This post is the first in a four part series wherein J and Xan outline some tips and lessons concerning publishing and reviewing they have picked up over the years. In the first two posts, J outlines 5 lessons learned about publishing journal articles over the 4 years since submitting zir first manuscript to a journal. Next week, J will outline 5 more lessons from these experiences, and then the following two weeks Xan will offer tips and lessons about being a good reviewer for journals and the ways this may help one’s overall publishing and other career-related experience.
Every year, I attend conferences and come into contact with graduate students seeking to find answers to a multitude of questions concerning publishing and other aspects of academic careers. As I often do in such cases, I wanted to use this post (the first of two on the subject) to share some lessons I have learned about publishing in academic journals over the years just in case it may be helpful to emerging scholars navigating these activities. I do not mean to claim my experience is in any way exhaustive or some kind of ideal approach, but I realize (if for no other reason than the number of graduate students that seek me out each year) that such information may be useful to many people. I further admit that many people may disagree with my own approach and the lessons I have learned so far, and I think that is quite fine – my goal here is to offer what I have learned and experienced in hopes of helping others, and I would suggest others simply do the same if they see things differently.
To this end, I offer the following lessons I have learned in the 4 years since I submitted my first manuscript to an academic journal. Considering that I have since published 19 journal articles, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the journal article process, and so I hope to share some insights from behind the scenes while recognizing that many other people likely approach things both the same way I do and much differently in practice. In this post, I offer 5 lessons learned, and in the next post (Volume 2 forthcoming) I will offer 5 more.
Lesson 1: Publishing journal articles is something one learns by doing.
If you walk through any conference or graduate program I have come across so far, you are likely to be able to find lots of advice about how one should go about publishing, but best I can tell most of such advice is not all that useful in practice. I say this as someone who was lucky enough to have mentors that answered any question and provided examples along the way. What I learned, however, is that the process itself is simply one that takes practice. I cannot tell you how I know when a paper is ready to go out for review or which reviewers to agree with or disagree with because these are ongoing processes of interpretation I have simply picked up with practice over time. I can tell you that such practice is very important, and thus I encourage you to spend at least as much time submitting your work as you do asking others how you should go about submitting work.
Lesson 2: The people who publish the most generally are those who submit the most.
It may be comforting to believe in meritocracy or other ideal scenarios where the cream rises to the top no matter what in academic work and beyond, but realistically everyone I know (self included) that other people say “wow they publish a lot” or “how are you so productive” has a ton of rejections to go with those publications and always has something in the pipeline (if not ten somethings, hell I have 20 at various stages of review as I type this and I know of two colleagues that have more than that in the pipeline right now). To get published, you have to write and you have to submit. I was granted this advice by a scholar I met while in graduate school who, to quote a senior scholar at the time, “published a ton,” and their advice was simply – “if you want to publish a lot, you have to submit a lot, get rejected a lot, and keep submitting – it’s a numbers game like any other, the more chances you get the more times you’ll score a publication.” I can thus tell you that no matter how much (or how little) you workshop, present, or otherwise agonize over your papers, in the end what will matter is how many of them go out for review and how willing you are to keep submitting them (with adjustments along the way) following rejections. Like any other game, you have to play to have a chance.
Lesson 3: Publishing journal articles is about rejection.
Everyone I know that actually enjoys the publication process (as opposed to worrying about it, fearing it, and / or stressing about it) expects every paper they submit to get rejected – period, no exceptions. I say this as someone who has already had 2 papers get conditionally accepted on first submission and as someone who has published a lot – I assume each thing I submit will get rejected and I look forward to getting the rejection, disagreeing with the reviewers, and one day celebrating when I can say (no matter how accurate or inaccurate) “see they were wrong” when another journal wants the piece. I do not expect to get accepted, and thus each time this happens feels like a damn holiday and miracle. The rejections hurt (they suck), but like any other pain, it stings less if you are expecting it from the start instead of hoping for something that you do not get. I thus treat submissions like a game – I throw the pass or accept the dare or spin the bottle assuming it won’t go well so I can dance and sing when it occasionally works out great. I also never developed a “thick skin” as some professors suggest – rather I curse, scream, cry or whatever I feel about every rejection and use that emotion (or pain) as motivation to keep going (i.e., I’ll show them!!!) with the paper in question. I would thus say think of it like this you have nothing to lose since they’re going to reject you anyway so why not give it a shot.
Lesson 4: Publishing journal articles is about patience.
When submitting an article to this or that journal, there is no way to know how long it will take to get a decision. Almost every journal says they do things in x or y time period, but in reality these are averages at best or ideal guesses at worst from what I can tell. The shortest turn around from submission to decision I have experienced so far was 1 month, and the longest was 13 months. I have also experienced everything in between these two extremes. When you submit something, my advice is to forget about it the best you can and work on something else. Watching the pot will not likely do you any good at all, and may increase any anxiety you experience in relation to publishing or submitting in general from what I’ve seen.
Lesson 5: Publishing journal articles is about editor shopping.
I know the standard marketing slogan, sermon or whatever you want to call it that damn near everyone repeats constantly – “the best papers get published here,” “this journal will get you good reviews,” “your paper is a perfect fit for this journal,” and “if you get good reviews you’ll get published” to name just a few. This is all “wishful thinking” best I can tell because the reality is – as many of my mentors and colleagues have expressed and I have experienced – that all you’re doing when you submit a paper is waiting to see if a given editor wants that paper. Some examples may help de-mystify this statement for those of you who might still cling desperately to beliefs about merit and objectivity in publishing:
- I think of the time an Editor rejected a paper of mine because they wrote “they did not believe in qualitative methods,” which kind of automatically meant the merit of any qualitative work would not matter because they did not believe in the work in the first place. This was after the paper had gotten all positive reviews during both rounds (yes I said both, initial and R&R rounds) of review.
- I think of the time an Editor rejected a paper of mine because they wrote I had “published too much” in that journal recently, which simply ignored the 3 glowing positive reviews the piece got (i.e., merits) in favor of journal politics and desires.
- I think of the (too many to count to date) times I have received rejections at various journals only to realize I got 3, 4, and even 5 glowing positive reviews with statements like “This is the most innovative piece I’ve seen in x field” or “This could be a major contribution to the discipline.” In such cases, editor taste trumps the merit documented by reviewers. In fact, a colleague and I have a running joke that if someone calls our work “innovative” or “original” we know we’re going to get rejected (unless we go to a small niche journal or a brand new journal where they appear to be more open to NEW ideas in my experience) because the last thing any editor at a well known journal seems to want is something innovative or original.
- I think of the many times (at least a dozen or so) where reviewers have slaughtered a piece (i.e., they hated it – I even had one write they hated it) by giving it the worst reviews I could imagine only to get a glowing R&R from an editor who apparently liked the piece. Once again (though more positive for the writer) the editor’s taste trumped the merit established (or denied in such cases) by the reviewers.
Sadly, I could give plenty more examples of these experiences, but the end point remains the same – publishing is about finding the editor that wants the piece and merit doesn’t matter unless the editor says it has merit. You have to keep in mind that editors are people with their own biases, assumptions, perspectives, tastes, agendas, etc, and they can (and do) ignore the reviewers (positive or negative) regularly. You can love this or hate this, but in either case, this is the process so you will need to learn to accept it. If your paper is great according to your colleagues and / or the reviewers, but an editor doesn’t want it, it will not get published at that journal. If your paper is horrible according to your colleagues and / or reviewers, but an editor does want it, you will get published at that journal. In the end, the process is about editor shopping because in the end editors decide what has merit and what does not. As a result, you can spend years trying to get your writing group, advisor, friend, magical creature, pen pal or whoever to like it, but in the end unless they are the editor of the journal you choose it won’t matter all that much.
I hope these 5 lessons are useful to readers, and I encourage debate and discussion of them here on the blog since I know from experience people view publishing processes differently. In the next post, I will offer 5 more lessons learned that build on these 5 so until then I wish you well in your own adventures in publishing.