Purpose: The maturity of technical communication merits a comprehensive, longitudinal analysis of the content published in its leading journals and the scholars who produce this research. Although reflexive research is common in the sciences and social sciences, few studies have analyzed the body of research in technical communication. Clarity on content and authorship patterns can help position the field for future relevance and sustainability.
Method: We conducted a quantitative content analysis on 672 articles published in five leading technical communication journals from 1996–2017. Articles were coded on nine content variables related to primary topic, primary audience, and authorship. We subsequently conducted a correspondence analysis on the variables to identify how specific content areas associated with the journals.
Results: Content and authorship patterns were near identical to the patterns found in the field 30 years prior. The journals published content primarily focused on rhetoric, genre, pedagogy, and diversity. In contrast, field-defining topics—usability/UX, comprehension, design, and editing and style—appeared in the sample less than expected. A majority of research was single-authored and written by female first authors; further, a majority of the first authors had academic affiliations in the United States.
Conclusion: Scholars must consider if these content and authorship patterns are the products of deliberate choices and, if so, if this is the field’s inevitable trajectory for the next 30 years. We argue that certain topics are being overproduced while other topics that established the field are being underproduced and, in some cases, being assumed by other disciplines.
Keywords: content analysis, correspondence analysis, research, technical communication, technical writing
- Technical Communication (TC) statistically corresponded with content related to knowledge and information management and design. Overall, both topics appeared in the sample less frequently than expected. Other research topics; including editing, usability, and design; were also underrepresented throughout the sample, problematizing what research content practitioners have available to them.
- Compared to the other four journals, TC published the least amount of content directed toward academics. Instead, the journal’s content focused on writers, managers, and designers.
- TC was one of three journals to statistically correspond with content written by multiple authors.
State-of-the-discipline studies are common to many fields, including public administration (Lynn & Wildavsky, 1990), public policy (Bunea & Baumgartner, 2014), political science (Kacmar & Baron, 1999), group communication (Frey, 1994), and digital studies (Kirschenbaum & Werner, 2014). These periodic assessments identify the values, boundaries, and research priorities of a particular field over a designated timeframe.
Technical communication merits the same analysis as these other academic disciplines, particularly when it has been suggested that the field lacks a cohesive identity. Rude (2009) noted several reasons for the field’s unformed disciplinary identity, including the placement of our programs (often in traditional English literature-based departments); how we distinguish our questions and methods from other, more established disciplines; and our relative newness as a legitimate academic discipline with its own interconnecting theories and practices (p. 177). In fact, technical communication has been described as a “young” discipline for at least the last 30 years (Blakeslee, 2009; Carver, 1998; Garrison, 2014; Haselkorn, 1997; Hayhoe, 2006; Wahlstron, 1988). This youth has enabled scholars to freeform their definition of technical communication, the content areas that merit investigation, and the methods used to expand its body of knowledge. Rude (2009) extended this observation, pointing out that scholars are often redefining, reenvisioning, or rethinking the field. The consistent use of the prefix re “implies an established identity that should now be modified, but it also reflects a failure to pin down the characteristics” (p. 188). As a result, technical communication is recognized for its diversity, but this diversity has proven “very difficult to define or to circumscribe” (Rainey, 1999, p. 524).
St. Amant and Melonçon (2016) recently argued that technical communication’s inability to define itself has hampered its legitimacy. They described an incommensurability problem in which “nothing seems shared or common” and one that “undermines . . . our power to act, engage, and develop as a field” (pp. 3–4). They suggested that technical communication was “doom[ed] . . . to fail unless we can change the field’s perspective of what we consider common ground” (p. 4). Rude (2009) raised similar concerns years earlier, motivating her development of four areas of related research questions that could better define technical communication as well as distinguish its scholarship from other disciplines. These four areas included disciplinarity, pedagogy, practice, and social change (p. 176).
Disciplinarity—or, how shall we know ourselves?— is perhaps most relevant to this study, and the research focused on disciplinarity can take many forms. Most of the related technical communication scholarship focuses on research methods (e.g., Boettger & Lam, 2013; Lam & Boettger, 2017; Melonçon & St.Amant, 2018). Rude (2009) acknowledged the value of methods but cautioned that we borrow them from so many other disciplines that their study alone does not always reveal what is unique and disguisable to technical communication. Our study pivots from these methods-driven studies, but we use the results to complement our findings. Instead, we report both the content (or topic) and authorship patterns within technical communication journals over a 22-year period. Rude (2009) too wrote that the study of topics alone could offer little significance without the presence specific research questions; however, we argue that these analyses contribute a more holistic understanding of where technical communication has been, where the field is now, and where the field could go. Further, we believe the scholars who are studying these topics reflect how the field has developed and perhaps how it might need to be redefined.
To respond to these areas, we conducted a quantitative content analysis on a random sample of 672 articles published in the five leading technical communication journals from 1996–2017. This approach and the resulting data is a step toward determining what the field has published in recent decades. This current research aims to assess and contextualize the disciplinarity of the field (and, to a lesser extent, its pedagogy, practice, and social change) through an analysis of both the content of the research and the characteristics of the authors to better frame the field’s “visibility, identity, status, and sustainability” (Rude, 2009, p. 207). To explore these issues, we designed the study to identify the primary content areas, authorship characteristics, and collaboration patterns within these journals over the last 22 years.
State-of-the-discipline studies are a critical research component, as they afford the opportunity to assess the health of a field and to identify patterns for comparative assessments. Further, state-of-the-discipline studies that focus on content can identify what is of apparent value to the field. With relatively few publication outlets focused exclusively on technical communication, the content of the research journals is an argument as to what is of value to the field. At present, our five leading journals typically publish 4–6 pieces of scholarship over the course in each of their four issues every year. This only allows 80–100 opportunities to address the content demands and alignment issues that are vital to the future of technical communication.
Additionally, state-of-the-discipline studies that investigate authorship characteristics such as gender and professional affiliation can ascertain the degree to which publications align with a field’s claims of diversity (Eigenberg & Whalley, 2015; Fox et al., 2016; Gomes et al., 2016; Raptis, 1992; Siddiqui, 1997). Understanding a field’s collaborative patterns can frame arguments for the acceptance of collaborative work to promotion and tenure boards who, in some disciplines, have favored sole-authored work over collaborative pursuits (Abbasi et al., 2012; Ezema & Asogwa, 2014; Katz & Martin, 1997; Perianes-Rodríguez et al., 2010). However, in technical communication, little research has analyzed the content areas (or the topics) and authorship characteristics of the field’s research.
Technical communication scholars have only recently begun to reflect on its existing body of research, in part because the field’s age did not provide a sufficient amount of longitudinal data. Current studies typically focus on research methods (Boettger & Lam, 2013; Brammer & Galloway, 2007; Melonçon & St.Amant, 2018). A recent study reported that 37% of articles published in the five leading technical communication journals over a five-year period were empirical (Melonçon & St.Amant, 2018). This study built from an early definition of empirical research, which describes or measures an observable phenomenon in a systematic way (MacNealy, 1999). The coding for this current article also applied this definition. Further, almost 60% of this empirical research was published in either Transactions on Professional Communication or Technical Communication. These results are potentially relevant to the present study as both journals are affiliated with professional organizations and associated with content that addresses practitioner audiences (Smith, 2000a, 2000b). Similarly, specific content areas are associated with specific research approaches. Scholarship on collaboration and usability/UX were typically empirical, whereas scholarship on rhetoric, pedagogy, and genre were typically non-empirical (Lam & Boettger, 2017).
The content-related studies (studies that assess what areas or topics technical communication covers) produced in technical communication can typically be organized into two categories. The first encompasses a collection of self-reflective studies conducted as integrated literature reviews or anecdotal assessments (Brammer & Galloway, 2007; Fine, 1996; Forman, 1998; Malone, 2007; Rogers, 1995). Although these studies have offered focused examinations into specific content areas and phenomena, they have often done so without citation analyses, scientometrics, or other rigorous and replicable means for assessment. The second category focuses on technical communication doctoral research. Two studies have examined the types of doctoral research produced from 1965–1990 and 1989–1998, respectively, and found emphasis on pedagogical, rhetorical, and compositional areas (Rainey, 1999; Rainey & Kelly, 1992). Additionally, Cook et al. (2003) conducted a survey in which recent technical communication doctoral graduates self-reported the topics of their dissertation research; they found that rhetoric, culture, and pedagogy were among the most reported content areas. The results from these latter studies inform our own analysis as these doctoral students were likely new tenure-track researchers during our 22-year time period.
The field’s most longitudinal examination of journal content remains the citation analyses by Smith (2000a, 2000b). Smith conducted a citation analysis on 10 years’ worth of technical communication publications (including the same five journals analyzed in the present study) and found that the content areas were “broadly identified as professional issues (defining technical communication, pedagogy, and research methods), rhetoric and the rhetorics of communities, document design and technology issues, and workplace communication” (p. 427). Smith’s analysis also noted content differences among the five journals. Technical Communication Quarterly and Journal of Business and Technical Communication were identified as the leading publications for authors with academic affiliations as well as the forums for the field’s more theoretical discussions. As noted earlier, TPC and TC both associated with scholarship from the point of view of the practitioner. TPC also associated with research focused on communication with subject-matter experts and TC associated with research on design. Additional rigorous (and contemporary) research on technical communication content areas are needed to enable a broader understanding of what, exactly, technical communication currently is to its scholars.
State-of-the-discipline studies have also investigated the authorship characteristics (e.g., Gomes et al., 2016; Raptis, 1992; Siddiqui, 1997) and collaborative patterns (e.g., Abbasi et al., 2012; Katz & Martin, 1997; Perianes-Rodríguez et al., 2010). These results summarize the professional and personal characteristics of a field’s scholars as well as provide insight into the value of collaborative research and patterns, such as the frequency that advisees publish with their dissertation advisors.
Only a few technical communication studies have addressed authorship characteristics. The earlier cited survey of dissertation authors also examined the diversity of the authors and found that more women than men completed technical communication dissertations, and 93% of these authors self-identified their ethnicity as “White” (Cook et al., 2003). Of the 18 schools represented by the respondents, all were based in the US and all but two were large public institutions (i.e., more than 20,000 students). In a study of technical communication research journals (the same five journals reviewed in this present study), Smith’s (2000a, 2000b) longitudinal citation analyses found that approximately one third of the data was produced by more than one author and that more scholarship was produced by males than females (Smith, 2000a, 2000b). Authorship statistics of TPC over a 25-year period found that about a third of the articles were written by two or more authors with collaborations trending upward longitudinally in their sample (Brammer & Galloway, 2007). A subsequent analysis of four technical communication journals over a five-year period found that approximately two thirds of the articles were produced by more than one author (Lam, 2014). As a contrast, authorship patterns in JBTC indicated that almost 80% of their publications were single-authored and 62% of the lead authors were females (Burnett, 2003). These authorship patterns suggest variation among the five leading journals as well as trends that have developed over the last several decades. Additional rigorous research is needed to enable a broader understanding of who authors technical communication research and how those authorship characteristics align with technical communication’s “growth area” of diversity (Johnson et al., 2018, p. xix).
Therefore, we continued to explore these issues through the following research questions:
RQ1. What are the primary content areas covered in technical communication journals, and who are the primary audiences that benefit most from this content?
RQ2. What are the authorship characteristics of these journal article writers?
RQ3. What are the collaboration patterns among authors? What patterns prevail in certain journals and on particular topics?
Our primary method was content analysis. We define content analysis as “a research technique for making replicable and valid inferences from texts (and other meaningful matter) in the contexts of their use” (Krippendorff, 2012, p. 18). Content analysis has been modified for qualitative inquiry; however, our application is quantitative and meaning was identified through valid measurement rules and relational inferences via statistical methods (Boettger & Palmer, 2010; Neuendorf, 2016). The general framework for quantitative content analysis includes identifying the sample, developing a coding scheme, norming raters, and analyzing data.
The timeframe for this analysis began with content published in 1996, which is roughly when Smith (2000ab) concluded the timeframe for her bibliometric studies. We concluded the timeframe in 2017, which, at the time of coding, provided the latest complete volume of each journal. We analyzed content from five journals: Journal of Business and Technical Communication (JBTC), Journal of Technical Writing and Communication (JTWC), Technical Communication (TC), Technical Communication Quarterly (TCQ), and IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication (TPC). We selected these journals for analysis because they were all published for the entirety of the designated time period, were included in Smith’s previous studies, and have been identified as the leading forums for technical communication scholarship (Boettger & Lam, 2013; Carliner et al., 2011; Lowry et al., 2007; Smith, 2000a, 2000b). The field has expanded its number of journals, and technical communication scholars published in other forums but focusing on the five leading journals provides the parameters necessary for longitudinal study.
Our sample included 672 articles published in five leading technical communication journals from 1996–2017. We began with 2,148 articles, or every peer-reviewed article published during the 22-year period. Each article was numbered in a MS-Excel spreadsheet, and we used the random number formula to identify the sample for analysis. The random selection of the sample retained the representative number of articles published by each journal. As an example, TC published 20.4% of the articles in the population (n = 439), and the journal represented 19% (n = 127) of the present study’s sample. The remaining sample included 112 articles from JBTC, 133 from JTWC, 137 from TCQ, and 163 from TPC. We manually coded 31.3% of the corpus, which is slightly above the ideal sample size for yielding a 95% confidence level with a 3.5% margin of error.
We manually coded the sample on nine content variables: journal, year, primary topic, primary audience, authorship, gender, affiliation type, geographic affiliation, and world region. Variables were selected based on their presence in previous studies in technical communication and related fields (Boettger et al., 2015; Boettger & Friess, 2016; Boettger et al., 2014; Boettger & Lam, 2013; Brammer & Galloway, 2007; Carliner et al., 2011; Lowry et al., 2007; Juzwik et al., 2006; St. Clair Martin et al., 2012; Tansey et al., 2012). Table I includes a description of each variable and its levels.
Operationalization best practices related to survey and experimental research also apply to measurement in content analysis. This includes the development of mutually exclusive coding categories where each recording unit fits into only one category on a given score dimension (Neuendorf, 2016). This practice enables different coders to arrive at the same results and provides a common instrument to facilitate data comparison across multiple studies. In fact, the codes developed by the researchers for this and earlier studies have also been applied by other researchers (e.g., Hannah & Lam, 2016).
Our codebook was finalized after 12 drafts and norming sessions with a separate sample and among three researchers. Previous research describes the development of these codebooks, particularly how we developed and refined the mutually exclusive codes for primary topic and primary audience codes (Boettger et al., 2015; Boettger & Friess, 2016; Boettger et al., 2014). For example, identifying mutually exclusive categories for primary topic proved challenging. We initially coded a small sample using four different schemas before arriving at the final approach. When our first codebook was developed, the classification scheme for the STC Body of Knowledge (and later applied in Carliner et al., 2011) was still evolving and contained several coding options. The large number of possible codes proved challenging to sort into mutually exclusive categories, norm across multiple raters, and analyze for noticeable patterns. We encountered similar issues with the coding scheme used by the eServer Technical Communication Library (tc.eserver.org). In addition, we considered the keywords that prospective authors choose to classify their submissions to journals using the ScholarOne Manuscript system (e.g., audience analysis, linguistic research, listening persuasion/proposals). We found these keywords proved helpful to each journal in identifying appropriate manuscript reviewers but more difficult to apply usefully and consistently to all the major journals in technical communication. In the end, our aim was to create a codebook that addressed the diversity of scholarship in the field across multiple publication venues.
We acknowledge that a piece of technical communication scholarship does not always neatly fit into a single category, but the abstraction and isolation of variables is a vital step to any scientific method. No one study can address every nuance of a phenomenon; however, our results include a consistent application of codes that were developed with attention to validity and reliability. Therefore, these codes can be applied to other data samples for comparison, contributing to the growth rather than the stagnation of a particular research conversation.
For this study, we collapsed the earlier developed codes of gender and intercultural communication codes into a more encompassing diversity code. This update was in response to the focus on diversity and inclusion in recent technical communication scholarship. Twenty percent of the current sample was re-coded for inter-rater reliability. Agreement between the study’s authors was 84.6% (using Krippendorff’s alpha coefficient) and within the recommended range (Watt & van den Burg, 1995).
Data were analyzed with descriptive statistics, contingency table analyses, and correspondence analyses. Contingency table analyses correlate multivariate frequency distributions, allowing researchers to statistically compare distributions of non-numerical data. For this study, we ran a binomial, a type of contingency table analysis that tests the statistical significance of deviations from theoretically expected distributions in two categories. We also ran the chi-square test to test two-way table associations.
Correspondence analysis (or CA) is a geometric technique used to analyze multi-way tables containing some measure of correspondence between the rows and columns (Greenacre, 2007). The most useful component of CA is its ability to visually organize the data into central and peripheral instances. CA is not an inferential measure and does not determine statistical significance. Statistical output provides a chi-square value that reflects the overall interaction between the rows and columns, but the researchers must consult other statistical output to properly interpret the results. Throughout this paper, we only report CAs that had a significant chi-square value of ≤ 0.05, and, like previous researchers, we reviewed other output to determine between-variable relationships (e.g., Boettger & Friess, 2016; Boettger & Lam, 2013; Friess, 2018; Lam & Boettger, 2017).
The results are organized around the three research questions.
RQ1: Content and Audience
What are the primary content areas covered in technical communication journals, and who are the primary audiences that benefit most from this content?
Overall, the journals published content primarily focused on rhetoric, pedagogy, and genre (see Table II). A contingency table analysis determined how evenly distributed the primary topics were across the journals. Our null hypothesis assumed that if all topics were evenly distributed, 44.8 articles on each topic would have appeared within the 22-year period. This number was derived by dividing the sample size by the number of primary topics (i.e., 672/15). As hypothesized, not every content area was equally represented in the journals, and it is this result that focuses much of our analysis. The far-right columns of Table II list the observed frequencies of the topics and the related p-values.
Articles on rhetoric, pedagogy, genre, and diversity appeared in the journals at a higher than expected frequency. In other words, these areas appeared significantly more often than 44.8 times in the sample. These topics comprised 49.4% of the overall sample and were dispersed in all five journals. Articles on usability/UX, comprehension, knowledge and information management, research design, design, and editing and style appeared in the journals less frequently than expected. In other words, these areas appeared significantly less often than 44.8 times in the sample. The remaining five topics were not significantly distributed and, therefore, appeared within the journals as frequently as expected.
Primary topic and journal
A correspondence analysis (CA) identified a significant relationship between primary topic and journal (χ2 = 171.005 p < 0.00). Seven associations were identified from the statistical output.
The strongest correspondence was between TCQ and rhetoric (see Figure I). TCQ published 42.4% of the rhetoric articles in our sample (see Table I). Next, TPC corresponded with collaboration and communication strategies. The journal published 52.8% and 40%, respectively, of the articles on both topics. JTWC corresponded with genre and pedagogy. The journal published 35.6% and 20.9%, respectively, of the articles on both topics. Finally, TC corresponded with knowledge and information management and design. The journal published 33.3% and 50%, respectively, of the articles on both topics. JBTC did not correspond with a primary topic.
The primary audience category was coded based on who would benefit most from reading the content rather than who was most likely to read it. Academic was identified as the most frequent primary audience, accounting for 67.3% of the sample (see Table III). Writer/content developer was the next most frequent primary audience (9.9%), and the related content appeared most often in JTWC, TC, and TPC. The third primary audience was manager (8.5%) and the related content appeared most often in TC and TPC.
Primary audience and journal
A second CA identified a significant relationship between primary audience and journal (χ2 = 219.02 p < 0.00). Four associations were identified based on the statistical output (see Figure II).
The strongest correspondence was between TCQ and the academic. As indicated in Table III, 93.4% of the content in the TCQ sample most benefitted this audience. Academic was the typical audience for all the journals; however, the frequency of TCQ articles differed from the other four journals. As a contrast, the JBTC, JTWC, TPC, and TC sample focused its content on academics 83.0%, 67.7%, 59.5%, and 34.7%, respectively, of the time. In addition, TC corresponded with the senior writer/content strategist and the visual communicator. The journal published 53.7% and 73.3%, respectively, of the content for both audiences. TPC corresponded with the manager and published 57.9% of the related content.
RQ2: Authorship Characteristics
What are the authorship characteristics of these journal article writers?
Overall, 59.4% of the sample was single-authored, 26.5% was co-authored, and 14.1% was multi-authored (see Table IV). When we collapse the two latter categories, 40.6% of the sample was written by two or more authors. Three journals best reflected this overall authorship distribution. Results indicated that 42.5% and 57.1% of the content published in TC and JBTC, respectively, was single-authored. TPC was the only journal that published more content by two or more authors (55.8%) than sole authors. Comparatively, authorship in JTWC and TCQ was imbalanced, and both journals published substantially more single-authored content (72.9% and 67.9%, respectively).
We coded the gender of the first author based on the pronouns used in the author-provided biography. If no biography was included in the article, we consulted the pronouns used in the author’s institutional biography or LinkedIn profile. Overall, 50.7% of the first authors in the sample were coded as female. The JBTC, TCQ, and TPC sample included more female-first authors (61.6%, 53.3%, and 51.5%, respectively). The JTWC and TC sample included more male-first authors (57.9% and 53.5%, respectively). Results from a chi square test confirmed the overall gender distribution of first authors across journals was significant (χ2 = 10.59, p < 0.05).
Further, the sample included 513 different first authors; 264 were coded as female and 249 were coded as male. Of the females, Natasha Jones was first author on the most articles (n = 5), followed by Kim Sydow Campbell, Nancy Coppola, Loel Kim, Carolyn Rude, and Elizabeth Tebeaux (n = 4 each). Of the males, Joseph Little and Kirk St.Amant were first author on the most articles (n = 6), followed by Ned Kock, Edward Malone, and Jason Swarts (n = 5 each). All of these authors held university affiliations.
The sample included 92.1% first authors with academic affiliations (see Table V). The sample included 272 different academic affiliations (associated with the first author). Authors affiliated with Texas Tech University published the most articles in our sample (n = 20); followed by Iowa State University (n = 17); University of Central Florida, University of Memphis, and North Carolina State University (n = 15 each); University of Minnesota and University of Washington (n = 14 each); Auburn University (n = 12); University of Twente (n = 11); and University of North Texas, Utah State University, and Virginia Tech (n = 10 each).
Only 7.9% of the first authors had an industry or government agency affiliation. These affiliations were represented in all five journals; however, 80% of these affiliations appeared in either TC or TPC (60.38% and 20.75%, respectively). Overall, five articles were written by independent contractors. Authors affiliated with IBM (n = 3) and FLIR Systems (n = 2) contributed multiple articles to the sample, but the 43 other affiliations were only represented once.
Geographic affiliation and world region
The sample included 82.9% first authors who held a national affiliation (i.e., anywhere within the United States, see Table V). TPC and JBTC published the most first authors with international affiliations (32.5% and 20.5%, respectively). TCQ published the least amount of first authors with international affiliations (4.38%).
Finally, 86.8% of first authors were affiliated with institutions or organizations in North America (see Table V). The sample also included affiliations with Europe (8.18%), Asia (3.72%), and Australia (1.34%). TPC published the most first authors with international affiliations (39.1%), while TCQ published the least (1.46%).
RQ3: Collaboration Patterns
What are the collaboration patterns among authors? What patterns prevail in certain journals and on particular topics?
Journal and authorship
To answer the third research question, we examined the authorship and affiliation results beyond the descriptive statistics. A CA identified a significant relationship between journal and authorship (χ2 = 42.281 p < 0.00). Three associations were identified from the statistical output (see Figure III).
The strongest correspondence was between TPC and multi-authorship. The journal published 46.3% of the multi-authored articles in the sample (see Table IV). Next, JBTC and TC corresponded with co-authorship. Both journals published 42.7% of the co-authored research in the sample. Further, 33% of the JBTC sample and 30.7% of the TC sample were co-authored. JTWC and TCQ did not correspond with an authorship pattern; however, both produced substantially more single-authored research than the other journals.
Preliminary collaboration patterns
Based on these CA results, we further examined the 193 articles that were written by two or more authors in TPC, JBTC, and TC. As summarized in Table IV, these journals collectively published 70.7% of the sample that was written by two or more authors. These three journals demonstrated the strongest inclination for collaboration and, thus, might suggest more generalizable authorship patterns in technical communication. We present these results as preliminary because they represent a sub-sample of a larger sample and are not necessarily reflective of the population.
Overall, we found that 58% of these collaborations were led by female researchers. Further, 8.81% of these first authors had an industry/government affiliation, and 34% had an international affiliation. All of these results exceed the collective averages reported for the entire sample.
Additional results found that 23.83% of the articles were led by a student (n = 46), suggesting a mentorship pattern. Finally, 10.36% (n = 21) included collaboration between at least one academic and one industry professional. In these collaborations, 75% of the lead authors had an academic affiliation.
Topic and authorship
A CA identified a significant relationship between primary topic and authorship (χ2 = 69.495 p < 0.00). Five associations were identified from the statistical output (see Figure IV).
The strongest correspondence was between rhetoric and single authorship. Results found that 78.3% (n = 72) of the rhetoric sample were written by a single author. Further, 18.1% (n = 399) of the sample’s single-authored articles were on rhetoric. Next, articles on both collaboration and communication strategies corresponded with multi-authorship, and 27.8% (n = 10) and 22% (n = 11) of the articles on these topics, respectively, were written by three or more authors. Finally, pedagogy and editing both corresponded with co-authorship, and 18% (n = 32) and 38.5% (n = 5), respectively, of the articles on these topics were written by two authors.
Gender and authorship
As reported earlier, 50.7% of the first authors in the sample were coded as female. However, males published 53.6% (n = 214) of the singled-authored articles compared to females (n = 185). In contrast, females led 57.1% (n = 156) of the articles written by two or more authors compared to men (n = 117). These authorship patterns were significant (χ2 = 7.5 p < 0.01).
The motivation for this study was to analyze the content and authorship patterns that inform technical communication scholarship and, thus, provide baseline findings for future research and help ground the current state of technical communication. In this discussion, we explore what these results may mean for the “visibility, identity, status, and sustainability” of the field of technical communication that Rude discussed (Rude, 2009, p. 207).
The content areas of technical communication have been remarkably consistent for decades.
Smith’s analysis of technical communication scholarship from 1988–1997 revealed a shift in the field’s legitimization, and, collectively, a move away from composition theory and a focus on rhetoric (Smith, 2000a, 2000b). She found JBTC and TCQ to be the leading publications for authors with academic affiliations as well as the forums for the field’s more theoretical discussions. In particular, TCQ experienced tremendous growth after transitioning from the more focused Technical Writing Teacher. In contrast, TC and TPC—journals both affiliated with professional organizations—typically published scholarship from the point of view of the practitioner. TC also aligned with design-related content, TPC with communicating with engineers and subject matter experts, and JTWC with pedagogy.
Our present study includes over two additional decades of data; however, our results show no considerable change to Smith’s (2000a, 2000b) previous research. Rhetoric solidified itself as the most common primary topic and appeared in the sample more frequently than expected. TCQ corresponded with rhetoric-focused articles, while TPC corresponded with collaboration and communication strategies (mostly related to engineers and other SMEs). TC continued its correspondence with design, while JTWC corresponded with content focused on pedagogy.
In sum, content in professional and technical communication journals has remained consistent for thirty years. Though the field has matured, the journals have held fast to their defining characteristics. On one hand, this consistency suggests stability, and the content shifts observed in the mid-1990s were needed to advance technical communication. More important, these shifts remain (or, appear to remain) mutually shared by its scholars. On the other hand, this consistency is somewhat surprising for a young academic discipline that was only finding its footing a short time ago.
Content on usability/UX, comprehension, knowledge and information management, research design, design, and editing and style appeared less than expected.
Results from the contingency table analysis found that content primarily focused on usability/UX, comprehension, knowledge and information management, research design, design, and editing
and style appeared in the sample less frequently than expected.
Collectively, these topics are all field-defining and represent the foundations of technical communication. Arguably, the field has necessarily evolved from these original foci and established an alternative foundation that includes higher-level aspects of the universes in which we do our work. Hart and Conklin (2006) identified increasing variety in the duties of current technical communicators. The evolution of the profession now places technical communicators in all phases of product development rather than solely in the added-benefit final phase just prior to product deployment. Current technical communicators are becoming “strategic negotiators” who create deliverables beyond user manuals and online help and engage in non-traditional tasks and processes, including teamwork and business process-development (pp. 413–414).
However, the lack of coverage of these topics in our peer-reviewed literature could be worrisome given that they encompass skillsets that technical communication hiring managers require (Brumberger & Lauer, 2015; Kimball, 2015; Lanier, 2004, 2009, 2018; Lauer & Brumberger, 2016; Rainey et al., 2005). The description of technical writers by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a description developed by the STC and technical communication practitioners, further highlights these skills as necessary for meeting the projected demand of the profession (Brennan, 2016; Carliner, 2012; “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Technical Writers,” 2018).
We ask scholars to consider if a de-emphasis on these types of topics is deliberate or necessary for growth. As an example, editing and style was the least frequent primary topic. The topic accounted for 1.93% of the sample compared to the 13.69% of articles on rhetoric. Editing and style is a topic that the field has not yet interrogated through rigorous scholarship, and, in fact, much of the related information that we teach students has been described as “technical communication lore” (Graham, 2017, p. 13). Further, a recent census of the field found that editing was the second most prominent work responsibility of the 676 participants (after content creation), with 12% identifying it as a primary responsibility, 31% as a secondary responsibility, and 15% as a tertiary responsibility (Carliner & Chen, 2018). In his recent editorial, Graham (2017) wrote that effective technical writing was nearly universally understood to be clear, concise, situated within a genre, and directed toward a specific audience. He argued that only half of these virtues (audience and genre accommodation) were well established through rigorous scholarship, while research related to clarity and concision were often based on anecdotal or contradictory information. Such foundational topics may be less appealing to developing technical communication scholars, but with the continuing growth of content management systems and user-generated content along with ongoing changes in what audiences consider appropriate in given communicative situations, the need for research focused on editing and style is large. In fact, technical editing remains one of the most under-researched subfield in technical communication (Boettger, 2014; Eaton, 2010).
If lack of interest explains the absence of some topics, relevancy to the field might explain the absence of others. Usability/UX, which partially evolved from technical communication research, is now, by many measures, its own field of study, with its own conferences, publication forums, and professional organizations (J. Redish, 2010; J. G. Redish & Barnum, 2011). Redish and Barnum (2011) observed that they do not see many technical communicators at UXPA (the annual conference for usability professionals), nor do they see UX professionals presenting at technical communication conferences. They note that while both are part of the same family tree, sharing a deeply intertwined history, the two fields are now more like “distant cousins” (p. 100). Results from the present study suggest that technical communication journals have largely ceded the study of this topic. The loss becomes particularly troublesome when a recent analysis of research methods found that the usability/UX articles published in technical communication journals were typically replicable, aggregable, and data-supported (Lam & Boettger, 2017).
Future research needs to investigate why scholarship on these foundational topics are appearing with less frequency. We concede that our analysis of academic journals provides an incomplete perspective of the field’s overall content distribution and that trade publications like Intercom might cover these topics with more depth. However, these foundational topics merit scholarly attention since “knowledge derived from basic and applied research” could benefit both the practice and the theory of technical communication (Rainey & Kelly, 1992, p. 570). These disconnects are further evidence of the field’s incommensurability problem (St. Amant & Melonçon, 2016).
Content primarily focused on rhetoric, pedagogy, genre, and diversity appeared in the journals more than expected.
Results further indicated that scholarship on rhetoric, pedagogy, genre, and diversity appeared in the sample more than expected. From a content perspective, Boettger and Friess (2016) argued that rhetoric was needed to inform technical communication, but rhetoric, when explored in abstract, was not technical communication (p. 321). Pedagogical research has been found to be of limited value to practitioners because they often have limited applicability outside the classroom (St.Amant & Melonçon, 2016). Pedagogy is arguably a topic that fits best in the academy; however, the field’s current pedagogical research often involves classroom experience reports, which typically have limited value beyond that particular experience (Lam & Boettger, 2017). Eaton refers to this research as “cup of coffee articles;” the results are useful, but only as useful as having a cup of coffee with a colleague and discussing an experience (Eaton, 2010, p. 9). Other popular topics, such as genre, have already been well established through rigorous scholarship (Graham, 2017). The field then needs to consider if the amount of research being published on these topics is warranted (or even necessary).
In addition, the field needs to consider if the scope of the coverage these popular topics receive is sufficient. For example, genre research may appear more than expected, but scholars might consider the breadth of this scholarship. As noted previously, the role of the technical communicator is evolving, including the variety of products produced (Hart & Conklin, 2006). Recent census results suggest that technical communicators primarily produce user guides and help and user assistance topics (66% and 52%, respectively); however, these professionals are also creating user interfaces, marketing information, white papers, social media content, and chatbots (Carliner & Chen, 2018). Additionally, attention to technical communication standards, structured writing, and agile work practices are informing how technical communications develop these products.
And despite its visibility in the journals, the diversity in scholarship has been described as under-representative and, as an example, includes little perspective of women of color and their experiences in professional and technical communication (Jones et al., 2016). This present study builds from previous studies where content related to gender and intercultural communication were coded separately (Boettger et al., 2015; Boettger & Friess, 2016; Boettger et al., 2014; Boettger & Lam, 2013). We collapsed these categories and expanded the code book definition in response to the growing amount of scholarship focused on diversity and inclusion. The further production of scholarship coded as diversity will be more evident in a ten-year follow-up study.
From a methodological perspective, the approaches used to address these popular topics contrast with the approaches used to address less popular topics. A study of recent technical communication scholarship found that 68.8% of rhetoric, 75% of pedagogy, and 53.8% of genre research was non-empirical (Lam & Boettger, 2017). In particular, the rhetoric and pedagogy research revealed a heavy concentration of theory and commentary-based research when compared to the other topic areas assessed. Another recent study identified similar trends, including that TPC published almost 40% of the empirical research among the five leading technical communication journals (Melonçon & St.Amant, 2018). The findings suggest that technical communication research leans toward topics that have routinely not required rigorous empirical analyses, rigor that would likely be expected if the same research were to be published in other fields.
Professional and technical communication research is typically produced by a homogenous population.
Results of the present study also revealed salient findings related to authorship. In her earlier study, Smith reported that male authors outnumbered female authors by a 2:1 measure (Smith, 2000b). Our results suggested that authorship has achieved more parity over 22 years. Female-first authors appeared in our sample slightly more often than males (50.7% compared to 49.3%). JBTC, TCQ, and TPC all published more female-first authored pieces than male. This gender distribution is consistent with what has been previously reported in JBTC (Burnett, 2003) and potentially surprising to those who considered TPC more male-dominated due to the journal’s engineering origins.
We also found female authors collaborated more than males, a pattern that aligned with Smith’s (2000b) earlier findings. A chi square test measuring males’ tendency to publish as single authors and females’ tendency to collaborate was significant. Overall, authorship among the five academic journals varied. JBTC and TC corresponded with co-authorship, and TPC corresponded with multi-authorship. TCQ and JTWC did not correspond with any pattern, but they published more singled-authored pieces than collaborative. We also reported preliminary information that suggested a mentorship pattern; students were lead author on almost a quarter of the subsample we analyzed. Additional research needs to be conducted on collaboration patterns, but a trend toward student-mentor publications would be a positive growth sign for the field.
However, beyond the gender balance of first authors and potentially positive trends in collaboration, the typical technical communication scholar was rather homogeneous. Authors in our sample were overwhelmingly based in North America (almost exclusively in the United States) and held an academic affiliation. Further, of the 92.1% of the articles that had first authors affiliated with academic institutions, 59.9% were affiliated with 12 academic institutions. Of these 12 institutions, 11 were large (over 20,000 students) public institutions based in the United States. This suggests that the majority of the field’s research is conducted at only a handful of similar academic institutions concentrated in the US.
This suggests that voices that should be crucial in the shaping of the technical communication field are largely missing from the published research. Despite being a field that grounds itself in real-world communicative practices, voices from industry professionals are largely absent. With the omission of industry input, academic-driven research occupies much of the research journals with content areas that may be beneficial for tenure and promotion but of less value to a manager wanting to learn more about best practices in, for example, API documentation.
International voices were also largely absent from the data set. A lack of authorship diversity also assumes a lack of content that examines the different roles of technical communicators in other countries. In a recent tcworld post, an international business owner wrote that Korean and Japanese technical writers primarily produced documents for consumer products while U.S. technical writers covered a larger product range (Kim, 2017). These different functions require different skillsets, and the business owner stated that the U.S. content she’s consulted over her career has not emphasized the character traits essential to developing consumer manuals. Over 75% of our journal articles were written by first authors with U.S.-based affiliations, and the remaining authors were dispersed among three world regions: Europe, Asia, and Australia. This pattern leads us to wonder why authors with more geographically diverse affiliations are not publishing in our leading journals, and, as important, what content they are reading (and perhaps producing elsewhere) about technical communication.
Our results offer several points of entry regarding the future scholarship in professional and technical communication. We invite readers to consider if these content and authorship patterns are the products of deliberate choices, and, if so, if this is the field’s inevitable trajectory for the next 30 years. In turn, if some of these patterns were influenced by alternative factors, are there ways the field could or should adjust?
In conclusion, our study currently provides the most comprehensive, longitudinal analysis of content and authorship patterns within the leading technical communication journals. While other journals exist on the periphery of the field, they do not yet have the sustained publication record to be included in this particular study; however, future researchers may wish to complement this current study with data from those forums.
In terms of authorship, our study suggests that a narrow band of researchers with relatively homogenous characteristics drives the research of the field. Underrepresented voices, namely non-U.S. scholars and industry professionals, are needed to help accurately shape the field from a research perspective.
While authorship in technical communication research potentially suffers from a homogeneity problem, the content areas in technical communication potentially suffer from a diversity problem. Carolyn Rude asked, “What makes technical communication distinct and recognizable?” (Rude, 2009, p. 175). Our research fails to locate a satisfactory answer to that question. The sheer broadness of the field (as evidenced in the 15 identified content areas) hampers our ability to identify what does, in fact, make technical communication distinct and recognizable. Turning to the content areas that appear most frequently doesn’t help us answer Rude’s question as those content areas either exist as their own academic discipline (e.g., rhetoric) or within any number of academic disciplines (e.g., pedagogy, diversity). The content areas that have traditionally been tied to technical communication (e.g., usability/UX, editing and style, design, and knowledge and information management) appear so infrequently in the published research it is difficult to suggest that those content areas help to make technical communication, from a research perspective, distinct and recognizable. Rather than laud this content area diversity (Rainey, 1999), this diversity gives us pause. Rude suggested that “an academic identity with research that others recognize requires some consensus on the value we bring to knowledge making” (Rude, 2009, p. 175). Our results suggest that such a consensus still eludes the field.
Thirty years later, our results reflect consistency and distinction, at best, or complacency and stagnation, at worst. The field has demonstrated that it can pivot and hold the line. However, this occurred at a time when its scholars seemed to mutually agree on the direction forward. Our results suggest several paths forward, but the field must first establish a new common ground for technical communication to move forward with relevance, sustainability, and cohesion.
The authors thank Saul Carliner for his contributions and feedback on previous versions of this research.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Ryan K. Boettger is an associate professor and assistant chair in the Department of Technical Communication at the University of North Texas. His research areas include data-driven learning, content analysis, and technical editing. His research in STEM education is currently funded by the National Science Foundation. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Erin Friess is an associate professor in the Department of Technical Communication at the University of North Texas. Her research explores the discipline of technical communication, workplace communication, and usability/user experience. Her research has appeared in IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Technical Communication Quarterly, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, and Technical Communication. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.