Getting published

Why rush to publish?

Publish or perish? Well, like it or not (and I for one don’t! — for it encourages untimely overspecialization and/or scholasticism), having a track record of pieces accepted for publication is now more or less a sine qua non for getting a foot on the first rung of the profession, as a junior research fellow (or ‘post doc’) or as a temporary lecturer. And when it comes to applying for a permanent lectureship a good track record of publication and clear evidence that you are going to continue publishing is even more essential. UK departments continue to attach a huge importance to their ratings in the research assessment exercises: first-rank overseas departments place equal if not more weight on research promise.

Note, though, the injunction “publish” certainly doesn’t mean “publish as much as you can, without real regard to the quality of your work or to where it appears”. Publishing a lot of third rate stuff in out-of-the-way places (which is certainly possible if you try hard enough) is in fact highly counterproductive. It is much better to produce two or three pieces that make it into high-ranking journals than sprinkle third-division outlets with hack work. Do go for quality, not quantity.

How do you get your great or not-so-quite-so-great thoughts into print? These brief notes try to distill one ex-editor’s advice. There should be no surprises, though: everything here is pretty banal and obvious. But since, in my experience, a good proportion of those sending papers off to ANALYSIS don’t actually do the banal and obvious things, I guess it is worth spelling them out!

The book review

The main route into publication is through professional journals, and below the emphasis will be on publishing articles in journals. But there are other kinds of publication — and perhaps the key one to mention which is relevant to graduate students/JRFs is the book review. You most certainly won’t build a career on the back of reviews, but it is probably quite good to do one or two. So let’s briefly pause over them.

How do you get invited to write a review? One way is to put yourself around a bit at conferences, give a ‘graduate paper’ here and there so that you get recognized as someone working in your field. But also your research supervisor may be able to pass on an invitation to you, or use his or her own contacts with journal reviews editors to get you an invitation to review. In particular, if you know that a book is forthcoming on your own research topic, then you could ask your supervisor to put out feelers with some journals ahead of publication date (reviews editors are often really hard pressed to find enough people to review books, and will quite probably welcome the recommendation of a new reviewer).

If you are asked to review a book, you will be given a word limit you should stick to. And remember that the readers will mostly want to know what is in the book and how it adds to the literature (do they have to read it?). Readers will be rather less interested in your views. You can be critical, of course, but if so be temperate and judicious: nobody likes a smart-arse. If you find what seem to you some bad error(s) that you are going to criticise in your review, then contact the author by e-mail and check that your reading of the text is a fair one (most authors are only too glad to find there is someone actually interested in their stuff!).

Try out a draft of your review — as indeed a draft of anything you want to submit for publication — on a critical friend, asking for a frank judgement about clarity and readability. Another general point: if at all possible, put your final draft in a drawer for a fortnight or so before sending it off: a final re-read after a period away from the piece can very often show up some glaring inelegances, clumsy passages, and even downright obscurities.

But as I say, reviews — while worth doing — don’t count for much in the scheme of things, so let’s turn to our central topic, the journal article.

So first, where should I send my lovingly crafted paper?

Do try sensibly to match submitted paper to the journal you are sending it to. You need to do some homework here: has the journal in recent years been publishing similar sorts of papers (construing ‘similar’ broadly)? In a similar sort of style? For example, some journals are much more receptive to very straight history of philosophy than others. Again, some journals are much more receptive to papers that straddle discipline boundaries than others. And even if you are writing straight analytic philosophy, ANALYSIS (say) has a very different flavour to Philosophy, even though they are both mainstream  journals. Your own reading in your own area should make it pretty clear which journals are ‘your’ sort of journal.

And there is a pretty well understood pecking order of journals in terms of quality and prestige: are you aiming sensibly? By common perception (and by difficulty of getting accepted) Journal of Philosophy trumps Nous or the Australasian Journal (say), yet the latter are still very highly respected. It is absolutely not done to send a paper to more than one journal at a time (you may well be asked to confirm in your covering letter that the paper isn’t under consideration with another journal). So it could be unwise to tie up a paper maybe for six months or so by aiming too high, when (for CV purposes) it would be pretty much as good to get a piece into a slightly less exalted home.

You can get some information about relative acceptance rates of different journals, etc., online. Many journals also have web-pages these days, which may contain useful additional information.

Damn! My paper has been rejected. Why?

Different journals work in somewhat different ways. In some cases the editor(s) will make an in-house initial division into possibles vs hopeless, with a significant proportion of submissions going immediately into the waste basket. Other editors will send nearly everything out to referees. But either way, most of what is sent in will get rejected.

Now some papers are rejected because they just have crap arguments. Let’s admit it: there’s a lot of really bad philosophy around. But I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and suppose that your paper isn’t obviously hopeless! There’s still a lot of reasons why it might get turned down, whether initially by the editor, or by referees. For a start, there are considerations of style, organisation, and novelty:

  • The paper is just badly written at the micro-level– too many sentences are clumsy, or even just don’t make really clear sense. Or they are written in an off-puttingly pretentious way.
  • Even if the sentences make sense and are decently written when taken severally, they don’t add up to very clear sections. The writing is bad at the macro-level.
  • Section by section things go quite well, but the sections still don’t add up to a well-structured, well organized paper.
  • The writing and structure is fine, the message is clear, but the paper re-invents the wheel. The headline point has already been made in the recent literature — perhaps it is pipped to the post by another piece making a similar contribution to the same debate (this rather often happens in a journal like ANALYSIS).
  • The final message is novel, but it comes after far too much scene-setting or exposition of familiar stuff (a very common mistake, especially it seems from USA grad students, who seem to think that ten pages of scene-setting are needed before they offer two pages of original stuff: not so!).
  • The message is novel, and put crisply, but is too trivial/obvious/doesn’t really need saying (or at least, doesn’t need saying at much more than footnote-length).

The previous faults of bad writing, too much scene setting, or being old-hat are fairly objectively discernible. And editors will probably tend to share a view on what counts as a footnote’s worth of ideas puffed up into a paper. 

But now we get to the sort of things that will vary somewhat from referee to referee, and from editor to editor: that’s why you shouldn’t be too disheartened by a rejection first time around. Another editor may well take a different view.  They might disagree rather more about the following sorts of consideration:

  • The paper’s message is novel and non-trivial but a contribution to a ‘dead’ debate (no one much is interested any more). Sorry, but philosophy is as fashion prone as other intellectual enterprises! So if you do want e.g. to heat up some 1980s dish, you’ll need to do it with extra zip and vim, with exciting advertising spiel which explains why we should all sit up and take notice again.
  • The opposite fault: the message is novel but a contribution to a debate that is currently far too over-exposed — so the editor is reluctant to print yet another blasted article on [as it might be] externalism and self-knowledge, unless it is quite unusually striking.
  • The message is novel but the conclusion is just downright implausible/crazy. That’s a judgement call, of course. And true, a neat argument to a novel apparent paradox can be fun and instructive. But sheer perversity palls. If you do find yourself arguing for a highly heterodox view, then you really do need to sugar the pill in various ways (explain why your view isn’t as mad as it might seem, or why it has really positive pay-offs, or …).
  • The opposite fault again: the paper is worthy but dull: the paper’s message is novel, there isn’t too much scene-setting, the conclusion is interesting and well-argued, the prose is clear — but it is just all too laboured and manages to produce utter boredom in the reader rather than interest. That’s a judgement call again, of course. But it is another quite frequent fault — you must remember that not everyone will find your research topic riveting (in fact probably few will), so you need to sell your piece with some crisp prose, neat illustrations, nice turns of phrase.

Presentation matters a lot then, then. You can’t easily forestall the bad luck of being pipped to the post (though if you do think of writing a piece on a hot debate, best to do it quickly as soon as the idea strikes you!). But some of the other failings can be avoided by giving quite a bit of thought to how you package your arguments. Brevity is a great virtue, given the pressure on space in journals; and cutting your article down to the bones will almost always make for a zippier read.

So how to increase your chances of getting published!

Let’s assume  that you’ve got something interesting to say. Something novel (even if only critically novel). Something that strikes you as worth saying and as moving the debate forward. You’ve tried out the key ideas on your supervisor and on the graduate seminar and it has stood up to criticism. You now need to package it for publication. Given what I’ve just said, you need to …

  • Make sure that what you have to say on your topic really is paper-sized (not a footnote inflated beyond its worth, as has already been said — but also not too action-packed to be readily readable: some papers by beginners try to pack too much in). Keep it focused and tightly structured.
  • Make it absolutely clear from the start what the thesis of the paper is (opening paragraphs make a very big impression). What is the “take home message”?
  • Make it absolutely clear at every point what the structure of the paper is (it is surprising how often as an editor I had to read material two or three times to see whether, at some point, the author was stating her own view or presenting the view under attack).
  • Use absolutely clear and direct prose (use the ‘does it sound well if read aloud’ test). Be terse and crisp.
  • Use a professional tone (not over casual, no over flippant remarks, no abuse of your target!).
  • Check again you are on the right lines by asking a critical friend or two for a frank judgement about clarity, readability, and structure.
  • Make sure your paper is really well presented, well laid-out following some standard  bibliographical conventions for references, well spell-checked, well printed, etc. (If the author can’t be bothered to make the paper look really good, that doesn’t make a good impression! Why not learn to use LaTeX to make your paper look professional?)

Two more points:

  • You needn’t slavishly follow the finest details of the particular journal’s style on first submission — but if you don’t, you should say in your covering letter ‘If the paper is accepted. I will send a version formatted according to your style-sheet’ (or some such).
  • Do conform if the journal insists on, or encourages, submissions prepared for ‘blind’ refereeing — i.e. use detachable cover sheets giving the your name and affiliation, so that the main body of the paper which is sent out to referees is free (as far as possible) of indications of who the author is.

And finally, to repeat an obvious but crucial injunction, do try sensibly to match submitted paper to the journal you are sending it to.

Waiting, twiddling your fingers …

So you’ve sent the paper off. If there’s an in-house decision to publish or reject straight off, without consulting external referees, then you could hear quite quickly. A straight rejection may well be unexplained (I took the line when I was editing ANALYSIS, as some editors do, that authors prefer speed to comments, unless the comments are extensive enough to be useful).

If a paper is sent out to referees, then it could be more like two or three months before you get a decision. But you should in this case get at least excerpts from the referees comments; but not necessarily (referees are allowed to write ‘for the editor’s eyes only’, or to be very brisk if they are pushed for time). If what you receive is a reasoned rejection then you should take your medicine without complaint (unless the referee’s comments are quite wildly off-key, e.g. based on an obvious misreading of your argument — you can protest, but in my 12 years of editing, I changed my mind in response to authors’ protests very rarely indeed).

It will now be weeks or months since you sent the paper off. Look at it again. You are bound to spot aspects of the paper that now strike you as not very good at all. Don’t be disheartened. Every author, returning to something they wrote a while back, has that experience! Don’t hang about: if the paper was rejected by Philosophical Diversions quickly make the changes that now strike you as necessary, and send it off to The Journal of Diverting Philosophy (which is perhaps  further down the pecking order?).

But if, more happily, you are asked to revise taking into account the referee’s suggestions and worries than try to do just that, again speedily (even if the referee’s worries don’t always seem terribly well-based to you, at least take this as an opportunity to fend of possible misunderstandings). Remember it is possible that the same referee will be asked again to read the revised version, so don’t be tempted to write something along the lines of “someone might object …; but that is obviously naive and foolish because …”! Explain in a covering letter how you have dealt with the referee’s comments: if one of the referee’s comments does seem off-beam, then do explain in a quietly reasoned way why you haven’t changed anything in response to that particular comment. An invitation to resubmit is not a promise to publish, but indicates a high probability of publication if you deal with the referee’s suggestions in a positive and constructive manner.

If your paper is accepted, then, with luck, it could appear within nine months of acceptance, or it could take a lot longer. But no matter, as far as your CV is concerned, a “forthcoming” piece is as much a publication in the bag as one that is out in print.

Afterwards … spread the word

Make yourself a professional-looking website (it is inexpensive to buy yourself a domain name, and then your website address can stay fixed even if you and the hosting for your website move around as you move universities). Check out the websites of more senior grad students for models. Don’t get over fancy: if it is easy to maintain, then you are more likely to do so. And don’t start a website and then ignore it. Put ‘near final’ draft versions of your papers there (even if a journal bans you from putting a PDF of the printed version as published on your website, putting up draft versions is normally tolerated). Spread the word and raise your profile. For that can certainly do no harm!

Last revised October 2014

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