Todays post by Tom Brock, an Early Career researcher at Durham University, is an impassioned reflection on the difficult journey ahead faced by many of his career stage with the desire to progress; that of getting journal articles published.
Across the academic spectrum, the phrase ‘publish or perish’ has been heard by many. Today, it might be thought of as the condicio sine qua non of academic and researcher development. The idea behind it is simple: we must publish our research material or we will be cast out as failures of the system. We perish: we suffer complete ruin in a sudden or untimely way. It is a provocative phrase. It is meant to spur on progress. However, it resonates deeply with the early career researcher. It echoes throughout our day-to-day lives as we fear that in order to qualify our academic prowess (beyond the mere possession of a doctorate) we must face peer-review. If we do not publish, then we perish, and the alternative that we face translates into something quite unsettling.
Like the protagonist of 1995 hit-film, ‘Judge Dredd’, the unpublished academic is met with one choice: to face the ‘long walk’ alone. It is an uncomfortable truth but there are few options remaining and often each ends with the same inevitable call for peer-reviewed material. Unsatisfied by this, the unsuccessful scholarly graduate must leave the refines of the ivory tower to be greeted by the ‘Cursed Earth’: a space in the employment line where the skills of a doctoral researcher rarely translate into ‘business acumen’. In my case, this means a Ph.D. in Sociology, which does not directly translate into what the market requires: quick judgments, fast/competitive calls and rapid solution-based decisions. On the contrary, my forté is built around taking the necessary time to think, or explore and analyse. It often involves processes of rinsing, repeating and repeating again. If this is the case for other researchers, then, is it any wonder why the phrase resonates so deeply? Given what is at stake, there will be those for whom the publication process is both an emotional and physical challenge.
It is within this context that I jumped at the chance when Durham University’s Centre for Academic and Researcher Development (CARD) recommended that I attend a course entitled ‘Publish or Perish: an introduction to publishing and reviewing journal articles’. The course was straightforward enough. Participants submit a short article (1000 words), which is then peer reviewed by other participants. The article must be accessible to a general audience. Participants are asked to review two such articles, in accordance with set quality criteria, and are asked to supply referees reports for these items. Participants are then asked to revise their original submissions and resubmit it for acceptance. The whole process takes approximately 4 months (June-September) and finishes with a publication launch. I am currently waiting to receive feedback on my original submission but I have completed my referees’ reports.
The experience has been overwhelmingly positive and has served to contextualise the sobering depiction of ruin and catastrophe outlined above. Writing an argument in 1000 words, for a general audience, was no easy task. It took time and reflexive-critique. Through the process, I learnt the importance of writing shorter, snappier sentences. I learnt to omit concepts that I had no space to define and I would try to limit myself to a single idea or point per paragraph. These common-sense principles were impacting my writing style and it enabled me to keep the central argument of the article at the forefront of discussion. The course taught me something of paramount value: effective writing is what makes our ideas not only accessible but real. It gives our imaginarium a break and allows us to take hold of our ideas, communicating them in a style which has impact.
This moment of clarity had a lasting effect. It became the viewpoint from which I refereed the other articles. Many of the corrections I suggested were balanced on the issue of a clear and concise writing style. Unclear phrases or terminology were redressed and where conceptual rigour was an issue, I recommend omitting entire sections of the paper for straightforward, descriptive, prose. Each comment I made served an important function: it prompted a reflexive-critique of my own writing style. I was left with a new perspective on why we write as well as how we do it.
Taking this new stance, I still face the wider environment and it remains unchanged: there is a sense of urgency to publications and without them there is little chance of securing a place on the academic-tenure track. However, though the sobering nature and pressures of the environment echo in the distance, the process of publication has been demystified. The importance of effective writing has been crystallized in my working consciousness. Publishing content appears to be more straightforward when you know why you must turn your ideas into clear and concise prose. I only hope that this welcome development is enough to stave off the ‘long walk’ alone.
Dr Tom Brock is currently a Research Associate in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University. His research interests lie in realist social theory, histories of radical thought and movements of political action. You can follow him on Twitter and see his website here.