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Josie Dixon – From Planet PhD to Destination Publication: A Traveller’s Guide. Part 3. Passenger vs Driver


This post is the third in a series by Josie Dixon, a consultant with 15 years’ experience in academic publishing, as Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and Publishing Director for the Academic Division at Palgrave Macmillan.  She now runs her own business, Lucian Consulting, and gives training workshops on publishing and other forms of research communication for postgraduates, postdocs and staff in over 50 universities internationally, alongside her training and consultancy work in the publishing industry. In this set of blog posts for PhD2Published, Josie examines some of the polarities between Planet PhD and the world of publishing, and offers strategies for how to bridge the gap. 

A publishing proposal needs to make clear the project’s contribution to work in the field, and define its originality with reference to what has gone before.  You aren’t working in a scholarly vacuum, so you will need to contextualise your research in the discipline, but in a very different mode from that of a PhD literature review.  Coverage of secondary sources is no longer of interest for its own sake: your mastery of the field can now be assumed, rather than requiring demonstration at every turn for the benefit of your examiners.  As an editorial colleague once put it, ‘A publisher is interested in what you think, not what you think other people have thought’.   The journey from PhD to publication involves rethinking not just the quantity, but also the quality and manner of your citations.

In the first blogpost in this series, I referred to an article by Peter Barry which offers equally useful observations in this context.  Barry complains, rightly, that ‘much academic writing seems to hamper its own flow by footnoting, quoting or citing in almost every sentence. Its own argument never gathers any proper momentum or direction, like a car being driven with the brakes half on’. He pinpoints in particular the problem of ‘constant self-interruption (“as X has argued”, “as Y points out” and so on)’.  Barry’s stylistic point is a good one, but I would go further, since I have additional reservations about ‘as X has argued’ as a critical manoeuvre, in terms of what it suggests about the author’s confidence in their own independent contribution to the field.

A PhD has been traditionally viewed as an apprenticeship for an academic career, and that sense of being an academic underling working in the shadow of the established authorities often betrays itself in formulaic citations of this kind, in which you can risk overplaying the homage to senior figures in the field (X and Y are typically gurus like Foucault or Habermas).  The ‘as’ in ‘as X has argued’ suggests an alignment of your own point with one that has already been expressed by someone else, and this formula usually introduces a main clause which recycles their point (likewise ‘According to X’) in the attempt to bolster your own argument.  Too much of this kind of ‘straight’ citation in order to agree suggests a dependent or derivative relationship, and insufficiently novel or critical thinking on your part.  Turn that around with a different formulation – ‘whereas X has argued…’  – and you automatically make space for your own new and different contribution to take centre stage in the sentence – a much stronger form of argumentation.

A similar principle applies to framing material outlining the relationship of your work to predecessors, models, or sources of methodological and theoretical inspiration.  Too many would-be authors characterise their project as ‘drawing on’ or ‘following’ the work of existing authorities in the field, suggesting a position that is derivative or lags behind.  Editors want to publish the leaders in their field, not the followers!  So a stronger pitch would be to characterise your project as ‘building on’ its predecessors, making clear that their work is only the starting point for yours, which pushes further forward and achieves something more.

So have the courage of your own convictions here – Foucault, Habermas & co have enough disciples, and you won’t distinguish yourself by adding to their number.  Rather than joining the chorus, make sure you are singing solo.  Don’t be a passenger on other people’s bandwagons: be the driver of your own!

Here are five writing tips, to help you manage your relationship to secondary sources in ways that foreground your originality to best effect:

i) Avoid ‘as’ and ‘according to’ when introducing citations – concentrate on differentiating your viewpoint, rather than aligning it with others’

ii) Beware ‘c.f.’ and referencing sources without making explicit the relationship of your viewpoint to the ones being cited – the risk is that you will appear to be recycling others’ views uncritically

iii) Avoid too much summary of critical debate without your own intervention – this can make you look like a bystander or commentator rather than an active participant, and at worst turns into a bibliographical laundry list

iv) Use dynamic rather than passive verbs – you will make a more compelling case for your contribution if you make clear how your project challenges or overturns previous work, rather than simply complementing it (too neutral), filling the gaps (too humble) or drawing on your predecessors (derivative rather than critical)

v) From problem to solution: while you will of course need to give credit where it’s due, you will make a stronger and more positive case for what you bring to the scholarly party by explaining the deficiencies in existing scholarship which your research aims to remedy, and making clear the pay-off for your distinctive approach

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