Tips for Writing Policy Analyses to Boost Your Publication Record

While my research has mostly been in the areas of public health and social work, my PhD is in Urban Affairs and Public Policy. This has benefited me in many ways and has been particularly helpful in boosting my publication record, because I can write policy analyses when I do not currently have data to report on. I view policy analysis as an important part of my scholarship and career, because it uses science to publicly advocate for real changes in government, practice, and research. As scholars, we often write in the discussion section about what can and should be done about our findings, but policymakers and practitioners often lament that we often are not clear about what that change should look like. Policy analyses are more direct about your recommendations for change. Others have found this work important, too - one of my most viewed and cited articles to date has been an analysis on policies promoting participant-directed long-term care services for older adults.

The more I publish policy analyses, the more journal editor select me as a peer reviewer for the policy-related manuscripts they receive. While I'm delighted to see how others are bridging their research to the policy arena, these manuscripts often face a number of problems. Many are downright terrible. I've come to the conclusion that as social scientists, many of us (without degrees in public policy) do not always get adequate training on policy and policy analysis. As a result, I often suggest that editors request "major revisions" to terrible policy analysis manuscripts and give significant, constructive (and polite! Don't want to be one of the reviewers highlighted in my previous post on horrific blind reviews!) feedback to help the authors move forward to publishing.

To help you with writing a policy analysis and increase your scholarly productivity, I've listed below tips for writing these types of manuscripts that may increase your chances of success. These tips are based on the common mistakes I have seen in the policy analyses I've reviewed for journals, as well as feedback I have gotten from reviewers of my own policy analysis. Put these tips to good use! PhD students who want to strengthen their CV before going on the market and junior faculty who want more single or first-authored articles to improve their tenure applications should particularly find this helpful in boosting their careers!

1. Find an important and unifying theme to write about and start organizing your arguments around that theme.

Two of the biggest problems that I've seen with policy analyses is that they are disorganized and/or do not address an issue that is important to a larger audience. The first step to writing a compelling policy analysis is that you select a topic that many academics and professionals in your field will find important. Some examples of generic topics or themes that have been published include:

  • How policies have changed over time and have changed the face of the field. Here, you might write about different approaches to policy in history that are considered paradigm shifts. Make sure you write about how such changes will affect the future of the field. A great example from one of my colleagues can be found here.

  • How a specific policy is creating a disadvantage - either to populations, communities, or practitioners. For instance, is there evidence in the implementation of a policy that should be highlighted or addressed? In contrast, you may also highlight how a population may receive specific opportunities through a policy, like in this article on substance abuse treatment post-Affordable Care Act.

  • What we've learned about a relatively new policy, now that data is available and can be used to assess its outcomes.

  • A comparison of policies, based on approaches to addressing a problem, geographic area (comparing multiple cities, states, countries), with emphasis on what we can learn from each one.

Here, a strong thesis statement is essential to direct your reader to the main point you are making about the policy and help him or her evaluate the relevance of your manuscript's content. Once you have selected a topic, write a clear and detailed outline on the related topics that the reader should understand in order to fully appreciate your main points about the policy.

Also related, make sure that you do not select a policy that most likely will be short lived. For instance, a number of scholars have written about programs that were part of the initial Affordable Care Act, but were removed from the law before implementation. Make sure what you are writing about is timely (you don't want your work to be outdated by the time it goes to press), but you don't want to write about a topic that people aren't concerned with in a year or so.

2. When comparing your policy to others, be clear on why you selected the comparative policies in your paper.

There have been a number of times where I'm reading a policy analysis and (seemingly out of nowhere) the authors highlight a different policy from another state or country. Sometimes it is unclear to me why the comparative policy has been chosen or why the authors have shifted direction. Without clear understanding, I might also assume that the authors could be biased with their selection - highlighting the one (potentially obscure) policy that supports their point while omitting all other potential policies that refute their thesis. Another example of this is when the authors' thesis involves a comparison of several policies, but it is unclear why these policies have been selected.

Be clear to the reader about your choice in content for a policy analysis. Make sure that your arguments are not confusing or appear half-hazard to your audience.

3. When analyzing policies, make sure you write about the financial aspects of the issue.

I have been guilty of this issue as well. I am writing a policy analysis and get so wrapped up in its affects on stakeholders (which is what I'm passionate about!) that I do not take into account the costs to implementing or changing the policy. Another important issue might be how financial regulations or practices affect your policy. For instance, it is difficult to provide an analysis of Medicare or Medicaid without considering how health care practices under these policies are driven by the financial reimbursement regulations for doctors. Reviewers will ask about the money, so include it from your first draft of the manuscript.

4. Make it about policies and not politics.

Avoid the urge to politicize the arguments you are making. It may alienate the editor, reviewers, and your larger audience (if published). Highlighting your perceived inadequacies of the people elected to office will be distracting to your main point. Stick to the facts about how the policy was developed, legitimized, and implemented. Stick to facts and figures about the policy's stakeholders.

5. Make sure you select a journal that publishes articles that are not data-driven.

Journals differ in the types and quality of articles they are willing to publish. Some journals will only publish data-driven articles with larger samples, touting them as the highest of research quality. Personally, as someone who published many qualitative, conceptual, and policy-related articles, I disagree with this and believe that other types of articles give breadth of context to our research areas. Regardless, do your homework and select a reputable, peer-review journal that has published policy-related or conceptual articles in the (recent) past. Some journals go so far to list policy analyses as a genre of articles they are interested in publishing. This will also increase your success.

Following these five suggestions will help improve your chances of publishing a policy analysis. In my experience, once you have been successful at one or two policy-focused articles you can develop a formula for future papers after you learn what reviewers favor and dislike about the analyses you have presented. Need further advice on publishing? Contact Nicole today and see how she can work with you to make better decisions about your writing and selecting journals to submit your manuscripts to!

#phdlife #phdchat #HE #research #policyanalysis #publishing

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