A Snapshot of 2011 Technical Communication Scholarship

As part of a talk I gave at April’s Rocket City Technical Communication Conference, I presented the results of a short research project I conducted on the topics of technical communication scholarship in 2011. The results show some interesting trends in the scholarship, so I wanted to make the graphs available to a wider audience.

In order to get a snapshot of the trends in technical communication scholarship in 2011, I looked at the topics for every article and/or abstract published online in these five journals:

  • IEEE: Transactions in Professional Communication
  • Journal of Business and Technical Communication
  • Journal of Technical Writing and Communication
  • Technical Communication
  • Technical Communication Quarterly

Within these five journals, four special issues were published in 2011:

  • Open Source (JTWC Fall 2011)
  • Professionalization (TC Fall 2011)
  • Technical Communication and the Law (TCQ Winter 2011)
  • Itexts (JBTC Summer 2011)

All of the articles available online were classified based on their topics. To determine the topic of the article, I examined the title, journal keywords, and abstracts, looking for categories that could be used to group the articles. Naturally, some slippages occur whenever classifications are created. Other researchers may have chosen to classify certain articles differently. Topics that some scholars might consider widely divergent were classified together. For instance, articles dealing with social media and iText were classified under “Social Media/Online Texts” while Open Source Software articles were classified separately. Some articles ended up getting counted twice; for instance, the article “Visualizing Banking and Financial Products: A Comparative Study of Chinese and American Practices” by Han Yu in Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 41.3 was classified under both “cross cultural technical communication” and “visual rhetoric.”  (This means that the numbers on the graph add up to more articles than were actually published in 2011.) And it appears that some articles haven’t been posted online yet as either full texts or abstracts, so the data is certainly incomplete.

Still, the graphs show some clear trends that provide a helpful insight into the field. Here they are (with one graph broken into two pieces for better readability):

Article Topics in 2011 Technical Communication Journals

The results show some definite and expected trends in technical communication scholarship. Clearly, scholars are putting a strong emphasis on cross-cultural communication, which emerged as the dominant interest even without a special issue devoted to the topic. Some of these articles focused on general translation or World Englishes issues. Others focused on specific communication practices or pedagogy in non-US countries, most notably in China, which was the focus of at least seven articles (other articles focused on Japan, Holland, the U.K., and Caribbean nations.)

The prominence of pedagogy and visual rhetoric comes as no surprise, as both have been longstanding interests in technical communication research. Four of the visual rhetoric articles dealt with visuals in scientific communication, including “Insights from Illustrators: The Rhetorical Invention of Paleontology Illustrations” in TCQ 20.3 and “Toward a Taxonomy of Visuals in Science Communication” in TC 58.1.

The real surprise is what was underrepresented. I expected more articles in medical communication, risk rhetoric, and usability, given the seeming prominence of these topics recently in journals, book publications, and conference presentations.  However, one year’s worth of data is not enough to determine whether these topics are really in decline.

Overall, the field continues to produce a wide variety of relevant scholarship, and the graphs here reflect the diverse interests of technical communication. Hopefully, this can become a longitudinal project that catalogs the interests of the field as they develop over time.

Ryan Weber

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