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What are the essential ingredients for a publishable research article? Most academics know that their classroom essay or conference paper is not yet publishable, but they’re not entirely sure why. So let me debunk some common myths about what makes an article publishable and then turn to what, in fact, does make one acceptable to a journal.

Myth No. 1: Only articles that are profoundly theoretical and/or have groundbreaking findings get published. Novice authors have an exaggerated idea of what publishable quality is, because they rarely read the average journal article. Graduate seminar readings tend to concentrate on leading thinkers, plus a few articles the professor considers groundbreaking. As a result, the characteristics of the great majority of scholarship are something with which graduate students seldom acquaint themselves. Most articles are neither earth-shattering nor published by famous scholars. Instead, they’re narrow in claims and context and published by people like you and me.

Myth No. 2: Only articles with lots of interesting ideas get published. Novice authors think that many interesting ideas make an article publishable. Although it is to be hoped that any article has interesting ideas, their sheer accumulation isn’t what gets an article published. As a senior scholar told me, “A graduate student came to talk to me about the article he wanted to publish. Three continents, 50 authors and a dozen theoretical paradigms later, I’m wondering where exactly it is that 30 pages can hold 100,000 words?” Articles get published not for spraying ideas but for articulating one important idea.

Myth No. 3: Only articles that are entirely original get published. Novice authors often don't grasp what makes something original, thinking that only unique work gets published. When they find, upon doing a literature search, that “someone has written my article,” they feel discouraged. Yet almost all published scholarship is not the first on the subject and is openly derivative or imitative.

So if originality is so elusive, why do people in academe always harp on its importance? Because you still must do something “new” to be published. To get a better sense of this point, let’s take a closer look at the difference between original ideas and new ones.

What Gets Published and Why

A publishable journal article is a piece of writing organized around one important new idea that is demonstrably related to the scholarship previously published. In other words, research articles get published because they say something new about something old. If your idea is interesting but not new, your article won’t be published. If your idea is new but not related to the old (previous research), your article won’t be published. If your ideas are multiple but not organized around one new idea, your article won’t be published. As Wayne C. Booth and his colleagues wrote in The Craft of Research, “Tell me something I don’t know so I can understand better our common interest.”

Note that I didn’t use the word “original.” In contrast to original, the strict meaning of new is not “the first” or “previously nonexistent” but something that has been seen, used or known for only a short time. For instance, if you write an article about Vietnamese women’s reproductive strategies, some of which have existed for centuries, your information will not be original, but knowledge of it may be new to the field of medical anthropology. Bringing attention to something can be sufficiently original to get an article published.

Something new can also be a variation. For instance, if you write an article about schizophrenia using statistics collected by others but correlating variables that they didn’t correlate or interpreting the correlation differently, you’ll have written something new. To write a variation on scholarship that already exists can be sufficiently original to get an article published.

So don’t get fixated on the idea of originality when drafting or revising your article. Make your material, whether ancient or invented yesterday, fresh, and you’ll be published. How do you accomplish that? And what’s considered new for the purposes of publication? Three types of newness mark publishable articles.

Publishable article type No. 1: approaches new evidence in an old way. An article that provides new evidence in support of an accepted idea represents the best bet for novice authors. In such an article, you don’t create a new approach; rather, you present new evidence to support an existing approach. (By “existing approach,” I mean accepted theories, common methods, dominant arguments and so on. As long as someone else has proposed a theory, it’s an existing approach for you.) This new evidence can result from your laboratory experiments, field observations, primary source study or archival research. It can also be evidence that someone else recently produced, such as government data or a new film.

Since graduate students are usually more in touch with new cultural trends and practices, they can often make real contributions by writing this kind of article, testing old ideas in new contexts. Those who have grown up in transnational or subcultural contexts also have an advantage in collecting such data.

Unfortunately, simply having new evidence won’t suffice. It’s not enough to introduce a new text, draw attention to a movement little discussed or fill in the details on a little-known cultural practice. While this is important work (and, I think, sadly underappreciated in academe as an end in itself), it’s not the kind of research that tends to get published. You have simply written a report, a paper typical of the classroom but uncommon in journals. To be published, you must relate the new to the old.

As an example, say that you’ve written an article about art initiatives in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, one of the largest refugee settlements in the world. If you simply describe where the poetry readings are, who paints what kind of paintings and how song lyrics relate to current events, you probably won’t get published. This is so even if you’re providing new data that few have collected or presented in scholarly journals. But if you describe this new evidence and employ it to theorize, say, how individuals use the arts to resolve conflicts and recast national identities, then you’re on your way to a publishable article.

That is, since conflict resolution and national identity have been wide-ranging theoretical concerns for some time, you will have provided new evidence for the old theory that human beings use culture to construct identity. If you simply report on cultural production in Zaatari, you didn’t present your evidence in the context of ongoing academic concerns or the scholarly conversation in your field. You didn’t approach the new in an old way.

Your new evidence doesn’t have to support the old theory; you can refine it or even disprove it. Of course, taking this strategy is riskier, since readers tend to accept evidence for things they believe in and to reject evidence against things they believe in. If you decide to contradict existing theories, you must have strong evidence. An example of an article providing new evidence to contradict an old theory would be your finding that low self-esteem is correlated not with shyness but with vitamin D levels. That is, although other researchers on the topic found a strong correlation among low self-esteem, depression and shyness, your test administered to undergraduate students did not find a strong correlation. You would be using new evidence to undermine an existing theory.

Publishable article type No. 2: approaches old evidence in a new way. An article taking a new approach to old evidence is typically not by a novice author. Only an author with a strong grasp of existing theories and methodologies, something the novice is often still trying to attain, can invent a new approach. In such an article, the author develops a new way of approaching old data, such as a new method, research design or theory.

Again, just having a new approach won’t suffice. It’s not enough simply to claim that a new theory has explanatory power or that a new methodology will be more useful than an old one. Rather, you must apply the new approach to something that already exists. If the possible error in writing publishable article type No. 1 (based on new evidence) is that the article is too bound to concrete data, the possible error in writing publishable article type No. 2 (based on a new theory) is that the article is too high in the theoretical stratosphere. The new theory must be related to old evidence.

One example of a successful new approach-old evidence combination is the work of Timothy Morton. Taking advantage of object-oriented ontology, itself a relatively new school of thought, he arrived at the idea of “hyperobjects” -- objects so widely spread and long lasting that they are practically everywhere and always, like global warming or Styrofoam. He brought something new to an old problem, our ecological crisis, and theorized a new approach to existing evidence.

If I may immodestly refer to my own work, I too have theorized in this manner. I invented the term “discursive possession” to talk about how the discourse of a subjugated colonized group could possess the thought of a dominant colonial group. I made this argument using old evidence -- one of the most canonical European texts ever written, Rasselas, Samuel Johnson’s 18th-century novel about Ethiopia -- to show how this problematically orientalist text, by an author who had never been to Africa, was nevertheless animated by Ethiopians’ own self-conceptions.

Of course, newness can take many forms. If an approach exists elsewhere in the scholarship but is very hard to find, has not been written about in a long time, has not been articulated clearly, has been discredited or has not been used in your field, then refurbishing that existing but sidelined idea can constitute a new approach.

Publishable article type No. 3: pairs old evidence with old approaches in a new way. An article that presents a new pairing of old evidence with an old approach represents another good choice for novice authors. It gives neither new evidence nor a new approach; instead, it merely links evidence and an approach that haven’t been linked previously. As Disraeli said, “The originality of a subject is in its treatment.” Those with strengths in several disciplines are most able to make these kinds of links.

Let’s examine an example of an old evidence-old approach-new link article. Say that you have written an article about the problems of racism and sexism in the Hollywood film industry. If you simply note that many Hollywood movies are racist and sexist, you’ll have done nothing new. If, however, you demonstrate how the Federal Communications Commission’s policies during the 1960s and 1970s caused film production to shift away from inclusion, away from positive portrayals of women and people of color, you’re on your way to getting published, because you have paired an old approach (historical analysis of government media policies) with old evidence (sexism and racism in the movies) in a new way. You brought existing data and approaches together to create a new understanding.

To conclude, advice about academic writing often assumes that the most difficult part is arriving at good ideas. But I’ve found that most academics, even graduate students, have good ideas. The real problem is how many of those good ideas languish in unfinished articles. I hope these suggestions will aid you in shaping those good ideas in ways that will make them publishable.

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