Newsletter: How can PIs demonstrate that their projects have “advanced knowledge”?

Posted on January 1, 2016 by  in Newsletter - () ()

Director of Research, The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University

NSF’s Intellectual Merit criterion is about advancing knowledge and understanding within a given field or across fields. Publication in peer-reviewed journals provides strong evidence of the Intellectual Merit of completed work. It is an indication that the information generated by a project is important and novel. The peer review process ensures that articles meet a journal’s standard of quality, as determined by a panel of reviewers who are subject matter experts.

In addition, publishing in an academic journal is the best way of ensuring that the new knowledge you have generated is available to others, becomes part of a shared scientific knowledge base, and is sustained over time. Websites and digital libraries tend to come and go with staff and funding changes. Journals are archived by libraries worldwide and, importantly, indexed to enable searches using standard search terms and logic. Even if a journal is discontinued, its articles remain available through libraries. Conference presentations are important dissemination vehicles, but don’t have the staying power of publishing. Some conferences publish presented papers in conference proceedings documents, which helps with long-term accessibility of information presented at these events.

The peer review process that journals employ to determine if they should publish a given manuscript is essentially an evaluative process. A small group of reviewers assesses the manuscript against criteria established for the journal. If the manuscript is accepted for publication, it met the specified quality threshold. Therefore, it is not necessary for the quality of published articles produced by ATE projects to be separately evaluated as part of the project’s external evaluation. However, it may be worthwhile to investigate the influence of published works, such as through citation analysis (i.e., determination of the impact of a published article based on the number of times it has been cited—to learn more, see

Journals focused on two-year colleges and technical education are good outlets for ATE-related publications. Examples include Community College Enterprise, Community College Research Journal, Community College Review, Journal of Applied Research in the Community College, New Directions for Community Colleges, Career and Technical Education Research, Journal of Career and Technical Education, and Journal of Education and Work. (For more options, see the list of journals maintained by the Center of Education and Work (CEW) at the University of Wisconsin at

NSF’s Intellectual Merit criterion is about contributing to collective knowledge. For example, if a project develops embedded math modules for inclusion in an electrical engineering e-book, students may improve their understanding of math concepts and how they relate to a technical task—and that is certainly important given the goals of the ATE program. However, if the project does not share what was learned about developing, implementing, and evaluating such modules and present evidence of their effectiveness so that others may learn from and build on those advances, the project hasn’t advanced disciplinary knowledge and understanding.

If you are interested in preparing a journal manuscript to disseminate knowledge generated by your project, first look at the type of articles that are being published in your field (check out CEW’s list of journals referenced above). You will get an idea of what is involved and how the articles are typically structured. Publishing can become an important part of a PI’s professional development, as well as a project’s overall effort to disseminate results and advance knowledge.