Friday, August 24, 2012

Publishing: some tricks and report from the field. 

I have not published a single article in an academic journal (yet). I have my own reasons for that, part real (I prefer to get paid for writing and submit my texts to journals that pay for them), part imaginary (1. can't finish a paper due to constant revising and updating 2. 'really busy' writing my dissertation and conference papers).But I have about five papers which I am now working on and hope to get them in for review by the end of the year.

So I was really happy a couple of weeks ago when a school I am currently at announced two workshops, publication workshop and dissertation workshop. The first one is a writing group, essentially, where we submit and discuss our potential publications and work alongside a well-defined timeline and the second one is another writing group where we discuss content, style and 'angle' of our dissertation chapters.

Both groups have people with similar interests, but also from neighboring fields (I work on authoritarianism and regime breakdown, but there are people working on social capital, euroregions and higher education quality assurance). It has been amazingly productive, I never had such a productive time and so much encouragement and constructive feedback. Moreover, people don't have to be from the same field as yours or know your literature to give good feedback. Highly recommend to everyone.

On a side note, we are also reading a text by Wendy Belcher on how to publish a journal article in 12 weeks. Though the book might not answer your immediate and particular concerns (after all it is a generic manual for all people and an average writer, not a genius like yourself :), it is still very very very useful and I found that some of the advice the book provides was not given to me before during the numerous and great 'how-to-publish' workshops I attended (here's a link to a presentation from one of them, Benjamin Sovacool, that guy really publishes a lot!).

So I thought I should take notes on the book and also post it here, so that others can also benefit from some of the advice the book gives. I will also benefit because as I write this, I reflect on it and internalize the ideas better.

Wendy Laura Belcher, Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, Sage, 2009. 

Part of Chapter 1 is called Keys to Positive Writing Experiences

Four of them are identified (I list the first three, rename them a bit and add some of my own experience)

1. Write 
The most common excuse is that people are busy. Though a minority might really be, the majority are busy because they do not write, and not vice versa. It is possible to finish a journal article in 12 weeks by writing 15 mins a day, the argument goes. So one really just needs to take an old paper, old idea, draw a schedule, choose a writing 'site' and start working alongside the timeline. I always thought timelines were for idiots and buraucrats, and only recently did I start realizing their great potential.

No waiting for inspiration or big blocks of free time to concentrate on writing. All you need is a plan (timeline) and a habit of writing a bit everyday.

2. Socialize Writing
No matter what we think or might believe, writing is a social activity, even for the smartest ones (yes, I have you in mind, the one who thinks everyone else is an idiot, you still need to write in the language and at the level  idiots can understand).

I would love to be working in isolation for fifteen year and coming out like Niklas Luhmann with a groundbreaking thing, but most of the good publications I saw were 'polished' with a host of graduate students in a class, at a bunch of conferences and were even co-authored.

My own experience is the same. People gave me advice on how to rearrange my ideas to make them less confusing, how to name sections or specific phenomena I had in mind and also how to put the arguments and infographics in the best possible way. I have done the same for others.

Socialized writing strategies might include the following:

1. Start a writing group, like my school did, preferably with a writing instructor or an assistant professor.
2. Take a writing class, the one specifically aimed at supervising through the whole process and not a one day seminar where you would be handed in a book and will only finish your thesis statement and abstract by the end of the course (some of my classmates know what I am talking about)
3. Convince another student to co-write an article with you - it works best when both share the same timeline and can meet in person to concentrate and write together. if physical presence is impossible try skype. I tried working on Google Docs with editing and commenting an essay and it was superb.
4. Conferences and seminars. Not only do they push one to write because of the deadlines, but also give a superb contact opportunity. I don't mean big shots, I mean our peers who work on similar things and share similar awkwardness and need for collaboration. One advice given to me about conferences was 'small is good' in terms of finding a collaborator and getting good feedback on your paper, as well as staying updated on the state of the narrow field of yours. I was advised to approach assistant professors and post-docs instead of big guys, since it is these people slightly senior than you that are engaged in most projects and will be more keen to draw you inside to work with them. And they are also happier to be recognized and appreciated than big fat ivory tower geeks.
5. Discussion lists - I don't know of any particular discussion lists, but I found blogosphere most rewarding. The blog I read to follow up on the latest stuff in my field is The Monkey Cage. Their comments section is a great venue for discussions, I always enjoy reading stuff from there and occasionally do contribute. They are also great for staying updated on the latest debates, theories and concepts in the field and really make one relate his argument to the overall discourse.
6. Introducing oneself to academics - I have never found this one comfortable and hated to be looking like a brown-nose or invading someone's email space or stealing his time. The claim made by Belcher is that established people actually are interested in meeting junior colleagues and are usually grateful for others' taking the first step. Also, many others enjoy giving advice. I had to ask for advice from a couple of academics I never met personally - all answered my emails and gave good advice. The ones who did not write back turned out to be busy, but none seemed to be offended or irritated by someone contacting them. Now with twitter, facebook and blogs it became much much easier, especially with the younger generation of bright and technically advanced academics.

Final concerns,

1. Many feel uncomfortable networking and contacting others - everyone does. Step out of the comfort zone with tact and persistence.
2. Many people are horrified of sharing their work, because this will make them seem idiots or they are afraid of negative comments. I had some stupid ideas shared with others, but my happy and very encouraging finding was that people actually never read them as stupid and fill stupid ideas with their own 'smart' content, thus adding to the process and upgrading the initial argument. So there is very little cost and very large benefits, why not take a shot? Moreover, many people actually hate giving negative feedback, even if the paper sucks. So there is really little chance that a shared paper will be 'raped'
3. Many will till the paper is complete to share it - very very very wrong. The purpose of sharing is improving, not showing off. so sharing at an earlier stage saves a lot of stupid ideas, re-writing time and even gets the 'sharer' organized, so that the rest of the paper will flow faster and more efficient.
4. Many fear a shared idea will be stolen. That might be the case, but sharing it actually protects the original proprietor - there are many witnesses to attest that it is you who publicized it first. I had a fear of sharing my stuff over Social Science Research Network and losing my credit to plagiarists, but now I think I will go ahead and post some of my papers there.

3. Persist despite Rejections

Review, I was told, is very subjective and conditional on things that have nothing to do with the quality of the article. The way we are doing it in the publication workshop is to select two journals - one top and the other second tier and submit it to top first and, if necesary, second tier second. We were advised to study journals for editors, submitting authors (whether there are PhDs or just big names), frequency of publication etc. I will be posting more stuff on selecting journals later. 

Hope this helps and good luck! Please let me know if this was helpful or if I made any terrible omissions or mistakes. 


  1. Many thanks, Anvar! I'll certainly look this book up.

    Guess, there should be a verb omitted in the sentence "Many will ... till the paper is complete to share it". Wait? Eat their nails? Be sure they're genius? ;)

  2. Thanks, Irina!
    hide it under the pillow was the verb :)
    Yeah, look it up and let me know, if i am kind of part-scanning the book for my own use, can send you this crazy cell-photographed pdf later if you want. Otherwise, I plan to take notes and publish them here the next twelve weeks :)