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Academic publishing: four conundrums starting out

As the cliché goes, most people have summer reading, but academics have summer writing. August is a key time for ‘side projects’, and for grad students this is often writing for publication, versus writing for one’s degree. I’ve been keeping a running list of open calls for papers during the spring, and this August is time for me to polish those abstracts and check out some possible key terms. As I wrap up my thesis, I know that I need to be making a start on building a publication record, but how to proceed is always fraught. I don’t pretend to have firm answers, but these are some of the conundrums that I’ve come up against while planning my workload for the summer and the months ahead, and my inclinations on how to solve them.

1. Call For Papers vs journal submission

Lots of journals pitched towards graduate students and early-career researchers have calls for papers that do the rounds in the winter and spring, including the journal that I’m an editor for (HARTS & Minds). Meanwhile, many of the more established or prestigious journals operate rolling submissions, usually accompanied by somewhat opaque or unpredictable assessment processes and timelines.

CFPs can be very attractive, as they often require only a 500 word pitch, rather than a completed, polished manuscript. For time-strapped grad students, particularly those who are focusing on publishing mostly during the summer months, this has a real allure, as it keeps the up-front investment low.

The difficulty, however, is the risk that the short-term gain is a long-term loss. It takes real insight and experience with academic work to know the level a particular piece should be pitched at. Coupled with the anxiety that (for most grad students) comes with the first steps into publishing, the decision is a tough one.

I suspect the best advice is still to wait and publish something of excellent quality in as prestigious a publication as one can muster. But that seems predicated on an old, romantic view of academia where academics might be protected by their institutions until they can achieve this. Now, ‘publish lots’ seems to be the prevailing wind…

2. Fresh work vs developed grad-school work

Whether you’re developing a 500-word abstract to pitch a book chapter or journal article, or preparing a polished manuscript for submission, it’s difficult to know whether to build on your existing work or to produce something bespoke. Again, this is about up-front investment.

Developing grad-school work appears to be the easier option. You’ve done all that thinking already, right? However, there are challenges around trying to force old work into a new hole, such as a specific CFP, and of course the fact that most polished grad-school pieces are longer than your average article. Trimming a piece down is a skill in itself, and not one that we necessarily all develop while producing academic work. There’s a risk that trying to customise grad-school work leads to something less publishable than if one had struck out into a fresh field of research, meaning that in fact the time investment may be wasted.

3. Thesis vs ‘old’ work

A subset of the conundrum above, but I think this poses an additional dilemma.

Most grad students will have produced good research while completing previous degrees. Is it best to use our newest research or to refresh older pieces? Work on a PhD thesis is likely the highest quality academic work that any graduate student will have produced. That means it’s automatically ripe(r) for publication than, for example, Masters research. However, there is an increasing tendency for PhD students to draft their thesis as a prospective monograph. Taking chunks out of it might, therefore, risk the publishability of the whole, or at least present additional copyright difficulties.

Masters work may, therefore, seem like a better bet (unless the PhD follows directly on from it). However, there’s a lot of critical thinking to be done about the quality of Masters work—even if it achieved a glowing mark. The Masters degree is a staging post in terms of preparing for a research career, and accordingly the critiera for excellence differ. If approached well, however, developing Masters work for publication can be a learning experience, and be like coming to a subject fresh, but with a hell of a lot of background knowledge!

4. Submission articles vs thesis

As mentioned above, there is an increasing tendency for PhD theses to be constructed and drafted as prospective monographs, in order to cut down on the time from degree to publication. Not only does this have an impact on the types of theses that are being written (an issue worthy of a whole other list of conundrums!), but students in this position have to balance time spent on their thesis with time spent on side-project publications.

Graduate school can be a great time to begin building experience with academic publication, and ideally a publication profile. Protected time with an academic affiliation (and the attendant access to journals, seminars, supervisors, etc.) is a safety net that ECRs cannot take for granted, in particular in the light of the increasing adjunctisation of higher education. However, anxiety about being seen to ‘dally’ in grad school is a real pressure. And let’s be frank: the summer is just not long enough for side projects.

With ‘publish early and often’ becoming the guiding force for grad students, there is probably no decision to be made. Both articles and thesis seem to be ‘top priority’, as though we’re politicians unwilling to say where they’ll make the hard choices! However, scandalous though it may sound, for grad students aiming for a research career (and not everyone is), I think the thesis should take second place. To attain the degree requires a lot of hard work, but no thesis is immediately publishable without revision. Developing the skills to produce publishable work—and deal with journals and publishers—will stand you in good stead for your whole career. Why not develop them while you have the support of supervisors and can work on side projects that are shorter, more contained, and frankly things that you likely care less about than the thesis? Once you have those skills, they’re yours, and you can use them to produce publishable articles, or a monograph, from the thesis that earned you your degree.

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