“But What Should I Publish?”

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Last year, I posted a series on article writing, offering a method for the novice on how to approach writing an article in six steps. But one of the questions I’ve left a little unanswered is what one should publish early in an academic career. I’ve previously suggested that the primary consideration here is the job market, and that it’s useful to think strategically about what kinds of jobs you’ll be applying for and what kinds of journals exist that would make evident your expertise in those jobs. For example, in cultural anthropology, jobs tend to be posted that call for expertise in particular geographic regions and topical subfield. If you do research in Latin America, there’s the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology and if your work is about medicine, then there’s Medical AnthropologyMedical Anthropology Quarterly, etc. In other disciplines, period can also come into play. But identifying journals isn’t enough — there’s also the question of what, exactly, you should work on publishing, and why.

So, here are two ways to think this through:

The Nagging Anecdote Method

By ‘nagging anecdote’ I mean any kind of case, data, or event that you’ve turned up that continues to be something you think about — maybe without any real resolution. It might be something that you talk with people about when you discuss your research, or just something that sticks out from your research. Probably the reason why the case sticks out for you is because it shows something about your research that’s novel in relation to your field.

The challenge with this method — and probably the reason why the anecdote is nagging at you in the first place — is that you have to figure out what the anecdote actually shows and whether it has any legs. Sometimes an anecdote can be just that: a quirky case, data burp, or event that other people will find kind of compelling to think about. But if it doesn’t actually show much, it’s not worth hitching an article to — it might best to relegate it to a conversational hook. If it does have legs, it’ll be because it helps to show something in relation to existing literature, which is either theoretical or topical.

The next step is to put the nagging anecdote alongside some other, less nagging evidence. So, answer this question: if this nagging case is the exception, what does the rule look like? You might have two or three more normative cases that help the naive reader to understand what the nagging case is of deeper interest. These other, more normative cases might not only be yours — they might be drawn from existing scholarly literature, which might lay the basis for a literature review. If the data is coming from your own research, you might be establishing the broad outline of the evidence that will be the heart of the paper.

The challenge at this point is figuring out what kind of contribution you’re making to your field. It can be modest — your set of data can confirm how widespread a particular set of circumstances are or how common certain outcomes might be. It can also be a much more profound contribution, if the cases you have are really exceptional. In either case, this kind of article really depends on knowing the topical literature well and making an argument that’s based on a shared understanding within your audience of what’s normative in a particular research context.

The Medium-Sized Debate Method

In any field, there are theories that people use to think through their research material. In subfields and area studies, the theories that people are using aren’t usually as macroscopic as they are in the flagship journals in any field. So, for example, in the social study of medicine, ‘medicalization’ is a theory that is widely used, whereas in the discipline of anthropology more generally you have bigger debates around ideas like ‘globalization,’ ‘culture,’ ‘neoliberalism,’ ‘ontology,’ etc. Anyone who has successfully completed their qualifying exams should be able to identify these smaller, subdisciplinary or area-focused debates — it might take a little time, and you might have to go back to your reading lists, but the knowledge is there (and the debates haven’t changed much since you did your exams). It might be worth writing down a list of relevant debates in your areas of study, and then figuring out which ones you have something to say about.

Having something to add to a debate can be really straightforward: you can really focus an article around providing further proof of a concept in a different context than its initial elaboration. You can also argue against a concept by its inability to fit in a particular context. And you can do something in-between, simultaneously accepting a concept and showing how it might need revisions based on a particular set of circumstances (which are the basis of your research). So, to go back to ‘medicalization,’ you can provide an set of examples of it working along the lines that Peter Conrad has elaborated the idea; you can show how it’s not the logic underlying a particular set of circumstances (which is what I try to do in ‘Natural Hegemonies‘); or you can work to extend the concept based on its insufficiency in a particular context (e.g. Adele Clarke et al.’s Biomedicalization).

Once you have a list of potential debates to contribute to, the challenging part is figuring out the right data to match up with those debates, and what this data might show. Probably the safest place to start from is the assumption that your work will confirm whatever theory you’re working with, and you might set about figuring out how it does so. You might get to one of the other positions (let’s call them ‘contradiction’ and ‘complementarity’), but in the beginning, assume that you’re working to confirm the theory.

Break the theory down into its constituent elements. So, to continue the medicalization example, the basic idea is that what was once accepted as natural human experiences are now treated as medical disorders and in need of medical attention. In the case of my research on sleep, sleeping in more than one period was once considered normal, but is now often thought of as insomnia — or, in some cases, narcolepsy. With the categories of insomnia and narcolepsy, particular medications are identified as being helpful, which necessarily involves medical professionals. With treatments being prescribed for individual patients, the medicalization process is complete — although when you take the perspectives of patients into account, the process gets a little upset. This is the basis for an article of mine that could be useful to look at. But, basically, you need to tease apart the theory and then find evidence of yours that matches up with the component parts. This might sound a little schematic, but if you’re really working with a particular theory, this is a good way to demonstrate to your peer reviewers that you know what you’re talking about. It will also help you see whether or not you’re complementing the theory, contradicting it, or confirming it, since a variation in your evidence from any of the theory’s components will be pointing you down either the contradicting or complementing roads…

Finding a journal to send an article like this to should be pretty straightforward: since it’s a theory that emerges from or is particularly relevant to a subdiscipline or area-studies interest, you should be able to identify a journal that fits under one of those rubrics. Before you have the whole manuscript written — but after you have a sense of what it’s going to be about — make sure you take a look at the journal’s submission requirements and to take the time to analyze a model article from the journal you’re planning on sending the article to for review. Taken together, the submission requirements (like word count) and the model article should give you a clear sense of what an article should look like for the journal you’ve identified and how to put it together.

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I’m more of a Medium-Sized debate writer than a Nagging Anecdote one; but some Nagging Anecdotes have appeared in my work over the years. More often, I feel like what I write about are pretty modest topics that gently expand theoretical perspectives. But I know a lot of people who are definitely in the Nagging Anecdote camp, and that works just as well.

Whichever route you pursue, forethought is critical: what you don’t want is an article manuscript that has a hard time finding a place to fit. If that’s what you end up with, you’ll need to go back to the manuscript to get it into the right shape for the journal you end up identifying as your first target for peer-review. The more you know about a journal and what its editors are looking for, the better the odds of your work being accepted for publication there. A little upfront research will save you lots of time rewriting to meet the editorial and audience expectations of any journal.

If your article doesn’t make it through peer-review at your first pick journal, don’t get discouraged. Take the peer-reviews into account, do some rewriting, and send it out for review again. Journal articles can take years to find the right editors, peer reviewers, and audience — so, again, knowing the right journals to send things to is critical.

 

Three Pathways to Publication (Excluding Deals with the Devil)

In this post, I discuss three of my articles and what the experience was of getting them through peer review and their ultimate publication. Some of the details are a little foggy — in some cases, it’s been upwards of seven years since I started work on the articles mentioned here — but most of what I want to convey is that getting a manuscript to publication depends on two things: 1) don’t take criticisms and rejection too seriously, and 2) make sure you’re writing for the right audience. If you’re doing the second, the first should be minimized anyway…

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I should say at the outset that I’m leaving names of journals out, since editorial shifts happen frequently and my experience of any of the journals I’ve interacted with in the past isn’t predictive of your experience with the same journal or editors. I’ve also kept all of my peer reviews, editorial decisions, and other paperwork from all my publication efforts, and I draw on them below.

So, first off is ‘Natural Hegemonies.’ I had written it as a job talk back in 2006, and presented it in a few of different versions as colloquium talks and workshop presentations. It’s sprawling, and covers a lot of the content from my dissertation — and later, book — in summary format. It was usually well received by audiences, and so it seemed like the good basis for an article to send to a flagship journal. After some fine tuning, I sent it to an anthropology journal generally seen as one of the top of the field. It spent a long time in peer review, and when it returned to me it was returned as a revise and resubmit with five reviews. The reviews were generally positive, with a couple very glowing reviews. The editors had a series of revisions they were seeking, and I set to work on them; they also, in retrospect, had deep philosophical disagreements with me, and if I was reading clearly at the time, I would probably have pulled up stakes after the first round of reviews…

After revising it, I sent it back, and this time it was under review for even longer than the first time. When it was returned to me, it was sent back as a rejection, despite having generally positive reviews. Reviewers said things like ‘I found just about every aspect of this text compelling and thoughtful. I urge publication of the manuscript in its current form’ and ‘This is a great paper, which I enjoyed reading immensely. The paper is engaging, flows, and connects together a series of seemingly unrelated themes together in such a way that they appear in retrospect to be inevitable and one wonders why one never thought about it before. This is the hallmark of a very engaging and persuasive argument, one that appears impossible at the outset and inevitable in retrospect. I’d certainly publish it.’ But the editors disagreed. Which, ultimately, was fine. I worked on the manuscript for a couple of hours — addressing only the big things pointed out by reviewers from the last round of review — and sent it to Current Anthropology the same day it was rejected from the other journal. After a round of peer review, it was accepted with minor revisions. I set to work on those revisions, and it ended up coming out in 2011.

What I realized in working on ‘Natural Hegemonies’ was that the kind of article it was — sweeping in its empirical scope and making a pretty theoretical argument — just wasn’t right for the first journal I sent it to. Despite the peer reviewers, the editors saw the mission of the journal as promoting a different form of anthropological scholarship, which my manuscript didn’t quite fit. But Current Anthropology offered a more ecumenical approach to the discipline, and the article fit right in there.

A more straightforward path was that of ‘Therapy, Remedy, Cure.’ I originally wrote it as a colloquium talk around the publication of my book, and presented it a couple of times over the course of a year. Because it was largely ethnographic and developed an argument I saw as of potentially broad appeal — about time, capitalism and medical treatment — I decided to take another stab at publishing in a flagship anthropology journal. Based on what I had seen in the journal recently, I thought the editor would be interested in the piece, and work with me on revising it as needed. But the editorial reigns had just been handed over, and the new editor seemed to have different tastes, including kinds of reviewers to send things to for review.

Of the three reviews that were returned to me, the first was principally concerned that my methods section was a footnote rather than in the body of the article, which would seem easily remedied (and was an artifact of the paper as a presentation). The second reviewer had a number of suggestions, and asked for revisions prior to publication. The third reviewer wrote a three sentence — and extremely positive — review. Despite the reviews, the editor ‘definitively’ rejected the piece. Not to be dissuaded, I sent it out the same day to Medical Anthropology, a journal I had published in before and always had excellent experiences with.

At Medical Anthropology, the piece received favorable reviews, and was accepted pending revisions, most of which were minor. In my experience, sometimes minor revisions are the hardest to make, since they’re usually just to satisfy specific peer reviewer concerns, and they always stick out to me as being just that. But I set down to work on the manuscript, addressed what I needed to, and sent the article back for review within a couple of months, at which point it was accepted for publication. Again, although I thought the argument would be of broad disciplinary interest — maybe it is? — the best home for it was a subfield journal where the kind of evidence and argumentation that was the basis of the manuscript was easily recognized and supported.

Maybe the easiest — yet longest — experience I had was with ‘Where Have All Our Naps Gone?‘ The meat of this paper was in my dissertation (which focuses on various experiments with sleep over the 20th century), but it didn’t really fit into the book version. Being largely historical in its focus, I decided to send it to history journals. Over five years, I sent it to five journals. Maybe it was even more than that. Of those journals, a couple times it was rejected without peer reviews — the editors simply thought it wasn’t interesting and right for their audience. A couple other times it underwent peer reviews, and was ultimately rejected for one reason or another. I was asked to present something at a workshop on sleep in the 20th century, so I dusted the manuscript off and presented it there, where it received a favorable response — which reaffirmed my sense that there was something to the argument, but that maybe it just wasn’t right for historians.

I was asked by Peter Benson and Rebecca Lester to guest edit an issue of Anthropology of Consciousness on sleep, and it dawned on me that maybe this would be the right venue for the piece. Instead of writing a lengthy introduction to the issue, I asked for the article to go through peer review for consideration in the journal. The review process was relatively painless, which may have been because it was a special issue, or because I had been working on the manuscript on and off for so long — or maybe because it finally found the right audience. At Anthropology of Consciousness, the article ended up winning the annual ‘outstanding article’ award — something I didn’t even know existed, but it made it evident to me that the article had finally found its audience. Maybe historians will get turned onto it sooner or later…

Over the years, I’ve learned to not take rejection as an indictment of my abilities, my research or my writing. The biggest help on this front was peer reviewing other people’s work, often that of people I knew and respected. Critically reading through other people’s work with the goal of helping them publish also helped me see some of the mistakes that I was making. Going through peer review and doing peer review significantly changed my thinking about writing and how finished something needed to be before it could be sent out — a three-quarters finished manuscript might risk rejection from an editor, but it also gives reviewers a lot to respond to and help you work through.

My general rule is to write a new article manuscript every year. Part of my reason for doing so is that I don’t like presenting the same material as colloquium talks more than a few times, so I’m always looking towards the next presentation. The other reason for doing so is that it takes the burden off any one manuscript to get published. If something gets hung up in peer review for a year or two, like ‘Natural Hegemonies’ did, I know some other stuff will make it through to publication in the meantime.

But, generally, rejection is no big deal. This isn’t to say that you should ignore why things are getting rejected, but that rather than over think why things are being rejected, you should take the criticisms seriously, address them as succinctly as you can, and move on. Targeting the right audience will reduce your overall rejection rate, but it’s absolutely normal for an article manuscript to be rejected once or more on its way to eventual publication…

The N=1 Article Writing Challenge Starts Today!

Welcome to the inaugural N=1 article writing challenge! The goal is to produce a 6,000-8,000 word article in two weeks, by following these steps: identifying the right journal (and stuff to publish), analyzing a model article, and then writing the conclusion, literature review, case studies and introduction. If you’re participating, please post feedback as comments on the individual steps — or, if you prefer anonymity, send me an email. At some future point, I’ll put together an addendum to the steps, and include material from the comments and emails I receive.

ImageAfter years of editing a journal and serving as a peer reviewer, I’ve become very aware of one critical misstep most authors make: audiences are important. One of the things my steps to article writing try and address is how to conceptualize your audience and write for it. Having a clear sense of who you’re writing for and why can speed up the writing process — both in terms of working from scratch and revising the article when it comes back from the journal for revisions (which it will, and that’s perfectly normal).

The biggest challenge I see among junior academics is knowing what to publish. Most people seem to think that they need to make a big splash right off the bat. But that’s both unrealistic and misguided. If it’s in your dissertation, it’s probably worth publishing — especially if no one has written about it before; it just needs to find the right audience. The ‘big splash’ is generally intended for your whole discipline, and that can wait. What you need in your first couple of publications is to endear yourself to your subfield or regional colleagues, and publishing about obscure events or cases from your research is a great first step. So don’t get hung up on what to publish — find the audience you want to write for, and then figure out what they might be interested in. It’s in your dissertation, so use it.

Godspeed in your writing — and let me know how the steps are working for you!