A few things you’ve always wanted to know about academic publication but were too afraid to ask

 

This might have been titled ‘Academic publishing for dummies’ or ‘The idiots’ guide to publishing’. But I don’t think of the readers of this blog as dummies or idiots. But I do know that among research student and early career researcher populations, there are often lots of myths about publication, aspects of academia that are rather opaque, and lots of understandable reluctance to ask others the most basic questions.

This is an accompaniment to other posts I’ve done about getting published and getting cited.

Is it for everyone?

Yes. It’s for everyone

There is nothing whatsoever stopping students (undergrads, masters, doctoral) at any stage from submitting something for publication. Providing you have something new to say that other people will care about. Yes, when you register with journal online submission processes you often provide information about your degree(s), role etc. But this is not available to the reviewers. I published three papers based on my master’s research and not once did I encounter any resistance because I didn’t have ‘Dr’ in front of my name.

Book publishing is a bit different – contracts for monographs require a different kind of work, and publishers often look at CVs, expecting evidence to show that you’ve been active in the publication game and to give them confidence you will deliver.

 

No. It’s not for everyone

I wish I could sit and write otherwise, but it continues to be a sad reality that academic publishing is not as equitable as it should be. Historical relations of power, exclusion and privilege continue to exert force. Publishing in English matters (in terms of getting jobs, promotion, research funding) in many countries where English is not an official or even widely spoken language. Academic discourses in many fields still implicitly work on assumptions of a core (call it Global North, Anglo-European, Western) and a periphery. I was reviewing a paper recently based in Turkey, and asked ‘Why Turkey’? But when I write about the UK or Australia (countries where I’ve lived and worked), this context seems automatically acceptable (to me).  So I pressed the delete button a few times and tried to engage more openly with the Turkish work. I’m not saying academia is closed to non-English, non-core publication. But I’d be lying and misleading you if I painted a picture of a globally equal and fair game. Cos it ain’t. I and many others continue to benefit from historical imbalances at the expense of others.

 

Is there money in it?

No. There’s no money in it

Pretty much the only link between academic publishing and your bank account is the fact that you won’t get a job if you don’t publish (discounting the impact buying books has on your bank balance). You don’t get paid for articles you publish. The reviewers don’t get paid for their reviews. The editors (by and large) don’t get paid for the hours they spend editing journals. If you’re lucky you might get a single figure % of royalties for an academic book, but unless you’ve got the academic equivalent of Game of Thrones in the pipeline, this is going to change your income to the degree of the odd Mars bar here and there. Perhaps a nice haircut once in a while.

It pays to remember that reviewers and editors aren’t paid. If for no other reason than to realise that, ethically, you owe the academic community your free services at least as much as you have received them. Send a paper off and get 3 reviews? Better make sure you do at least 3 reviews in return. Later in your career, when you’re asked to be an associate editor, join an editorial board, or be lead editor: you’re tempted to say no I’m too busy, but ask yourself whether the people who edited all the journals you’ve been publishing were waiting round all day with nothing to do.

 

Yes. There’s heaps of money in it (just not for you)

Only a fool thinks academic publishing is all about ideas and nothing about money. As I’ve written before (how not to get published), academic publishing is (at least for now) big business. It’s just that the money doesn’t flow to academics or to universities. It goes to publishers, and increasingly fewer of them. Universities pay to subscribe to journals, they pay their academics to do research and write papers, they allow their staff time to do reviews and editing, and then sometimes they even pay journals again for open access (see below). Some publishers have recently moved into the academic field because they see the profits as more stable: it’s rather uncertain where the next Harry Potter is going to come from, but a steady stream of academics submitting papers to proliferating journals (etc) is quite nice thank you. If you’re publishing with a commercial publisher, don’t forget that their bottom line is profit. Simples.

 

Yes and no but maybe… it’s all changing

Open access. Wow, this is a biggie. In many countries now, people are cottoning on to what has been happening. Taxpayers are saying: hang on, if I funded this research through my taxes, why do I have to pay again to read it. Now I’ve been diagnosed with [whatever] I’d quite like to read up on the research without paying again. Often what this means is paying commercial publishers again to release copyright so papers can be made freely available (and some funding councils require budgets for this up front). It can also mean universities checking copyright very closely and putting pre-print versions on open repositories. And, excitingly, it can mean academics choosing to publish in open access journals where there are no barriers to access whatsoever (though some ask authors to pay for the right to publish, which is another matter). I’m getting more and more emails from big publishers each week telling me about their open access offerings. Something has got the system spooked.

Established, high-ranking journals published commercially aren’t going to disappear overnight. But I think we’re experiencing minor tremors of what will amount to a major tectonic shift. The point here: beware, and be aware. You’ve got to be legally savvy, know what you’re signing copyright wise. Beware: there are plenty of crappy open access journals. But be aware that open access is gaining kudos rapidly.

 

Is academic publishing fair?

Yes. It’s a fair game

Overall, I think the system of peer review does a remarkably good job of managing the frontiers of knowledge. To those uber-cynics who point out conservatism, policing of the status quo, I point to innumerable, radical differences between scholarship today and even five or ten years ago. Compared to what I hear from friends working outside academia, I’m heartened by the non-hierarchical and open nature of academic publishing. And I cherish the principle of peer review. Yes I’ve been frustrated and annoyed at times by rejection. But every paper I’ve written, without exception, has been improved through the process. I’ve always been given a fair go, rightly dismissed when I wrote crap, and given the chance to improve where I’ve shown glimpses of potential (even if that means me taking a rejection on the chin, working on my paper, and sending it somewhere else, the fact I have the chance to do this is worth noting).

 

No. It’s really not a fair game

If you think publishing decisions are made purely on the basis of scholarly merit, think again. Scholarly merit comes into it, but so do a heap of other things (I’m going to blog about these and the peer review process soon).

 

 

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6 thoughts on “A few things you’ve always wanted to know about academic publication but were too afraid to ask

  1. Emmanuel Mogaji (@e_mogaji)

    Interesting fact here is that reviewers dont get paid and the need to make oneself available when the need arise to be an editor. Thanks for pointing that out.

    How about those whose PhD were not funded by Tax Payer, Guess we have the full right to keep our work accessible for some selected fews.

    For the Open Acess, still a grey area. Needs to really understand how this works before I shoot myself in the leg.

    Many thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Emmanuel

      Thanks for your comment. Lots of PhD students are not on government scholarships, but the fact remains that fees rarely cover all of the costs of doing a doctorate; there have been studies of this, such as HEFCE/JM Consulting. (2005). Costs of training and supervising postgraduate research students. Bristol: Higher Education Funding Council for England. So even if you are paying fees someone else is contributing too. Including, if you’re doing research with human beings, the participants who give up time and energy to be part of it.

      Even if we are wholly paying for ourselves, I think we owe society more than to do a PhD as if it were a private hobby for exclusively our benefit.

      I get the sense from your comment that you agree too! (that you’re not suggesting we should make our work inaccessible)

      Reply
  2. Lauren K Hartman

    Thank you. Your post is very insightful. I am a post graduate student and am looking into writing scholarly works for publishing. I have not done research up to this point. Can I still write about research of a topic done by others? Also, where do I find calls for papers?

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Calls for papers for special issues are generally somewhere in the main pages of a specific journal website. Sometimes they also come out through email lists, which is one reason it’s good to be a member of discipline associations (one came just today for me through the Australian Association for Research in Education).
      People do write papers without doing new empirical research, but you have to have something new to say. Theoretical papers or lit reviews would be the most common, but these are not the same as the lit review or theoretical framework section of a thesis. Pat Thomson’s blog has some useful content about publishing lit reviews, as do other resources from various universities who are active in the tweetosphere…

      Reply
  3. whitepantheress

    This is encouraging, as a third year psych student My lecturer in Cog. NeuroPsych. has agreed to facilitate me doing experimental research for my own interest with a goal to publish.

    Reply

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