10 ways to make sure your journal article never gets read, or worse, cited

Since posting this I have created a slideshow highlighting some of the key points, along with those from the previous post on not getting published in the first place.

You’ve gone through the tortuous process of peer review, and now your work is finally published. Of course the last thing you want is for people to go around citing your work, spreading your ideas, or worse, actually using them! But don’t worry, there are some very simple and easy things you can do to make sure this doesn’t ever happen. You’re in good company – plenty of people implement these easy to follow steps with nearly every piece of their published research.

The first few relate to making sure your work never gets read – thus ensuring it can’t be cited. Then we consider how to manage the unpleasant risks if someone actually reads your paper.

1. Give your paper a truly awful title

“A dull and irrelevant waste of time” – how does that grab you? That’s what a surprising number of titles I read in my ToC alerts seem like. To make sure I don’t click on the link, or develop any interest in what you have you have to say, (i) make what you have to say sound disconnected from any of the big ideas, concepts or issues I’m working on; and (ii) make it sound dull. I don’t have a psychic ability to detect interesting and relevant points buried in your paper. Neither am I stuck on a desert island with nothing else to do but read everything on the offchance something fun crops up. So a poor title will work wonders in ensuring I never read your work. Contrastingly, my last paper was called ‘Harry Potter and the child and family health nurse’, and the one before was ‘Fifty shades of practice theory’. Both promise to be exciting romps full of magic or steamy sex. And they’ve sent my h-index into the stratosphere. I’ve got an h-index googol on google (scholar).

2. Follow up your awful title with a horrendous abstract

You caught me in a rare moment when I could be bothered to forgive your poor titling skills and I proceeded to read your abstract. From this, I’ve learned nothing of your argument, or why I should read anything more. You’ve definitely forgotten to tell me how your paper joins an ongoing conversation or body of research. You’ve left me clueless as to what your methods or findings were. And I’ve no idea at all why I should care about what you’ve found out. Awesome. Instead you’re regurgitated existing literature, or barraged me with terms or concepts I don’t know, and dense text, so that reading your abstract feels like trying to swim through cold porridge. I forgot my snorkel and prefer eating porridge to drowning in it, so I think I’ll do something more productive like watching Celebrity Splash or Weakest Link on repeat.

3. Keep it a secret

Your paper has just been published online in the preview section, or maybe it’s actually come out in hard copy. Of course the last thing you should do is tell anyone about it! Definitely don’t put the details of it or a hyperlink on your email signature (ugh! reeks of crass self-promotion). Don’t mention it on academia.edu or your blog. Don’t update your university web profile. Don’t put a copy on your office door or tell your colleagues (you never want your Dean to know you’ve been so productive, do you?). Don’t put pre-prints in your university repository, and don’t make copies available via your own website (if copyright allows). And never do anything so stupid as to announce it on facebook or twitter! You’ve heard how putting stuff on social media can make it available to the plebian masses: imagine that! Hundreds of people, thousands maybe, reading your abstract, and maybe even downloading your paper! No, better leave it to chance and hope it crops up in search engines every now and then.

4. Publish in a really obscure journal

Some relatively young, open access journals do quite well (one of my most cited papers is in a free-to-all, online qualitative methods journal). But luckily, if you’re a citaphobe, there are some wonderfully obscure academic backwaters whose location in scholarly life is the equivalent of the dark side of the moon. There, your paper can Rest In Peace, free of the interfering gaze of interested readers. Hone in on those over-keen editors – she or he is probably trying to fill up unused slots for the next issue. What are those crazy academics doing leaving those slots unused? They must all be bonkers! I, however, see this opportunity for the amazing thing that it is (too good to be true?). If you’re in health or hard science disciplines, publishing in journals that aren’t indexed in Scopus is a pretty fool-proof way to make sure your paper isn’t read or treated as worth the paper it’s unlikely ever to be printed on.

5. Put in a great plot twist

Leave the best to the end, right? Wait until the last minute before your magical big reveal, where you make connections between your research and a wider issue, or link it into the big debate that’s raging in your field. Er… no, actually. It pays to treat your readers as if they were slightly more interested yet considerably more time-poor than readers of the British tabloid press (The Sun, The Daily Mail etc). If you read articles in those papers, you can see the authors don’t assume readers will get to the end of each piece. They barely assume readers will get much beyond the first sentence or two. So all the important information is captured succinctly as soon as possible. There is no secret pot of gold that rewards the readers who slog it out to the last full stop. In academic journals, every line you write is another few seconds of your readers’ time, competing for her or his attention with other much better articles, piles of marking, work on a research grant, or just buggering off home or to bed. If you’re saving the best til last, chances are your reader will have lost patience and think you and your research are no good.

6. Make your article as uninteresting and full of jargon as possible

Okay, your paper been read, but the danger of citation can still be headed off. One way of doing this is to do your readers a favour and present them with the intellectual equivalent of a marathon-meets-decathlon-meets-Tour-de-France. Make the paper as long as possible (use all available words, preferably more), and better still, make it feel even longer! Your readers’ brains should be sweating by the time they finish. After all it took you ages to go through all the drafts and revisions – why should your readers get of scot free? The decathlon element can easily be incorporated by making your paper address multiple ideas, concepts, methods, and arguments. Readers will feel short-changed if all you do is present a clear line of argument, a concise package of new knowledge, justifying your claims and their importance. More ideas! More complexity! More references! No-one ever said ‘That paper was just too clear for me’. No, they complain: ‘Pah! One well-presented and nicely explained idea. What do they think I am? A moron?’.

7. Hide your arguments in waffle

You’ve had a genius idea, or your data show something unexpected but really important. Worrying stuff. How will you hide forever in obscurity if someone actually finds this out?! No worries, there is extensive precedent for how to avoid this unpleasant eventuality.  Rather than making clear statements, and making it clear when you are arguing new ideas or presenting new material, you can bury your original thinking and novel claims in waffle. Pile it on! Never start a paragraph by announcing your great idea. Never conclude a paragraph by reinforcing your message. Preferably, hang your new claim off the end of a sentence with multiple clauses.

8. Therefore it can be seen that to a certain extent the statement is true

After all those months or years generating data, and those hours of tedium doing analysis, you’ve had your Eureka! moment. There’s strong empirical basis here to say something really bold, exciting, interesting, or controversial. Oops! Better manage this carefully. The best way is to utterly play down your claims or arguments. Hedge them like hell! Place them in multiple caveats! Belts and braces! Say more about your limitations than your diligent methods. If you do this, you can make your claims sound so inconsequential that no-one will give them second thought. Phew.

9. Therefore the earth is flat and revolves around the sun (and no-one ever said otherwise)

An alternative to point 8 is to make ridiculous, unsubstantiated claims. Better still, present them as if they are not controversial. Never anticipate a counter-claim. Never acknowledge alternative views or existing understandings. That defeats your purpose! No, stand firm and blast your audience with your findings. POW! Remember, whatever your field (science, social science, humanities, arts) what readers really want is reason to dismantle their entire discipline or maybe the whole of human history or contemporary society. Give them any less and they’ll think you and your research are as worthless as an inflatable dartboard.

10. Turn robust research into polemic

In some ways an extension of point 9. Don’t waste time giving details about your methods of data collection. No-one cares about analysis (qualitative interpretive methods, statistical tests etc), so leave those out too. Existing literature already exists, so no need to repeat it here, either. Use your valuable word space to present your view of the world, and elaborate on it fully. Yes, scholarly journals are really just expensive newspaper columns. Jeremy Clarkson gets to rant about the world, so why can’t you? If you’re unable to totally erase any empirical origins of your work, you can do the next best thing by describing it in fuzzy, unclear ways. Or by not presenting any data. Or by presenting data but allowing it to speak for itself. Or by presenting data that has no clear connection to your argument.

Coda

After the responses to point 7 in my previous post about avoiding publication altogether, I would like to reiterate here: it is my strongly held view that scholars have an obligation to make their work available to a range of audiences, not all of whom are academics and not all of whom can or ever feel inclined to access academic journals. This post focuses on publication in peer-reviewed journals because it is a crucial part of the academic endeavour. There are other crucial parts, too.

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3 thoughts on “10 ways to make sure your journal article never gets read, or worse, cited

  1. Anita & Gem

    Thanks Nick for your insights into a successful presentation. Our favourite point in particular, is that we all know these elements but putting theory into practise can be difficult sometimes. We have our presentation for honours next week and am very greatful to have been shown these tips.

    Reply
  2. Faye Miller

    Great post Nick, thanks. I know you’re being facetious about the titles with references to pop culture, but I just thought I’d add for the benefit of other ECRs who may be reading, that in my experience with getting published in academic journals, a good title is one that is snappy yet also captures the issue explored in the article and what is unique about your particular take on that issue (including the key terms in the article which people may search for).

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Yes indeed, Faye. My ‘titles’ aren’t real, and your description of a good title cuts to the chase very nicely, in my view. Thanks! It has to seem interesting and relevant.

      Reply

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