As I’ve argued in previous posts, publishing is all about reaching the people who can benefit from your ideas.
For most academics, some of the people you want to reach are other academics. And the primary way you are going to reach them is through publishing in refereed journals.
For too many of us, publishing becomes something we have to do to meet some external pressure — tenure, promotion, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) or it’s predecessor the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) — and we forget about the fact that we are trying to communicate with a particular audience.
A real life example
To illustrate the difference this change in perspective can make, I am going to talk about an example from my own academic career. There is nothing special about this example apart from the fact that I know a lot about it and there is no risk of me accidentally embarrassing or offending anyone.
Early in my career, I presented Understanding Gendered Inequality: Reconceptualizing Housework* at a small conference where I received some good feedback and participated in some very interesting conversations. The conference organizers were putting together a special issue of Women’s Studies International Forum and asked if they could include my paper.
I was excited. What a wonderful confirmation of the value of my argument. I accepted readily. Women’s Studies International Forum is a well respected, peer-reviewed women’s studies journal. There was a peer review process for the special issue though I didn’t ask much about it nor understand what the significance of that would be. I didn’t think that I was publishing badly. And I wasn’t.
*I’m a feminist sociologist. My research was about gender and family. As I used to tell my students, I know a lot about housework in a way that my mother thinks is totally useless. So the example here is about housework but it can be applied to any field.
If I knew then what I know now
My article has been cited. By people who are not my friends and relations. Clearly it has had an impact on the advancement of knowledge albeit a small one.
The debate that I most wanted to influence with that paper was not the debate in women’s studies. It was the general sociological research on the division of household labour.
That debate is not happening in Women’s Studies International Forum, and never has been. Most of the sociologists researching the division of household labour do not read Women’s Studies International Forum. The journal that is most likely to have an impact on the advancement of knowledge in this particular area is the Journal of Marriage and the Family.
I readily admit that I have no idea if my article is good enough to be published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family (JMF). I will never know. I never submitted it there. At the time I didn’t even consider sending it there.
Publishing in the special issue was safe.
There was no uncertainty. I had been invited to submit the paper by the editors. They knew what was in it. They thought it was good enough. They might give feedback and ask for revisions but the paper would definitely be published. When faced with a sure thing, I didn’t even stop to consider whether this was the best way to reach the people I most wanted to influence with my ideas.
I was only thinking of “getting published”. It was a refereed journal. It counted, and looked good, in my promotion file and the RAE. I had forgotten that the point of publishing is to take part in intellectual debates and maybe even influence them. More importantly, I lost site of my intellectual purpose.
What motivates your research & scholarship?
I’m betting you have a strong intrinsic motivation to do the work you do.
You think it matters.
It does matter.
Identify who it matters to, and then get those ideas of yours into whatever it is those people are reading. Even if it is one of those prestigious, peer-reviewed journals that committee wants to see you publishing in.
This post is a revised version of a post published in March 2009 entitled “If I Knew Then … #2: Publishing in the Wrong Places”. Minor edits and related posts added 10 September 2018.