Perishing Without Publishing
Rob Weir on what not to do if you want to see your paper published.
Welcome to the 21st century. Journals and publishing houses are folding faster than a roomful of origami artists, while new online journals are appearing all the time. Nietzsche once proclaimed the demise of God, but the new mantra is “Print is dead!” Maybe, maybe not; but however these transformations shake out, getting published somewhere remains crucial for newcomers to academia. It's still publish-or-perish in many places, even if some of those who publish will never have a hard copy, while others will treasure that they can hold their work in their hands. As one who has served (and is serving) as an associate editor for actual paper journals, let me share some bad practice observations that could sandbag your career -- and this advice almost all applies to any online peer-reviewed journal too.
1. Is it perfect, or a perfect mess? There are two standard MOs we see from young scholars: those who can’t get a submission ready because they’re obsessed with perfection, and those who think that English grammar is optional. Rule one is that you need to get your work out to the public, but rule two is that no journal is going to do remedial or developmental editing. (Some graduate schools are guilty of intellectual malfeasance for allowing functionally illiterate individuals to obtain doctorates.) If you can’t write, get a new job before the tenure committee euthanizes you. If you’re too lazy to polish the piece, don’t waste an editor’s time with it. As for you perfectionists, at some point you have to declare work “good enough.” I’ve never seen an article that peer reviewers didn’t think needed some revision, so give up the belief that you’ll cover all bases.
2. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Since there are more articles chasing fewer outlets, journals routinely have backlogs of several years. You should prepare numerous works and send them to multiple outlets in your field. Most journals demand exclusive rights merely to consider an article and if they reject it, you have to start over from square one. Going through the peer review process at three journals can easily consume a few years. Get several works into the cycle ASAP or your tenure decision will arrive before any of your work sees the light of day.
3. Do you know the secret handshake? Lots of young scholars immediately try to score with the publisher that has the most cachet in their field. Do some research first; you may be wasting your time. An exalted reputation means you’ll be vying with the top people for space. Check a list of recent publications as most journals rarely duplicate topics. Also look at the names on the articles and the editorial board. It’s a dirty little secret, but some of the top journals operate as fiefdoms for a small cadre of scholars and their pet graduates. Is this fair? Count me among those who’d like to smash that racket. But your immediate need is to maximize the possibility of getting published, so evaluate your chances dispassionately and realistically.
4. We care about this why? One of the things that activates the stop light in journals is a submission that takes a long time to say very little. Lots of earnest scholars devote meticulous research to things that only devotees care about. I’ve seen learned discourses on whether a bullet entered the body of a Revolutionary War soldier from the front or the back. Does it matter? Rarely! Who’s the audience? Maybe you’re passionate about a particular topic, but if it the collective journal readership couldn’t care less, you need either to imbue your study with broader significance or find the outlet that caters to narrow specialties.
5. Neither fish nor fowl. The opposite of the spectrum is the article that tries to be all things to all people and ends up satisfying no one. Once again audience rules. If you submit an article about a literary figure to an English journal, do close textual analysis; if you send it to a history journal, place that figure within a particular social framework. It gets very tricky when you try to do both -- literature people complain the analysis is weak; historians that too much is being inferred from a piece of fiction. I’m not saying that such an article can’t be written, but beware of the next question.
6. Does this article have a point? We see well-researched pieces that flit from one thing to the next like a caffeinated firefly. I tell undergraduates that I’d rather they say a lot about few things than vice versa. I also counsel that there are far more things we should consider and discuss than we should put down on paper. This is generally good advice for journal articles as well. Write a tightly focused piece that does several things really well rather than one that covers more turf than a groundskeeper.
7. Don’t rediscover fire. I need to take younger colleagues to task on this one. The Internet didn’t go viral until after 1991. This means that Web-based research often shortchanges research done before then. Younger scholars have gotten out of the habit of starting their projects in libraries. In hard science, medical, and technology fields that’s probably all right, but in most others scholars need to pay heed to older research. I sometimes encounter very complex works in which the researcher has labored hard to shed light on something that senior experts have known for decades! Ten minutes with a library subject specialist would have revealed all of this. That knowledge would have freed the scholar to put a new twist on the subject, thereby enhancing publishing potential.
8. Ockham’s Razor is still sharp. Don’t allow yourself to become so enamored with your theoretical and research tools that they overwhelm your research content. Too many toys and too much cleverness can introduce unsustainable assumptions and irrelevant variables. Years ago I chaired a conference session in which a researcher looking at antebellum Northern newspapers used sophisticated mathematical formulae and dense postmodernist theory to reveal that those papers used racist language to reference African Americans. Smart stuff -- but it illuminated less than a nightlight. Her major premise -- that Northern papers would be sympathetic -- was hopelessly flawed. She missed that because she was looking for complexity instead of the obvious.
9. Straw men fall down. Journals see lots of articles in which the author claims to have a unique approach. Many do so by pitting their ideas against unnamed scholars or generic categories (such as the “American people,” “scholars,” or “most folks”). These are classic straw man debates and they seldom convince. Who and what do you mean? As our grade school teachers used to admonish us -- be specific! Count on the fact that peer reviewers will repeat that line.
10. There’s nothing fantastic about bombastic. Journal editors increasingly seek articles that are clear and engaging, not ones that demonstrate command of turgid terms or stultifying debate. Seriously; how many academic articles are exciting to read? The satirist/songwriter Tom Lehrer once said, “If a person can’t communicate the very least he can do is shut up.” Put a slightly nicer way, with fewer outlets available there’s less need to publish things that fail to sparkle.
11. It will be edited. I love editors and so should you. They can’t turn lead into gold, but they can make it shiny. Editors aren’t infallible, but trust them to know their audience better than you do, and consider what they suggest before you get upset about it. Let unimportant editorial choices slide and negotiate -- respectfully and collaboratively -- over matters you feel strongly about. If your ego won’t allow anyone to touch your precious prose, start a blog. Good luck getting research credit for it.
For Further Consideration:
1. Here’s a New Zealand professor’s take on publishing an article.
2. About.com has links to several useful articles. Start here.
3. The Journal of Scholarly Publishing tracks trends in the publishing world, including what is “hot” in various fields.
4. Here’s a psychologist’s tip sheet.
5. Wikipedia has a good entry on peer reviewing for those unfamiliar with how the process works.
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