‘Tell me why’: positioning your work to answer the “so what?” question

By: Jordan R Covvey, PharmD, PhD, BCPS, Deborah A Sturpe, PharmD, MA, BCPS, and Kyle John Wilby, BSP, ACPR, PharmD, PhD

This post is part of our Educational Scholarship “Quick Start” series.  In this series, the editorial boards of Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning and Innovations in Pharmacy are joining together to provide advice that helps authors avoid common problems in education-related inquiry.  A “Quick Start” is not only about being efficient – it’s about enhancing the impact and effectiveness of our scholarly contributions.  

In the 1990s, numerous “boy bands” entered the music scene, belting out songs relating to love, heartbreak, and everything in between. How did each persuade record labels, DJs, and swooning listeners alike that they were unique? They studied the landscape, monitored others’ contributions, and convinced us that they weren’t just another “me too” band. The result? Die-hard, lifelong fans and priority inclusion on homemade mix tapes (you know, an old-school playlist). 

We can learn a great deal from 90s boy bands. After all, many of us work in similar academic environments, so we must ensure our scholarship is meaningful, catchy, and not prone to the dreaded “me too” factor. Difficulty communicating why research was necessary leads editors, reviewers, and readers to ask “so what?” Why does this work matter? How do these results move the field forward? As with boy bands, work must be adequately positioned and meaningful, convincing others that the scholarship has value. 

All I Have to Give

Authors may think a manuscript version is ‘all they have to give’ but a little attention may go a long way. Considerable scholarly effort is often focused upon planning and execution of methodology. However, a good manuscript doesn’t just present results; it frames a compelling story within the context of existing literature, allowing a reader to understand how the work advances the scholarly conversation. To do this, Lingard1 recommends the “problem/gap/hook approach” to clearly identify an important problem, demonstrate the need to further investigate (the gap), and convince the reader of its importance (the hook). Ultimately, the article should be honest and complete in its intentions, not unlike a good love ballad.

The first place to lay the framework for the problem/gap/hook is the Introduction. Although a thorough literature review is an excellent platform for beginning a manuscript, Lingard2 argues the goal is not to examine what is already known about the topic, but rather to identify what isn’t yet understood. Even the most well written manuscript can suffer from problems associated with the “so what?” question, if this foundation is not properly constructed.


Establishing the problem/gap/hook doesn’t alone make a manuscript compelling and consequential – the Discussion serves an important role to ensure it does not feel ‘incomplete’. Most manuscripts follow the IMRaD (Introduction/Methods/Results/Discussion) model,3 often conceptualized in an hourglass format.4 Methods and Results are represented by the middle part of the hourglass, focusing on narrow and objective reporting of the current work. The Introduction and Discussion comprise the top and bottom of the hourglass, adding broader dialogue and context. Hence, the Discussion should expand upon the problem/gap/hook detailed in the Introduction, expound upon the study’s results, and describe relevance to the larger body of literature.5 In the same way that a song has a catchy refrain to grab attention (Introduction), we need to make sure the structure (Methods/Results) and lyrics (Discussion) keep us wanting more

I’ll Never Break Your Heart

What strategies can authors use to avoid common sorrows?

Common pitfallsHow this happensWays to avoid
Problem doesn’t exist
Show ‘Em (What You’re Made of)
The work doesn’t propose questions useful to teaching and learning.Always seek to advance knowledge across all manuscript types even if only descriptive.

Bounce ideas off expert colleagues to gauge interest regarding potential topics.
Problem isn’t clearly identified
Quit Playing Games (with My Heart)
The work shys away from pinpointing the actual problem.Write about the knowledge missing rather than what is already known.

Ask experienced colleagues to read drafts for problem clarity.
Gap (need) doesn’t exist
Show Me the Meaning (of Being Lonely)
The work describes research that only replicates existing work (knowingly or unknowingly).Balance time between conceptualizing the research and conducting it.

Assemble research teams with members knowledgeable about where unanswered questions exist/remain.
Gap is manufactured
More Than That
The work attempts to carve out a niche that isn’t necessary.Undertake an early, quality literature review to find related articles that may already fill the gap; don’t replicate without good reason.

Strong justification if replicated solely in a new population/setting/topic area 
Hook (importance) isn’t generalizable
Intentions of the work are clear, but lacks utility for the broader scientific/educational community.Understand differences between quality improvement projects and generalizable research.

Consider multi-institutional collaborations to expand perspective and transferability

The One

What will it take to move your manuscript (ballad) from your desk (demo) to publication (a digital download)? It takes fostering your inner boy band and being prepared. In addition, avoid the research paths of “least resistance” and engage trusted mentors and peers to provide critical feedback on the quality of the story. These elements will ensure that your next paper ends up first on the next hit mix tape.


Jordan Covvey is an Editorial Board Member at Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning and the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association

Deborah Sturpe is the Associate Editor for Manuscript Quality and Editorial Board Member at Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning.

Kyle Wilby is an Editorial Board Member at Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning, Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy, Exploratory Research in Clinical and Social Pharmacy, and an Associate Editor for Pharmacy Education.


  1.  Lingard L. Joining a conversation: the problem/gap/hook heuristic. Perspect Med Educ. 2015;4(5):252-3. 
  2. Lingard L. Writing an effective literature review: Part I: Mapping the gap. Perspect Med Educ. 2018;7(1):47-9. 
  3. Sollaci LB, Pereira MG. The introduction, methods, results, and discussion (IMRAD) structure: a fifty-year survey. J Med Libr Assoc. 2004;92(3):364-367.
  4. Mogull SA. Scientific and medical communication: a guide for effective practice. New York: Routledge, 2017.
  5. Lingard L. Does your discussion realize its potential?  Perspect Med Educ. 2017;6(5):344.


Jordan Covvey is an Associate Professor at Duquesne University School of Pharmacy in Pittsburgh, PA. Her scholarly interests include medicine use optimization, health outcomes research, and global/public health.

Deborah Sturpe is an Associate Professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. Her educational scholarship interests include optimizing the use of standardized clients, performance-based examinations, and competency-based assessment.

Kyle Wilby is an Associate Professor at the College of Pharmacy at Dalhousie University in Canada. His scholarly interests include assessor cognition in rater-based assessment, strategic planning and accreditation, and minority stress theory and its application to LGBTAQI+ health and education. 

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s