What Makes a Good JAPA Article? (Nerd Alert: Technical Details)

One question potential JAPA authors ask is: What makes a good article?

The short answer is that the Journal of the American Planning Association is looking for articles that contribute to research knowledge and also have clear lessons for planning practice. An article needs to fit into the broad landscape of JAPA article types, including standard articles, literature review essays, and planning viewpoints.

It needs to do more, however. This blog examines the qualities of a good JAPA article and the dos and don’ts of publishing in JAPA. (The “Nerd Alert” in the blog title is something I will use from time to time to indicate that this blog is more academic than typical JAPA blogs at planning.org.)

JAPA Articles Must Make a Contribution to Knowledge

I have published several articles on the character of research in planning. In a 2006 Journal of Architectural and Planning Research article with Katherine Crewe we also outlined a general definition of research. In brief, research answers a question of broad interest, representing a gap in knowledge about a compelling problem; explicitly builds on earlier work; is based on a systematic and explicit method; carefully documents findings that answer the question; engages alternative interpretations; and is both subject to peer review and made public.

In a 2016 Interchange in Planning Theory and Practice, I argue such academic research is different from the kind of project-specific investigations that many practitioners undertake. In these cases, knowledge is new to them but not necessarily new to others, and the contribution is to solving a particular problem rather than adding to knowledge in general. JAPA, while having a sustained commitment to planning-relevance, remains a research journal.

The Exact Character of the Research Contribution Varies

One way it varies is by type of articles. For standard articles it is typically theoretical and/or empirical, for review essays it is synthesizing a body of knowledge, and for viewpoints it is providing a new conceptualization that might frame future research.

Lew Hopkins, in a lovely 2001 JPER article, “Planning as Science,” distinguishes between what he calls cumulative (or incremental) and integrative work.

My interpretation is that incremental work proceeds in different ways in different planning subfields. In some areas it involves articles that build directly on prior work and in others it provides new snapshots from a different angle. However, it involves agreement about important questions. Integrative work provides new typologies, conceptualizations, and meta-analyses.

There is also likely an additional category — beyond integrative and incremental contributions. This is research that challenges conventional wisdom, advancing theories, methods, and new realms of data (my thanks to Editorial Board member Phil Berke for this insight).

Finally, some research applies an insight from one field to another or works on the boundaries between fields. This is hard to do well but some important contributions in planning have been of this kind. JAPA welcomes all of these approaches — incremental, integrative, convention-challenging, and working across disciplines.

Overall Quality

This raises the issue of overall quality — in formulating an important question that can be answered, conducting research in a rigorous way, and communicating the findings coherently.

This is where JAPA adds value in both screening articles and coaching authors to do better. This is not always easy. One of the most memorable reviews I have read as editor raises this issue:

This manuscript presents a minor conundrum. On the one hand, it is reasonably well-located in the literature. It is also passably well-written and organized, and its conclusions (inconsequential as they are) follow directly from the prior analysis. On the other (less charitable) hand, this manuscript presents a series of quasi-answers to two fundamentally uninteresting and unimportant questions that no one is asking.

Dos and Don’ts

Given the need to make a contribution, what can authors do to make it into JAPA? Good submissions follow the checklist below.

Do:

  1. State a compelling problem and justify why it is worth studying.
  2. Make clear your research contribution.
  3. Be part of a conversation happening in the journal — this means reading JAPA and citing planning research.
  4. Review prior work to frame your study concepts and justify your methods.
  5. Articulate specific question(s) and actually answer them in the paper using appropriate methods.
  6. Explain methods at a level of detail that can be replicated and where readers can judge their quality.
  7. Clearly state findings responding to the research questions, based on evidence, and targeting a contribution.
  8. Provide implications for practice — a firm JAPA requirement.
  9. Write well according to standards of the journal — JAPA wants clarity.
  10. Use tables and graphics to support the argument.

Do Not:

  1. Merely apply an existing method to a new case that is rather similar to old cases.
  2. Supply the least publishable unit, also called salami slicing. This involves work that makes a minimal contribution in order to save data and ideas for additional papers. Of course, this is a matter of degree.
  3. Unnecessarily criticize prior work. Remember, those authors will be your reviewers. Instead explain how your work builds on prior work and fills gaps.
  4. Use overly complex methods for the sake of them when simpler methods with less potential for error will do.
  5. Use positioning jargon, gimmicky language, or confusing rhetorical flourishes.
  6. Provide unremittingly negative or positive analyses unless really well justified.
  7. Ignore the reviewers/editor or spend a great deal of time arguing with them in a response to the decision. Rather make the requested changes at an appropriate level of detail. Ultimately, the editor and reviewers want you to improve the article and the response is not the article. A classic example, in another journal where I was a reviewer, was someone who took 12 pages to explain why they would change only 18 words. The editor rejected it.

Overall, JAPA looks for relevant research. I am also happy to review ideas for papers with authors. Please email me at aforsyth@gsd.harvard.edu.

In future weeks I will blog about other dimensions of publishing in JAPA.

The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted subscription for $48/year, or a digital-only subscription for $36/year.

Top image: Articles from JAPA Vol. 85, No. 1.


Headshot of Ann Forsyth.
About the Author

Ann Forsyth

Ann Forsyth is editor of the Journal of the American Planning Association and the Ruth and Frank Stanton Professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.

June 20, 2019

By Ann Forsyth