Rat Race: Publications, Publications, Publications

As a young academic, the importance of publications is regularly reiterated to me. The often-repeated mantra of ‘publish or perish‘ rings in the ears of many of my peers. While some PhD students plunge forward into the world of journal publishing, others flounder without guidance of what, when, and where they should publish. As the editor of a history journal directed at postgraduate students, these questions often come in my direction. In this post, I will outline how the publishing process works, before giving some hints, advice, and titbits of information I have picked up.

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1) When to publish

The first question many young researchers face is whether or not they have written an article of publishable standard. What is good enough? What is useful enough? Working in a very subjective field, there is no formula for ‘good enough’. Often, you won’t know if it is good enough until you start putting it out there. The best route is to try out your work at conferences, gauge reactions, and work from there. Most important though, is whether you, as a researcher, feel that you have made a contribution to your field with this work.

2) Where to publish

Once you’ve decided that you’re ready to brave the publishing experience, the first decision to make is where to publish. This post is written mainly with journals in mind, but of course there are also chapters in edited volumes, conference proceedings, and other avenues to consider.

Focusing on journals, do you publish in a postgraduate journal, or a specialist journal in your field? As the editor of a postgraduate journal, I recommend them as a first experience, but ideally with an essay from an MA, or work from early PhD research. They are a fantastic experience of how the process works, but they are not the best place for the finished research from your PhD. In the UK, we have the REF, and it is imperative to publish in REF recognised journals.

However, the best approach is simply to ask: what journal would it suit best? Which other journals have articles on similar topics? Are there any particular journals you frequently footnote? Don’t be afraid of trying your ideal journal, even if it seems scary and important. Even if they don’t accept you, the feedback will be invaluable.

3) How to submit

The important thing here is to follow guidelines exactly. Every journal will provide them, and if they don’t, request them. As an editor, mis-formatted submissions immediately receive a negative response. Not only does it create more work for the journal team, it also doesn’t look professional.

4) What will happen

Following submission, you will usually receive a response either directly rejecting the article (in which case, return to point 2 – this could simply mean you chose the wrong place), or informing you it will be going out for peer-review. In this process, two academics in your field will read and comment upon your work anonymously. These comments are returned to the editor, who in turn passes them on to you. There are three primary outcomes at this stage 1) acceptance, 2) acceptance with revisions, 3) decline. The latter two outcomes are far more usual than the first. Whatever happens, the feedback will be invaluable.

5) Feedback

Feedback should never be ignored. Yes, it may be contradictory, and you may disagree, but these are the opinions of your peers. The editor will usually provide some guidance about what to ignore and what to follow, but aside from this, even if you are rejected, take that feedback onboard. If you disagree, make sure you still address the point – you may simply need to clarify some point they have misunderstood. The point of the process is to improve, and to publish the best possible research; and every submission, whether from a graduate student or a professor, receives the same treatment.

Everyone has to keep publishing, and every academic is scared of rejection. The key is to try, to take it in your stride, to improve, and to make your research the best it can be. That, after all, is why we do what we do.


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