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Thesis writing and academic publishing go hand-in-hand in contemporary academia, and it should come as no surprise that publishing is a frequent source of angst for graduate researchers.
Electronic thesis submissions, together with the ascendance of online article databases, make publications and thesis submissions more deeply intwined than they were a generation ago, and universities have adapted examination policies and processes to enable this (as discussed in this forthcoming book). Theses that include publications are widespread, though as noted in this previous blog post, not universal, and there’s still enough difference between disciplines to create some confusion for graduate researchers.
When I commenced my own PhD (more than two decades ago, in a humanities context), things were no less confusing. I worked with supervisors who were prolific scholars but we never talked directly about my own publishing aspirations. I quietly assumed that I’d find publishing opportunities if I stuck close to them and followed their leads. I never assumed that they might want to write with me or that I might propose this as a possibility. Meanwhile, a colleague doing their PhD in the sciences had a different journey, working on a project with publishing expectations that were established before their candidature even commenced.
While our experiences were quite different, we had one thing in common: we both lacked a critical, reflective approach to our respective publishing journeys. Their journey was predetermined, formulaic, and somewhat lacking in agency, while mine was comparatively free (but also a bit directionless), and I sometimes wonder what I could have done differently had someone encouraged me to think more critically about my intentions.
Based on my current work supporting graduate researchers and their supervisors, I know that these questions are still valid, as there are plenty of current candidates who might also benefit from some hard discussion around publishing. It's with this in mind that I’m offering a series of questions in this post, in case this is helpful with developing a good sense of direction and purpose.
Here we go:
Question 1: why publish?
At the risk of seeming a bit obvious, have you asked yourself why you want to be published? There are no wrong answers to this question (well, only one: anyone thinking of making an income directly from academic publishing is likely to be sorely disappointed), but it is a question that only you can answer for yourself. People planning to pursue an academic career will likely need academic outputs, but the same can’t be said for other careers or industries where other types of outputs may be more highly valued. Thinking clearly and honestly about your academic writing aspirations is an important - but often skipped - first step in one’s publishing journey.
Question 2: is this paper really necessary?
This question requires a good dose of self-awareness and honesty. I’m one of the many academics to have produced publications that seemed good at the time but which, in hindsight, may not be that great. I once worked with a professor who admitted to never reading their own work once it was published as they didn’t want to risk feeling any disappointment. I worked with another professor who was known to exclaim that ‘the last thing the world needs is more academic books’… while also writing various books. We also live in a world of extreme research productivity with some cultures of practice producing pretty outrageous expectations (what does ‘authorship’ mean to a researcher who is named on more than 72 papers a year…one every 5 days?).
As a gift to your future self, take the time now to interrogate exactly what contribution your planned publications aim to make and if this is hard to answer then that’s worth exploring further. Of course, in some cases, the answer may be determined by expectations beyond your control (e.g. your funders, supervisors, or university policy requiring candidates to publish), but asking this question will still likely yield better results. Also consider this: is the paper needed now, or is its timing not an important factor?
Question 3: who’s involved?
Does your discipline favour sole-authorship or teamwork? Does author order matter, and how is this decided? How you answer these two questions will already tell you something about who might be involved in the publication journey. There are merits to all sorts of authorship arrangements – what matters most is that they have been arranged via a mutually agreed process that is fair and transparent. The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research offers very clear advice on co-authorship, and there are also various scholarly perspectives.
Question 4: who’s the audience?
Academics spend quite a bit of time deciding where to publish. This is in part to do with perceptions of quality (see question 5, below), but also to do with audience. Different people access different resources and, in a world full of content producers, you need to know that the right people are reading your work if it is to have impact. So, think hard about who your audience is. You may have more than one audience – would they find your work in the same place or might you need to diversify? Is language significant? Who matters most to you at your current career stage? Who most needs to hear what you are saying? What do you want to be known for as a research professional? Who might offer future opportunities for you? Answering these variously pragmatic and altruistic questions will help you to prioritise your publishing choices.
Question 5: what form will it take?
Some disciplines (and some work environments) hold up the monograph as the pinnacle of scholarly writing. In others, you’d be considered unusual if you said you were writing a book. Some disciplines consider conference proceedings to be important because they are rigorously vetted and quicker to publication, but others do not. You need to understand the dynamics of your discipline to be able to make informed publishing choices. Does open access matter to you? What about online accessibility or print quality? Hardback or softcover? Purchase price? Depending on your topic and your audience, these questions may or may not matter, but it is worth taking the time to think them through.
While your answers will be unique to you, there are some broad criteria than can help. For example, if you are located in Australia, the Australian Research Council defines specific publication categories that are ‘counted’ as valid scholarly outputs. Scholarly books, book chapters, and peer reviewed journal articles count for all disciplines but conference proceedings only count in specific cases. Creative and other ‘non-traditional’ works are valid only in their respective disciplines. The ARC also lists other publication categories that are explicitly not considered scholarly research, so it’s worth understanding the difference.
Question 6: how do you define quality?
As noted above, career academics care about publication quality: as a proxy for rigor, for personal prestige, and sometimes to satisfy institutional demands. Academic journal rankings (determined nationally and globally, like this example) are a major feature of this, but not the only measure, and need to be balanced against other considerations (such as audience, above). Graduate researchers may be naturally unaware of rankings that are professionally important to their supervisors. While it is good to strive for quality, it is also important to be pragmatic and recognise that a very early career researcher may not yet have the track record to be competitive in the highest ranked journal in a discipline. It’s a good idea to actively ask supervisors and other established mentors about the circumstances surrounding journal rankings. A similar but less well-defined system applies to scholarly books, with certain university presses (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, Chicago) deemed more prestigious than other publishers but, again, this varies considerably by discipline.
One firm rule to following the Australian context is to avoid vanity and ‘predatory’ publishers. Vanity publishing (usually for books) are presses with low (or no) levels of editorial oversight, that will publish work on pre-payment. While convenient, these presses are low in professional standing for academics. Predatory publishers (usually for journals) are usually online journals that lack disciplinary accreditation and/or reliable peer review processes and are known to indiscriminately trawl for content by cold-emailing potential authors. Publishing with these outlets will not lead to professional recognition and may detract from an author’s standing in the scholarly community.
These questions will likely lead to further sub-questions. This is a good thing. You may not have immediate answers – this is also a good thing, as you can have these discussions with your supervisors and co-researchers. Addressing them together will help you to build your discipline knowledge and capacity for scholarly judgement.
His disciplinary background spans anthropology, cultural studies, and creative practice, and he is known internationally for his work concerning Rapanui (Easter Island) cultural heritage. As well as researching in these domains, he also provides broad-based doctoral supervision in ethnographic methods.
He has a particular interest in doctoral supervision and leads the RED supervision portfolio.