This week’s post is the second in a four part series where Xan and J share experience and tips managing academic publication and reviewing. In this post, J offers 5 more tips for publishing in academic journals that build upon the first 5 outlined in last week’s post.
In last week’s post (Volume 1), I outlined 5 lessons I have learned about publishing journal articles to date. The following lessons build on those so I encourage all readers to check out Volume 1 before reading this one. That said, these are all lessons that have become equally important and obvious to me throughout my experiences publishing journal articles. As noted in the previous post, I do not expect everyone to agree with my experiences, but rather I share the lessons I have learned and encourage others to debate and discuss their own experiences with these dynamics.
Lesson 6: Publishing journal articles is about recognizing that reviewers only really matter if you get an R&R.
I know the standard marketing slogans that you hear everywhere about the importance of reviews, the need to consider every review seriously, and the fears of not doing so and it coming back to hurt you. Once again, I find most of this discussion to be “wishful thinking” or “anxiety statements” coming from people that believe in meritocracy or some other imaginary version of the academy. I can tell you that in my experience paying much attention to reviews that do not come with an R&R is at best a waste of your time and at worst will cause you more time wasted on extra work later.
Don’t get me wrong here, I would suggest (and I do) reading and thinking about all the reviews you get on any paper. Sometimes reviewers note important aspects of your paper or useful literature that you can use no matter where you send it next, and in such cases you should incorporate these elements. Sometimes reviewers will say things you wanted to say or agree with but left out, and you may then want to put those things in the next submission. Most importantly in my experiences, sometimes reviewers will note details that tripped them up or distracted from your manuscript that you may want to clarify or drop from the piece to avoid the same distraction or confusion again. The fact is some of the best and most useful feedback I have gotten on papers came in the process of a rejection so I would argue it is in fact important to take the reviews you get seriously even if they are part of a rejection. The problem, however, arises when you grant reviewers that have no power (i.e., you got rejected, they cannot get you published no matter what they wrote) some power by spending days, weeks or months working on comments instead of getting your paper back under review somewhere else where it might have a chance of publication (see lesson 2 again). Put simply, finding what is useful in a review is important, but in the end you have no way of knowing if that review will ever matter in relation to publication so it should be a tool you consider rather than something that eats up a lot of time.
The person I know that has published the most since I came to the academy does not even read reviews that come with rejections at all and simply flips every paper until ze gets an revise and resubmit. In fact, I will admit that 8 out of 10 times I simply flip an article from one journal to the next exactly as it was at the first journal or with very minor adjustments (i.e., clarifications). The other two times out of ten are when reviewers say something I find useful for any journal in terms of publishing the article (i.e., I agree with them and think “Damn I missed that”). The vast majority of the time (all but 1 so far) I get very different reviews from the next journal and if I get an R&R I revise and if not I do the same again. In 1 other case thus far, I even experienced the horror story I have heard in graduate programs and at conferences (i.e., you get the same reviewer you had at the first journal who notes they already reviewed the piece and you didn’t change it like they wanted back then), but I can tell you that it apparently did not matter since I got an R&R and got published in the course of that experience (in fact, the published version also doesn’t have the changes they suggested because I disagree with them and apparently the editor did too). Once again, the point is simply that reviewers have little power (they hate it but editor likes it = published; they love it but editor hates it = not published; they agree with editor = published or not based on agreement) so while pretending they have more power than they do might make them feel good it may also simply waste your time and energy. So my advice is simple when you get reviews with a rejection = study them to see what may be useful to your paper and what you agree with, incorporate those things quickly, and get it to another editor and set of reviewers where the reviews might end up mattering more to your chances of publication.
Lesson 7: Publishing journal articles is about recognizing reviewers are simply other people sharing their opinions based on their own training, assumptions, biases, and backgrounds.
Again here, I know the standard marketing slogans spread throughout disciplines – reviewers are experts in a field, reviewers donate their time so must be respected, and reviewers are important to listen to and please. Once again, I simply disagree with this because my experience – and those shared with me by others – do not support these assertions. Reviewers are people like anyone else, and thus they have their own standpoints and perspectives. Reviewers are scholars like you and me, and thus they have their own background training, favorite theories, and methodological assumptions. Reviewers are varied ages like the rest of us, and thus they may know this theoretical framework or that one from graduate school, but not necessarily the latest developments in that field or theories not covered in their training or experience or they may know older or other theories useful to you that you did not get exposed to. I want you to notice that each of these aspects of reviewers can be good and bad. On the good side, this means they may add something to your work, and they may catch things you miss – this is useful. The fact is there are some amazing reviewers out there, and in the next two posts Xan will discuss some aspects of these reviewers. When you get these amazing reviewers, you can learn a lot and greatly enhance your work. On the bad side, however, this means they have their own values and beliefs and limitations so they may be wrong, misguide you, or otherwise problematic just as easily. The fact is you will run into some horrible reviewers and biases and assumptions along the way (unless you’re very lucky) and you need to be ready to manage these and sort them out from the good ones in practice. Simply put, in order to publish journal articles, you must learn to spot the difference, and make your case. If you agree with the reviewer, do what they say in your way, but if you disagree with them, do so and explain why in a memo. In my experience and that others have shared with me, both of these options happen regularly, and in the end the editor (see Lesson 5 from the first post again) is the only one with any real power in the process.
I understand that most of us are taught to assume reviewers know what they’re talking about, but in reality – as editors will even tell you if you ask – they are simply selected first and foremost on their willingness to review and no one checks to see if they actually know what they’re doing in regards to your paper. Here are some fun examples:
- I think of the reviewer who suggested I go read x book because x book would show me that my entire paper was wrong. I went and read x book, and it turned out that x book said my entire paper was right, necessary, and important. I responded in the memo that the reviewer should go read x book that they had suggested to appreciate my paper, and even quoted the findings from x book so the editor could see that the reviewer either never read x book or simply got it wrong.
- I think of the reviewer who explicitly told me “be nicer to” privileged group x “in my analysis” because we all know politeness trumps empiricism right?
- I think of the reviewer who admitted in their review they were not familiar with (i.e., had not read or studied) the theory at the heart of my paper. How they expected to evaluate my paper without any understanding of the theory it was using is beyond me. I also wonder (since this is what I do when I agree to review something and then realize I don’t know the literature in the piece) why they did not go read the theory first before completing their review instead of reviewing the paper without this information.
- I think of the reviewer who expressed anger because they had “read this manuscript already and it is no good” when reviewing a manuscript I had never submitted anywhere before, and I wondered if they either (a) just didn’t want to read it but wanted to do a review, (b) were not much of a reader and thus got it confused with some other paper they read, and / or (c) had simply had a bad day and didn’t want to bother with doing a review.
- I think of the countless reviewers who have told me to read my own or one of my coauthor’s works because that work totally destroys the piece in question, and I am lucky I did not get me or one of my coauthors as a reviewer on this piece, which is just plain hilarious and for me quite a lot of fun honestly.
Once again, I could offer so many more examples it is scary, but the point is the same – reviewers are people who are offering their opinions, and there is no reason to believe their opinions are any better (or more accurate) than yours automatically. You should thus make sure you know your work so you are ready to defend it if necessary or accept useful feedback (I honestly get quite a lot of that too and it makes me smile – there really are some seriously good reviewers out there so don’t let the bad ones discourage you too much) when it is provided.
Lesson 8: Publishing journal articles is about recognizing that storytelling is more important than data.
It is not uncommon to hear many scientists in a wide variety of fields talk about the importance of data (regardless of what kind of data they prefer themselves). Not surprisingly, it is also not uncommon for many emerging scholars to assume that data is what matters in journal article publishing. Sadly, this is false. In every field I have come across and among every scholar I have encountered (with a few notable exceptions), the reality is that publishing journal articles is about your ability to tell a good story. In some fields, this emphasis is more explicit so you will hear people regularly say that you must have a “theoretical” contribution to get published no matter how interesting, new, or fun your data is. You must put that data into an existing storyline for it to matter at all because the theoretical discussion (i.e., the storytelling in that journal and in your field) is what matters most. In other fields, this is more implicit, but the pattern still holds – it doesn’t matter what your data is or says unless you can find a way to tell a good (theoretical) story about it. If, for example, your data says that x and y correlate, then you must creatively construct a storyline where this correlation theoretically implies some possible concrete thing in the world beyond. If, for example, your data says that x accomplishes y by doing a, b, and c, then you must creatively construct a storyline where what x accomplishes (the y) matters to existing theoretical assumptions, beliefs, and values held by others in your field or another field. The story – not the data – is what matters; the theory – again not the data – is what matters.
While I cannot say I’m correct or not because I simply do not know, my own guess is that this counterintuitive reality (i.e., that stories (theory) matter more to science than data (empirical observations) stems from the emergence of Western Science within societies dominated by Christian traditions that prioritize belief (i.e., agreeing about the right story) over action (i.e., what one actually does). As a result, science was founded and developed as an attempt to theorize (i.e., come up with stories people could agree upon that were not necessarily religious) instead of simply observe or document (i.e., catalogue what actually happens in the world). To this end, we value attempts to explain the world (i.e., theory and belief) over attempts to document the world (i.e., data and empiricism). Stated another way, we care more about what the correlation might suggest in a possible scenario and less about the fact that what we actually documented was simply a correlation. Whether you like this or not again does not matter – the reality is that empirical papers (i.e., those about data instead of about a story) will rarely get published and theoretical papers (i.e., those about a story whether or not it necessarily fits or has data) will get published so learn to be good storytellers if you want to publish journal articles.
Lesson 9: Publishing journal articles is about recognizing that “contribution” means nothing and a thousand different things all at the same time.
Related to lesson 8, publishing journal articles requires figuring out what anyone means when they say “contribution.” In some cases, this means you have found something that others have not discussed yet, but this is rare in my experience (in fact, editors often reject such findings even when reviewers love them because they disrupt existing storylines). In other cases, this means you studied something other people have not yet studied (i.e., some new data), but again this is rare in my experience as people generally privilege theory / belief over data / practice. In most cases I have seen, heard about, and experienced, “contribution” actually means an addition to existing literatures and lines of thought (i.e., you’re adding a new wrinkle or detail or chapter to the latest published story). This means that a “contribution” is basically anything an editor (and then reviewers) see as complimentary or additive to whatever they have already read and / or agreed with at that point. Not surprisingly, this means a contribution can mean anything. If, for example, you get an editor who has never heard of theory b but loves theory a, and your piece adds a detail to theory b, you will likely be seen to have no contribution. On the other hand, if your piece adds a detail to theory a, you have a contribution. In the same manner, if your piece makes theory b look bad, you may have a contribution if the editor and / or reviewers don’t like theory b, but you may not have a contribution if the editor and / or reviewers do like theory b. See how this works?
This gets even more complicated since the vast majority of reviewers (positive or negative) will offer a similar critique of damn near any manuscript = you didn’t use literature on x. To interpret this critique, you have to realize that what they are saying is “you didn’t use this literature I like or know that is somehow maybe related to your study and I want you to use it or I’m not going to like your paper.” So, if reviewer k loves literature in this subfield and you don’t use that literature, you do not have a contribution, but if you do use that subfield you either (a) have a contribution or (b) have to add the literature they like in that subfield to have a contribution. Again, note that the literature (i.e., the established storyline) is more important than the data in your study. In either case, “contribution” is shorthand for “what I as a reviewer or editor deem important at present,” which is something you can rarely guess since any paper will only use a limited amount of any given literature to make its point. Publishing journal articles thus requires giving up any belief in an absolute or easily guessed “contribution,” and instead embracing that this term can mean anything or nothing in a given context because it is based on what the reader themselves (a) thinks matters, (b) is familiar with, and (c) feels comfortable with. In fact, if you embrace this reality you may – as I have many times already – have the hilarious experience where you get the exact same unchanged paper rejected from journal a because “you have no contribution” and then accepted at journal b because “you have a significant contribution” as a result of the lack of actual concrete meaning the term “contribution” actually has in practice.
Lesson 10: Publishing journal articles is a social process.
As all the above suggest, publishing journal articles is a social process wherein a multitude of variables influence whether or not something appears in print. While it may be comforting to think of journals as containers of truth and merit, the reality is that they are created based on the actions and assumptions of people like any other result of social processes. In many ways, the process is kind of like dating wherein the author seeks an editor (and then reviewers) who like their outfit, agree with their worldviews, and find things about their work important. When these things line up, you have a nice time, but when these things are incompatible you simply swipe to the next potential lover on your app.
This is complicated because like any other social process journal article publishing is not uniform, but rather varied in relation to existing assumptions, biases, opinions, experiences, and expectations held by parties on each side of the interaction. The editors and reviewers behind the scenes are just as human and socially created and influenced as the authors, and as result, their opinions and biases and expectations influence the outcome of the interaction dramatically. There are many people, for example, that adjust their names, the language used in articles, and other facets of their self presentations simply to avoid or protect against assumptions and biases they have experienced in the process at times in the past. All these intersections and interactions (as they do in other social processes) influence outcomes and experiences in nuanced ways.
This is further complicated because – again like any other social process – journal article publishing is varied in status and prestige. Like other normative institutions, the mainstream or most valued journals (think the top 10 to 20 in any field) tend to be more conservative in what they publish than lesser established journals are (I was lucky that senior scholars explained this one to me early on since as someone who does work often deemed “innovative” or “controversial” this is an important detail about the structure of academic publishing often not talked about in official spaces). As a result, pieces that are more controversial or create problems for existing stories often get published in brand new or niche journals (or in books removed from the journal article process) and only really effect the mainstream conversation over time or as a result of many people citing those works in their own endeavors. At the same time, someone will gain more immediate benefit in their career for publishing a more ordinary or conservative or usual piece in the top ranked journals than they will for pushing boundaries in lesser known journals. These factors – not surprisingly – dramatically influence what knowledge counts and leads to better careers as well as each of the lessons outlined above.
This is even further complicated because – again like any other social process – journal article publishing requires resources that are not evenly distributed. One example may be found in the topic of time, and who does or does not have time to shop multiple editors, who does or does not have writing time built into their job, who does or does not have time for conference networking or library searching in the midst of their work. All these factors play prominent roles in who can even pursue publishing in journals in the first place. We can run down a similar amount of inequitable dynamics if we look at money, research support infrastructure, course releases to focus on writing, or assistance in research just to name a few examples. All of these resource distributions influence who can publish in journals by limiting or expanding the ability one has to work through the process and play the game.