven articles (mostly policy analyses) that are confusing and lack focus. Starting with a strong outline with the most relevant arguments on the issue will help you write clearer arguments about the topic. 


Better yet - find some examples from the literature that others have written and see how they approached writing about topics without data. After reviewing several, you may find it easier to structure your own article (without plagiarizing, of course!). 


3. Find the right journal.


I have never had trouble publishing non-data driven articles, but I always made sure that I have submitted them to journals that were likely to publish them. Check to see if the journal you want to submit your manuscript to has published such articles in the past. Some journals even have special submission sections focused on policy or practice issues and therefore they may have particular interest in your paper. Journals that target both researchers and practitioners may also see special value in your paper. 


4. Publish your grant literature reviews. 


Grant writing can be exhausting - you may have to write ten or so grants to get one funded! So, that leaves us with the question...WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING WITH THE GRANTS THAT WEREN'T FUNDED? You put in a lot of work to write those grants - grants that focused on important issues that you thought were important enough to ask for money from public or private agencies to address! If they are such important issues, why not turn the literature reviews into a non-data driven paper? I did this with my first unfunded grant and after successfully publishing the article, I never wrote a grant again that didn't pull double duty! Even better, I used some of the reviewer feedback to revise the literature review for the grant and it was funded the following year when I resubmitted it! 


5. Write about topics that support your future work.


Writing articles that critically assess important issues in policy, practice, and/or research can help you build a platform for your larger research agenda. For instance, if you publish an article on an issues that is important to you and relevant to your research, you can later cite that article in grant applications as evidence that the problem is legitimate. Thus, the non-data driven article can strengthen your future grant applications. 

So, what are you waiting for? Write that article! Just think, if you write two data-driven articles this year and squeeze one non-data driven article out, you automatically boosted your productivity by 50%! Without the stress of data collection, IRB approvals, or lengthy analysis strategies. This also will increase the number of first and sole-authored articles you publish, which many search and tenure committees value.


Found success in writing non-data driven articles? Please feel free to leave your own tips and strategies in the comments section. 


Happy writing!






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