Friday, 20 March 2009

Publish or be damned

One of the foci of STORIES this year was publication. We invited three speakers, each of whom is on an editorial board of a journal, has edited a journal, or in one case (and it was naturally our own department’s Professor Geoffrey Walford) edits, sits on boards, reviews, and has published every kind of work imaginable.

University departments are judged on the quality and quantity of their research output. That’s why a publication record is important for any student hoping to secure an academic appointment. The RAE that has just passed is the last one of its kind, however, and the next assessment will be a Research Excellence Framework, which will be metrics-based. What this means is that citation will be taken into account. It’s not just publishing that’s need, it’s publishing in journals that appear in the citation indexes.

There’s a definite hierarchy of publications, apparently. According to Professor Walford, articles in journals are better than chapters in edited books: they tend to be cited more. The exception is if someone famous is editing the book! He also stated fairly categorically that articles in professional journals or practitioner journals, good for the ego though they are, do not count towards getting jobs in academia.

The key, they all agree, is to target your writing to the audience you’re submitting for. Check out the journal you’re planning on sending your work to. What’s their editorial policy? Some journals have a smallish editorial board who all read everything submitted then decide among themselves. Others have a much larger board, and an editor who sends articles out for review to someone on the board and someone outside it. Think about finding out about the interests of the editorial committee: if there’s only one person in your field on the board, it’s a good bet that they’re going to be the person to read it. Perhaps it’s not a good idea to take a completely opposite position to whatever they’ve written previously. Though that is not as important as reading the submission criteria, and sticking to the length. However magnificent you believe your manuscript to be, the editor is not going to allow you to bust the word limit.

Once you’ve submitted, and your article has been reviewed, there can be one of three outcomes: accepted outright (which virtually never happens), completely rejected or they can suggest some changes. If an editor sends you back your manuscript with some suggestions, then indulge in some primal screaming if you need to, and get back to work. Act on the suggestions, and send back your amended manuscript with a covering letter explaining how you’ve acted on them, step by step. Even, if you’ve thought carefully about it, justifying why you’re not acting on one or two of them.

There can be quite a long lead time to publication – even once you’ve had an article accepted. That means that doctoral students need to be submitting articles based on their research by the beginning of their third year at the very latest in order to have some citations ready for job applications. Book reviews can be a good way to get started: write to editors and offer your services. Get your supervisor’s advice on your writing – indeed, get anyone and everyone to read and give you advice before you submit a manuscript.

The real key to getting published though, the experts tell us, is this: do good quality research and write it up well.

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