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Navigating the Scholars Spiral

by | Jul 2022 | For Contributors, SDA blog

The SDA’s recursive development model

For nearly a decade of the RSD Symposium, a “publishing ladder” was promoted for RSD authors to further their scholarship by continuing to develop their research following the working paper submitted in the proceedings. The Ladder was envisioned as a typical stepwise development of scholarly communication from the conference presentation to the working paper and on to the top rungs of a journal special issue. Systemic design studies and RSD proceedings editors have collaborated with design research journals FORMakademisk, She Ji, and several other peer-reviewed journals and publications.

The Ladder concept was not novel (there are articles supporting a similar concept), but it was well-understood and an attractive option for the diligent author. Recently in discussions with the SDA general assembly, a critique of the Ladder was offered, that it was implicitly hierarchical with a single preferred destination, and perhaps not suitable for all members. We reflected that it might be more systemic to take a cyclic, non-hierarchical approach to the advancement of scholarship, and the spiral image was conceived.

A board proposal was made to replace the Ladder with a cyclic publishing “spiral,” a metaphor motivated by three ideas:

  • Reduce the competitive implications of the hierarchical structure of the ladder, with the achievement of the peer-reviewed article at the top of the ladder
  • Encourage the development of new authors in the field, by promoting a realistic yet high-standard process for authors at different levels of quality and readiness to start publishing
  • Adapt our knowledge of systems thinking to the publishing process

Thinking of scholarship in terms of a cyclic, spiral process supports a vital emergence of supportive opportunities for scholars. The SDA desires to encourage young researchers, graduate students, and new RSD authors to pursue their own best pathways to publishing available within the RSDA community, from conference to journal, and as envisioned, other publishing outlets for non-research and case studies. The Spiral also encourages scholarships to take its own path, recognizing the development of the field takes shape through studies in adjacent field journals and through partner societies, with conferences and journals in design research, systems sciences, interdisciplinary studies, and relevant  fields.The basic image of the Spiral shows that:

  • Each ring is an iteration of development, with the first ring, of course, being an RSD conference paper
  • A second cycle could be a case report or essay, following further development of a study or project
  • The Contexts journal could be the ultimate publication of a completed research project, as in the ladder, or the journal can be another step in knowledge mobilization
  • Other conferences or journals could follow, as the ultimate scholar’s goal is the sharing and further expansion of the ideas and connection, with more visibility and citations to important work
  • The cyclicity and variability is to allow the  author to follow the impact of their work rather than chase the perceived level of the publication.

Points of production & exchange

Following a typical cycle in the Scholar’s Spiral, we can trace the following points of production and exchange in the figure:

  1. RSD symposium abstracts
  2. Presentation and dialogue at RSD Symposium
  3. RSD proceedings paper
  4. Development for other conferences
  5. Refereed publication of work in progress:
    case brief or relevant journal
  6. Refereed publication of research in
    Contexts—The Systemic Design Journal

Perhaps the most important point is to recognize that the Spiral is meant to support the evolution of scholarship within the SDA membership by providing appropriate points for contribution, peer feedback,  audience, development, and publication and promotion, all within the support of a diverse, creative  multidisciplinary community. Here the Contexts journal may appear positioned as a kind of destinal object for the certification of scholarly work in the field, but that would be a misperception. The cyclic nature of the spiral, as opposed to the ladder metaphor, balances this inclination by always suggesting that a scholar’s  development of work is personalized, evolving, and part of an ongoing process.

The purpose of the SDA is not to generate the production of high-quality research, but to cocreate the socialization and support for all members to contribute their work, find feedback and collaboration where needed, and to pursue their own pathways toward research and practice outcomes that naturally build a vital design field for the future.

—Peter Jones, Editor in Chief, Contexts

Systemic Design Association's Contexts Journal
SDA publications spiral showing six possible steps


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Lidar-derived image of the Danube River and floodplain near Tulln, Austria. Daniel Coe. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED