Tuesday, 30 July 2013

How to get published in academic journals

Last week I spent a frustrating hour or two refereeing a paper for an academic journal – I say frustrating because the paper had a kernel of something really interesting buried inside a morass of wordiness and theory-ness. I actually came up with the term “theory-ridden” as a direct result of reading the paper. I don’t want to be mean about things here though. I’ve actually written about the need to be constructive in reviews – see here – and I think that the authors of this particular piece need encouragement not flagellation. My own, long experience of rejection – documented in this blog already – and other people’s calls for decency in refereeing – one example is Erik Schneiderhan’s piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education – mean that I don’t want to focus on the foibles of others. Instead, what I want to do is provide a fairly succinct and clear-cut guide to journal academic writing for grad students and early career academics. Obviously, what I’m writing here is a very personal take – see here for somebody else’s – and it’s also largely directed at people in the social sciences and maybe humanities, although it might be helpful more broadly as well. 

So, what do you need to do to get published? I’m talking from my experience writing, refereeing and editing journal articles, so I’ve been lucky enough to have a good overview of the whole process and some of the pitfalls and mistakes along the way – quite often by yours truly!

First, get over any crippling fears about whether you’re good enough, whether your paper is perfect (or what I call ‘perfecto-philia’), and submit something. It goes without writing it that failure to submit anything will lead to a failure to get published. Now, having got over your fears, you have to realize that getting published is a question of process and strategy. The process is pretty simple: submit, editor rejects or accepts, editor sends out for review, reviews come back in, editor sends decision letter. That means there are several stages you have to get through. Each stage can be difficult to navigate but it is made much easier by following a simple template – or secret formula – on how to write a publishable paper (see below).

 Before that …


  •  Choose your journal wisely: make sure your paper fits it; by this I mean don’t try and squeeze a theoretical paper into an empirical journal (or vice versa). Read the journal guidelines as the editors may – just may – want you to follow them.
  • Choose backup journals: make sure you have a list of journals you want to submit to so that if it gets rejected from one journal you can send it (almost) immediately to the next on the list. This comes from the recognition that referees are a fickle bunch; they are thin-skinned, picky, prickly, over-reactive, mean-spirited, tired, drunk, etc.
  • Do the work: by this I mean don’t think that any old writing will do. If you’ve thrown together a few ideas with a bit of ‘anecdotal’ research (e.g. reading a newspaper or two) then it will be spotted. If you want to do that sort of thing start a blog.
  • Write, a lot: I think when I write, so I can only really do what I do by writing. That means getting used to writing if you want to get published. To me this seems logical, but some people don’t seem to connect the dots. It’s important that you are writing frequently, even if you can’t turn every intellectual turd you push out into academic gold, so starting a blog is also a good way to hone your craft. 
  • Write simply: whatever you do, don’t assume that complexity equals sophistication or intellectualism. If you can’t say something in words that most people around you can understand then you’re just talking out of your arse – stop it! Cut out all those unnecessary words, complex terms, jargon and overly convoluted sentences. One of my pet hates is words like “quotidian”; if you mean “everyday” or “mundane” then why not just use everyday or mundane? Grrrr…
So, here it is … the secret formula to getting published. All the above is well and good, but the real trick to getting published is to write something that will pass the scrutiny of others. From my experience this means structure, structure, structure … Obviously I can’t promise that following these suggestions will improve your publication rate, but hopefully it will help.
  • Introduction: have one, title it “Introduction” and actually introduce the paper. Simple, yes, but so many people seem to miss it. The introduction should have the following structure: a story to draw in the read (1 paragraph); what the paper is about (1 paragraph); explanation of why the paper is important (1 paragraph); and an outline of the paper’s argument (1 paragraph). That’s it, cut out all the unnecessary digressions, discussions, etc.
  • Theoretical / Conceptual Section: this should develop ONE or TWO theoretical or conceptual ideas maximum. Avoid clogging it up with everything you’ve ever read or trying to shoe-horn that eminent theorist into the mix; at the same time, recognize that every concept you rely on needs developing and positioning within the existing literature. Whatever you do, make sure you reference the relevant literature AND quote some of that literature so you can analyze it to illustrate where there might be gaps, what might be missing, etc. and that you’re going to resolve those issues. Basically this is an opportunity to say how you will build on current debates and how the existing literature frames your empirical analysis; because it does frame it, no matter what you might think. Don’t over-egg this section with references to all the trendiest or famous academics out there; if it isn’t relevant then cut it out.
  • Methods Section: don’t leave this out whatever you do, or it just makes the paper seem like it was cobbled together (same goes for relegating it to footnotes – no, put it in the main body). It doesn’t have to be a fully-fledged section so it can be incorporated into the empirical sections (see below) or even in the introduction (see above). It needs to be at least a paragraph in length and should explain what you did and why you did it (e.g. how many people you interviewed, what data sources you used, etc.).
  • Empirical Sections: this material is the meat of the paper so needs to build on more than just a few snippets. Make sure you quote data directly (whatever it is); make sure you analyze the data (don’t describe it – how does it relate to existing research); make sure you refer back to the theory (cite theoretical literature in the empirical analysis); and make sure you don’t try to do too much. The last point is important as many people try to put everything into their paper; instead, think about whether you can develop two papers from the empirical material. Whatever you do, don’t start introducing new concepts, theories or theorists who you’ve never mentioned before – this is tangential stuff and should be cut (best) or relegated to footnotes (worst). Remember, the theoretical / conceptual discussion should frame the empirical analysis. 
  • Conclusion: this should not include ANY new material and should not be a discussion of the empirical material. It should be a simply summary of the paper’s arguments and a discussion of their (policy and theoretical) implications.

That’s it. What I’ve written above is fairly simple, but should prove helpful for getting published. It’s not how people in all disciplines like to write (or what they like to read), although it might actually help people in those disciplines as well. As one final point, you are unlikely – no matter what you think about yourself or what you want from your career – to be the next Michel Foucault, David Harvey, Manuel Castells, Bruno Latour or any other (in)famous scholar out there you idolize – so, don’t assume that what you're writing is brilliant or ground-breaking or paradigm-shaking or too-threatening or whatever. Coming to terms with our role as a minor – yet still vital – contributor to knowledge will help to keep you focused on writing that paper that will get through the publishing process with the minimum of fuss.

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