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Academic Writing Courses Regrouped

Should disciplines like biology and physics be grouped together in academic writing courses, or is it more effective to group together physics and political science?

BYU Photo by Nate Edwards

Academic writing class . . . for some of you I need not say more before the chills, worries, or unpleasant memories arise. The higher-level words and topics can feel overwhelming just to read, let alone analyze and learn how to integrate into a paper! Although academic writing can be overwhelming for students, further research has provided evidence to create clearer and more direct paths to help students understand the appropriate words and stances to take in their academic papers. And, yes, the word stances is correct.

In writing, stance refers to the attitude the writer conveys about a given topic. Academic writing is often seen as unbiased with a neutral stance throughout the paper, but authors often take positive or negative stances toward the sources they cite. For example, comparing the words disputed and observed, disputed has a more negative stance than observed, which implies a neutral stance. The stance can even be positive with verbs such as established. Every discipline has preferences about the stance a writer should convey in an academic article and what verbs are most appropriate to use to achieve the desired stance.

Comparing the positive, negative, and neutral based verb usage across six disciplines, Jacob Rawlins, Grant Eckstein, Elizabeth Hanks, Emily Lester, Lauryn Wilde, and Ryan Bartholomew studied the differences and similarities hoping to understand how stance is created and used. Their goal is to prepare students to write effectively using their own discipline-specific authorial voice and to make teachers more effective in preparing students to write in multiple disciplines.


Building upon previous research, Rawlins and his co-researchers sorted through verbs that indicated stance across six disciplines: Applied Linguistics, Biology, Philosophy, History, Physics, Political Science. They took samples of verbs in academic articles from each of the 6 disciplines and arranged them into neutral, positive, and negative stance within categories that indicated what the ultimate purpose of the verb was; whether to reference research, attribute an attitude to the author, indicate author’s attitude towards cited information, and approach a doubtful approach to the author’s contribution. Each of these categories had different verbs that are used, but ultimately still reference the author’s overall stance on the research provided.

Using this data, they began to see patterns of which disciplines chose which stance and they made some surprising connections. Applied Linguistics and History used similar positive and neutral stances in their use of verbs, such as argue, when protraying the author’s feeling for a cited reference. On the other hand, Physics and Political Science differed using mostly neutral stace with words such as indicate that don’t hint at the author’s perspective of the given information. Biology and Philosophy each have their own conventions that differ from the rest of the disciplines studied with Biology reporting less verbs on average than any other discipline studied and their verbs not indicating any stance at all. Philosophy tended to take a positive stance using verbs such as develops and recognizes.

In a university academic writing courses are typically grouped together based on similar subjects and convenience for teachers, but Rawlins and his co-researchers found that even these similar subjects have different conventions for using verbs to communicate stance, which can make it tricky for teachers to adequately teach discipline-specific writing unless organized where the focus is how the discipline uses verb and stance to convey meaning and not based on subject alone.

Dr. Jacob Rawlins BYU Professor


Rawlins and his co-researchers hoped that by matching these six disciplines by verb usage and stance they can help students and teachers understand disciplinary differences better, which could result in the required courses for academic writing becoming more effective. They noted, “This research can help writers understand the significance of reporting verbs and use them more effectively to develop their own discipline-specific authorial voice."1

Through better understanding verb usage, students will have more chances to understand what writing style is truly needed post-graduation and also recognize the importance of stance and verb usage in their own academic writing.

Read the Original Article

Rawlins, Jacob; Eckstein, Grant; Hanks, Elizabeth; Lester, Emily; Wilde, Lauryn; Bartholomew, Ryan (2024). Intentional Function and Frequency of Reporting Verbs Across Six Disciplines: A cluster analysis. International Journal of English for Academic Purposes: Research and Practice.

1"This research can help writers understand the significance of reporting verbs and use them more effectively to develop their own discipline-specific authorial voice" (Rawlins, Eckstein, Hanks, Lester, Wilde, Bartholomew, 2024, pg. 53).