International Journal of English for Academic Purposes: Research and Practice

Teaching research writing in education: Practice and reflection

International Journal of English for Academic Purposes: Research and Practice 2021, 191–203.

Abstract

This short report presents a case of teaching research writing to MPhil/PhD students in the Faculty of Education of the University of Hong Kong. A course that consisted of two parts, focusing on thesis writing and writing for publication respectively, is described in terms of the key design features and the content. A reflection on the course points to several directions that can be taken for a future run of the course. It is hoped that the report would be of reference value for colleagues who may want to do something similar.

Teaching research writing in education: Practice and reflection

Abstract

This short report presents a case of teaching research writing to MPhil/PhD students in the Faculty of Education of the University of Hong Kong. A course that consisted of two parts, focusing on thesis writing and writing for publication respectively, is described in terms of the key design features and the content. A reflection on the course points to several directions that can be taken for a future run of the course. It is hoped that the report would be of reference value for colleagues who may want to do something similar.

Introduction

Developing research students’ capabilities in both producing high-quality degree theses and writing publishable research articles has become an imperative of global interest. It seems the need for such development has never been greater, as the quality of the output of the novice researchers becomes a critical factor in leveraging the competitiveness of the universities, and the novices’ publication achievement often determines how they fare in the job market. Against this backdrop, there is evidence that a larger number of research writing courses have been emerging at universities around the world in the past decade (see Li & Flowerdew, 2020, for a review). Many of the courses are taught by language teachers, and the courses that focus on writing for publication are known as English for Research Publication Purposes (ERPP) courses. In addition, courses or writing programmes initiated by content specialists, with or without collaboration with language specialists or other staff (e.g., librarians) have also been growing (e.g., Rocco et al., 2015).

Language professionals involved in teaching research writing are often based in a language unit/centre/department, or occasionally, in a Faculty/School of Education, of their university. In the cases where they are professorial staff who also research, publish, serve their research community (e.g., by being manuscript reviewers), and supervise research students just as their non-language professorial colleagues do, they seem to take on a dual identity. This reflects my case, an EAP specialist and a professorial academic staff member working in a Faculty of Education.

I started to teach Research Writing (in two parts, or RWI and RWII) to MPhil/PhD students in my faculty at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) during the academic year 2019 to 2020, after having also run an elective on academic writing for MEd students for several rounds. The present paper is above all a report on what my RWI and RWII classes and I did in the academic year from 2020 to 2021 as a reference for colleagues who may be considering doing something similar. In the paper I also reflect upon my experience and look ahead, hopefully in ways that may have some reference value for others as well.

Background

At the Faculty of Education of HKU, MPhil/PhD students have traditionally been taking a Graduate School course on thesis writing (24 hours), taught by colleagues in the Centre for Applied English Studies of the university and attended by students from multiple faculties (‘humanities and related disciplines’). The Centre does not by regulation offer EAP/writing courses to students in self-funded programmes (e.g., MEd and EdD), although it does offer a thesis writing course to EdD students, with an agreement between the centre and the faculty, with the faculty paying for the service.

In 2018 when I proposed to offer an elective on Research Writing (RW) to MPhil/PhD students from 2019 to 2020, I planned to focus on writing for publication, to complement the Graduate School’s thesis writing course. However, it turned out that the Graduate School was starting an across-the-board adjustment of its coursework structure and encouraged faculties to gradually take over many of their courses. To better address students’ disciplinary needs was a reason given for such adjustment. I was accordingly advised by the faculty’s Office of Research to cover thesis writing too. The result was a compromise: that from 2019 to 2020 I would offer RWI in Semester 1 focusing on thesis writing, and RWII in Semester 2 focusing on writing for publication, each lasting for 12 h (three hours x four sessions). The two parts had separate course codes so that the students can elect for either or both.

At the time of writing, two rounds of RWI and RWII have been offered, for 2019 to 2020 and for 2020 to 2021. In the academic year 2021 to 2022, the Graduate School’s thesis writing course for MPhil/PhD students will be replaced by two three-hour modules. In view of the change and the favourable feedback that RWI and RWII had received by then, the Faculty Higher Degree Committee which works with the Office of Research recommended in April 2021 that the electives RWI and RWII become one 24-hours compulsory course from 2021 to 2022 and will be renamed ‘Research Writing in Education’ under one new course code.

Before it occurred to me that I could offer an academic writing course (starting with an elective for MEd students in the faculty, as mentioned above), I had been doing EAP research for a number of years, while teaching courses related to written discourse, research methods, and literacy education. I considered myself fortunate to be ‘allowed’ to propose courses on writing in the faculty, for worldwide allocating staff resources to teach EAP cannot be taken for granted. I also regarded myself a unique case of a discipline-embedded EAP teacher as a result.

Language teachers’ lack of content knowledge in their students’ fields poses a potential challenge and has an impact on their confidence in teaching EAP. However, the challenge is universal and the literature has shown that EAP teachers’ jobs can be greatly facilitated when they are equipped with a toolkit of such tools as genre pedagogy, tasks that can be designed from the research texts in students’ own disciplines, corpus methods, and even the teachers’ own previous experience in teaching English for general purposes (e.g., Li et al., 2020). In addition, the EAP specialists’ expertise in research, supervision, manuscript reviewing, and sometimes journal editing can be extremely valuable (e.g., Paltridge, 2018).

A literature review exercise I conducted with my co-author (Li & Flowerdew, 2020) was part of my effort to build confidence in preparing to teach RW. Qualitative content analysis of thirty-one papers that reported on ERPP teaching led by language teachers revealed a range of existing practices and potential gaps. One thing that we noted, for example, is the under-representation of ‘non-discursive’ issues in the courses as reported in these papers, such as the issues of publishing ethics, how to select appropriate venues for publication, how to deal with journal gatekeepers (editors and reviewers), how to work with language brokers of various kinds, how to work in writing teams, and how to make use of online resources. In my subsequent RWI and RWII, I endeavored to incorporate most of these non-discursive issues in one way or another while addressing additional ones.

Overall design features of RWI and RWII 2020 to 2021

I would describe my teaching of the two-part elective, RWI and RWII during 2019 to 2020 as a pilot run. The second run of the two parts was delivered over Zoom in the year 2020 to 2021, with about twenty-six mostly Year 1 PhD students in my classes, including several Year 2 or Year 3 students who had already attended the Graduate School’s thesis writing course. The students were mostly from mainland China; a few were local. My description below will focus on the round of instruction delivered during 2020 to 2021.

First of all, it should be noted that RWI and RWII both had multiple assessment tasks; the two parts had separate assessments because they had separate course codes, as noted earlier. RWI’s final assessment consisted of four tasks: phrasebank building on Moodle (wiki files); group presentations; a portfolio; and a reflection (on one’s learning from the course). RWII’s final assessment comprised another four tasks: contributing one piece of learning material to the class (to post on Moodle by study group); active participation in class, on Moodle, and in the class WeChat group (WeChat is a popular instant messaging App in China); a portfolio; and a reflection. (In RWII the students should still build phrasebanks on Moodle in wikis, though that was not part of the final assessment.) Notably, as with the faculty’s other courses for research students, the students in RWI and RWII would only receive pass/fail, but not specific grades. The benefit of this practice is that it reduced pressure on the students while giving me more flexibility in designing the course and assessment requirements.

Second, ESP genre pedagogy (Cargill & O’Connor, 2021; Cheng, 2018; Swales & Feak, 2012) was at the core of the two-part course, as is now commonly the case with the RW instruction led by EAP teachers. Students’ genre analysis of research articles from their own disciplines, or Own Discipline Articles (ODAs) (Cargill & O’Connor, 2021) is a prominent aspect of the course. Apart from ODAs, the students also examined ODTs (Own Discipline Theses) in RWI and ODRevAs (Own Discipline Review Articles) in RWII.

Third, the course was ‘flipped to some extent’, to quote a student in his reflection at the end of RWII. In fact, I did not pursue flipping the classroom. However, given the limited course hours, I wanted to extend the space of learning for the students. I did this by giving them specific pre-session and post-session tasks, so that they could benefit from the readings, watch YouTube videos (e.g., on using the APA citation style and using OneNote for note-taking), work within study groups (formed before Session 1) on class group presentations and on the phrasebank building in wikis on Moodle, and put together an individual portfolio for submission as part of the final assessment.

Fourth, connected to the study groups, the notion of ‘learning community’ was emphasized for several reasons. Firstly, I hoped the students would start to cultivate a peer-support culture from the early stage of their candidature. My supervision experience told me that peer learning (with peer pressure being part of it, no doubt) can be highly effective; and with our ever-growing workload, we do expect the students to learn from each other, including through peer checking of each other’s work. Secondly, in 2020 to 2021 the course took place via Zoom, with a good number of students working from home outside Hong Kong; working in a group would reduce a sense of isolation and make them feel supported. Thirdly, I hope that from the study groups in the course the students would also form such groups with their fellow students (e.g., under the same supervisor) so that they have a long-term learning community to benefit from and contribute to.

Fifth, the individual portfolio was a key part of the final assessment in both RWI and RWII. As there were only four sessions in both parts of the course, I was able to spread out the sessions so that there were two to three weeks of interval in between. The students were required to finish at least 60% of the pre-session tasks/post-session assignments over the duration of a semester and submit as a portfolio. I stressed to the students that they should work on the portfolio for themselves rather than for me, to create a learning pack for themselves which they could refer to from time to time in the coming years of their candidature. Pre-session tasks were given for each session and shown in the handout for a coming session, which I posted to Moodle a week before the session or earlier. Post-session assignments were sometimes given.

Sixth, the Moodle systems for the course (separate systems for RWI and RWII) were used for a number of purposes: for me to upload my course materials; for students to build their phrasebanks (primarily by thesis chapters and by article sections) in wikis; for the students to share their work in the forums (set up by topics and sessions), including group presentation materials for viewing and voluntary commenting; and for the students to upload their final assessment tasks. A class WeChat group complements the online platform; quick questions and responses, reminders, and comments, sharing of additional learning resources etc. were communicated in the WeChat group.

Seventh, the course subscribes to pragmatism, with critical elements moderately incorporated, in contrast to some EAP specialists aiming to practice ‘critical pragmatism’ (e.g., Corcoran & Englander, 2016). Apart from a primarily pragmatic goal, as reflected in the teaching/learning activities, several non-discursive issues discussed in class contained critical elements in that the discussion prompted reflection on the status quo. Such issues included the following: What is meaningful research? What kinds of research do you want to do in the long run? How can you contribute to the Chinese literature of your field of study? Should you be citing Chinese literature as well in your (English) thesis/papers? While ‘systematic reviews’ seem favoured in education, are other kinds of literature reviews worth doing (see Hammersley, 2001) as well? Posing such questions for contemplation and brief sharing of views raised awareness for alternative perspectives, even though we did not have time to go into details.

Eighth, as will be exemplified in the following two sections, my perspectives as a supervisor, thesis examiner, manuscript reviewer, and researcher were incorporated and these seemed quite welcomed by the students.

Ninth, as also to be noted below, my own experience in doing qualitative research and teaching research methods had an impact on my teaching.

Finally, not exactly a design feature but something that I hope would exert a positive influence on the students: I modelled good practice of source citation in my PowerPoint slides and handouts and for both RWI and RWII, a list of references cited (marked as ‘regularly updated’) is shown as a wiki file on Moodle.

RWI (2020 to 2021): What did we do?

RWI was on thesis writing, as explained earlier. With a duration of only 12 hours (three hours x four sessions), I decided to focus on the writing of the early chapters because the research students in our faculty have to pass a ‘confirmation’ at the junction of a year (for two-year MPhil and three-year PhD students) or a year-and-a-half (for four-year PhD students) into their study programme. For the confirmation, they should submit a draft of the early chapters: the introduction, literature review, methodology, and if feasible, a findings chapter in a short form, reporting some preliminary findings or findings from a pilot study. They also need to submit an abstract for their thesis research, for use in a faculty-level email announcement on the confirmation seminar. Then they present the confirmation seminar which is open to the fellow students.

In RWI the students read Casanave’s (2020) Chapter 3 (‘Relations with supervisors and advisors’); Paltridge & Starfield’s (2020) Chapters 3, 6, 7, and 8 (‘Issues in thesis and dissertation writing in English as a second language’, ‘Writing the introduction chapter’, ‘Writing the background chapters’, and ‘Writing the methodology chapter’); and Lunenburg & Irby’s (2007) Chapters 6 and 7 (‘Writing the introduction chapter’ and ‘Writing the literature review chapter’). These three books represent varied focuses which reflect the authors’ backgrounds in doctoral mentoring and supervision of qualitative research, doctoral writing pedagogy informed by the ESP genre theory, and doctoral supervision in education respectively. From reading the chapters, the students wrote ‘learning points’ or notes taken in the form of bullet points into their portfolio and use the frameworks provided in the later two books to analyze their ODTs.

The range of pre- and post-session portfolio tasks included a ‘problem statement’ task from Merriam & Tisdell (2016) Chapter 4 and a comparison of several literature review extracts given as examples by Kamler & Thomson (2014) in their Chapter 3, which aimed to raise the students’ awareness for the need to speak with an authorial voice in reviewing literature rather than submitting to a ‘he said she said’ approach.

As an example, Figure 1 shows the set of pre-Session 3 tasks for the students to complete (Session 3 focused on writing a literature review). The tasks were shown at the end of the Session 2 handout.

Pre-Session 3 tasks in RWI (2010 to 2021)

The class time was devoted to students’ group presentations (from .ppt, .docx or .pdf files), feedback, class discussion, my PowerPoint-based lecturing, and discussing materials in the session handouts. My perspective as a supervisor and thesis examiner was incorporated into the class sessions. I talked about the faculty regulations concerning confirmation, progress reports, ethics approval application, and thesis examination and referred to the faculty’s guidance notes for the ‘thesis by publication’ track; I also shared how I would expect the supervisees to treat my feedback on their chapters and even something as small as what style of files names I would prefer to see from supervisees (not unspecific and confusing ones). As a thesis examiner, I showed on my PowerPoint slides extracts from some reports I wrote as a thesis examiner and talked about the vivas.

Informed by my experience in conducting qualitative research and in teaching research methods courses, in Session 4 which focused on writing the methodology chapter, we discussed Creswell’s (2009) ‘framework for design: the interconnection of worldviews, strategies of inquiry, and research methods’ (Figure 1.1 in Creswell, 2009); some useful strategies in writing the methodology and results chapters, such as the effective use of tables and figures, including comparison matrices (Creswell, 2012, p. 254); and the issue of presenting data in languages other than English (Yin, 2011, p. 82). All these issues have important implications for thesis writing, while they were less likely to be covered in the short research methods courses for the students.

The above described some main aspects of the discursive and non-discursive issues covered in RWI. For the discursive, we also examined examples of plagiarized passages and tried language editing of student texts in class, although limited time was spent on those. For the non-discursive, we also discussed how to take notes from reading, and how to plan a thesis from the early stage to facilitate paper publication at a later stage.

RWII (2020 to 2021): What did we do?

RWII was on writing for publication, with a focus on the genres of research article and review article. Again with only 12 hours (three hours x four sessions) for this part, I aimed to achieve an expansion of the learning space along the dimensions of the key design features described earlier for both RWI and RWII.

While the RWI students analysed ODTs, the RWII class had to study ODAs and ODRevAs. Because only two students in the class had not attended RWI in Semester 1, for the genre of research article the writing of the introduction and methods sections were not covered in RWII (as these were part of RWI). The four sessions addressed the topics of publishing as a research student, writing a review article, novices’ problems, writing the results and discussion, writing an abstract, and writing from sources and avoiding plagiarism.

As pre-session tasks, the students read Paltridge & Starfield’s (2016) Chapters 1, 2 and 4 (‘Writing for academic journals’, ‘Deciding which academic journals to publish in’, and ‘Understanding the peer review process’); read Palmatier et al. (2018) (which is a journal article) and Efron & Ravid’s (2019) Chapter 3 (‘Choosing a review topic and formulating a research question’) for the writing of review articles; and read Lunenburg & Irby’s (2007) Chapter 9 (‘Writing the results chapter’) to gain insights into how to organize their results chapter in the thesis and accordingly, the results section of a research article. Again the students should record their ‘learning points’ from the readings and include in their portfolio. They also read Kelly & Yin (2007) on ‘Strengthening structured abstracts for education research’, which spells out guidelines at a more demanding level than the conventionally recommended structure (BPMRC, or Background, Purpose/Principal activity, Methods, Results, and Conclusion) for abstracts from a genre perspective (Weissberg & Buker, 1990). One student presented in class an excellent revised version of her master’s thesis abstract in light of the advice of Kelly & Yin (2007).

For Session 2 which focused on writing a review article, I gave a set of pre-session tasks, as shown in Figure 2 (with omission).

Pre-Session 2 tasks in RWII (2010 to 2021)

Task 2 in Figure 2 harked back to a topic in Session 1, on the issue of selecting a target journal, while Task 3, which asked the students to examine three novice texts, connected to the issue of avoiding plagiarism which was discussed briefly in RWI. In Session 2, several groups presented on Tasks 1 and 2; yet most students apparently did not fulfil Task 3 (as noted earlier, they could choose to finish 60% of the tasks). It is likely that they found Task 3 challenging and time-consuming. In the session, I shared my attempt at writing from the same source passage in the forms of summary, paraphrase, and quotation. In the post-Session 2 tasks, as shown in Figure 3, among other things I asked the students to study some examples of paraphrasing in Wallwork’s (2016) Chapter 11 (‘Plagiarism and paraphrasing’).

Post-Session 2 tasks in RWII (2010 to 2021)

Still, I felt more practice time needed to be devoted to the complex and occluded process and text work of writing from sources; talking about my version and assigning a reading with examples was not enough.

Asking the students to identify their own ODAs and ODRevAs for analysis, as with the use of ODTs in RWI, was a crucial means for me to work for discipline-specificity in RWII. The selection of reading assignments was also an opportunity to cater for the different needs. For example, the students read Jalongo & Saracho’s (2016) Chapter 9 (‘From mixed methods research to a journal article’) as a good number of students in the class would be doing mixed-methods research. Then in Session 4, one group presented an analysis of the structure of a mixed-methods ODA.

Beyond the study groups, to further encourage autonomy and peer support among the students in developing their academic writing competency during their candidature, one of the final assessment tasks in RWII was for each to share one piece of learning material in a group forum on Moodle (e.g., ‘Group 1’s sharing of learning resources’) by a certain date. Voluntary short presentations on the resources were invited in class, while several students also shared additional resources in the class WeChat group. The piece of learning resource to be recommended to classmates could be anything: a website useful for writing, learning from one’s supervisor’s feedback on something, learning from a valuable piece of reading, or a summary of the key points that one has learned during the research ethics approval application procedure.

As a manuscript reviewer, I shared extracts from my reports on manuscripts and talked about some common problems found in novice submissions (see Casanave & Li, 2015). As a researcher myself, I referred to my writing and publishing experience; on one occasion, I gave an example that demonstrated how I took great care to distinguish between different voices when writing a passage citing multiple authors.

Looking ahead to a new round of teaching 2021 to 2022

As noted above, RWI and RWII will be combined and become ‘Research Writing in Education’ from 2021 to 2022, as a compulsory course for MPhil/PhD students in my faculty. It will be offered in one semester (Semester 2, i.e., from January 2022). One downside of this new arrangement that I anticipate will be the following: that I would not be able to spread out the eight sessions (three hours each), which will restrict the range of tasks that the students will be able perform before and after class.

Although the short interval (expectedly one week) between sessions will potentially restrict the learning space and time that could have otherwise been created through fulfilling pre-session and post-session tasks, that would only be a ‘normal’ scenario, as teachers and students always work with all sorts of constraints in a writing course. Despite the restriction of class time, one thing I would want to do more in the next round is to examine closely with the students their actual writing samples (a sentence, a paragraph, a section in a thesis chapter, an abstract etc.), to critique/revise the rhetorical/syntactic structure, citations, lexico-grammatical features, and argument. To continue to address the important issue of avoiding plagiarism, more hands-on work would be needed; the practice of relying on providing models of source-based writing can be problematized as students’ learning from a model may not be transferred to their writing beyond the writing class (Macbeth, 2010).

There may be other pedagogical approaches I can aim to incorporate, including corpus methods, which can be highly valuable in teaching academic writing (Chen & Flowerdew, 2018) and I will see how to fit it into the modest-sized course framework.

There is also the confidence issue. Having taught RWI and RWII for two rounds, I came to the realization that my confidence in teaching a RW course needs to be negotiated over time, with it hinged upon both my EAP content knowledge and my effectiveness as a researcher, supervisor, and a member of my disciplinary community.

Finally, it seems obvious that as an EAP specialist embedded in a Faculty of Education, I may be at an advantage in seeking collaboration with my students’ supervisors, who are my colleagues. Despite various constraints, it may also be possible for me to involve a small number of colleagues in a collaborative teaching development project.

References

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Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2016). Getting published in academic journals: Navigating the publication process. University of Michigan Press. Google Scholar

Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2020). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for students and their supervisors (2nd ed.). Routledge. Google Scholar

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References

Cargill, M., & O’Connor, P. (2021). Writing scientific research articles: Strategy and steps (3rd ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. Google Scholar

Casanave, C. P. (2020). During the dissertation: A textual mentor for doctoral students in the process of writing. University of Michigan Press. Google Scholar

Casanave, C. P., & Li, Y. (2015). Novices’ struggles with conceptual and theoretical framing in writing dissertations and papers for publication. Publications, 3, 104-119. https://doi.org/10.3390/publications3020104. Google Scholar

Chen, M., & Flowerdew, J. (2018). A critical review of research and practice in data-driven learning (DDL) in the academic writing classroom. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 23(3), 335-369. Google Scholar

Cheng, A. (2018). Genre and graduate-level research writing. University of Michigan Press. Google Scholar

Corcoran, J., & Englander, K. (2016). A proposal for critical-pragmatic pedagogical approaches to English for Research Publication Purposes. Publications, 4(6), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.10.3390/publications4010006. Google Scholar

Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (3rd ed.). Sage. Google Scholar

Creswell, J. W. (2012). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (4th ed.). Pearson. Google Scholar

Efron, S. E., & Ravid, R. (2019). Writing the literature review: A practical guide. The Guilford Press. Google Scholar

Hammersley, M. (2001). On “systematic” reviews of research literatures: A “narrative” response to Evans & Benefield. British Educational Research, 27(5), 543-554. Google Scholar

Jalongo, M. R., & Saracho, O. N. (2016). Writing for publication: Transitions and tools that support scholars’ success. Springer. Google Scholar

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision (2nd ed.). Routledge. Google Scholar

Kelly, A. E., & Yin, R. K. (2007). Strengthening structured abstracts for education research: The need for claim-based structured abstracts. Educational Researcher, 36(3), 133-138. Google Scholar

Li, Y., & Flowerdew, J. (2020). Teaching English for Research Publication Purposes (ERPP): A review of language teachers’ pedagogical initiatives. English for Specific Purposes, 59, 29-41. Google Scholar

Li, Y., Ma, X., Zhao, J., & Hu, J. (2020). Graduate-level research writing instruction: Two Chinese EAP teachers’ localized ESP genre-based pedagogy. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2019.100813. Google Scholar

Lunenburg, F. C., & Irby, B. J. (2007). Writing a successful thesis or dissertation: Tips and strategies for students in the social and behavioral sciences. Corwin Press. Google Scholar

Macbeth, K. P. (2010). Deliberate false provisions: The use and usefulness of models in learning academic writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 19, 33-48. Google Scholar

Merriam, S. B., & Tisdell, E. J. (2016). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation (4th ed.). Jossey-Bass. Google Scholar

Palmatier, R. W., Houston, M. B., & Hulland, J. (2018). Review articles: Purpose, process, and structure. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 46, 1-5. Google Scholar

Paltridge, B. (2018). Writing for publication. In L. Woodrow (Ed.), Introducing course design in English for specific purposes (pp. 228-233). Routledge. Google Scholar

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Li, Yongyan