Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Getting Published in Philosophy by Peter Smith

A really good suggestion letter for graduate philosophers. explains how journals work, which journals to publish in, why it important to publish, how to increase you chance of being published, and other advice


Getting Published

Peter Smith

Why rush to publish?

Publish or perish? Well, like it or not (and I for one don't!--for I fear it encourages narrowness and scholasticism), having a track record of pieces accepted for publication is now more or less a sine qua non for getting a foot on the first rung of the profession, as a junior research fellow or temporary lecturer. And when it comes to applying for a permanent lectureship a good track record of publication and clear evidence that you are going to continue publishing is even more essential: UK departments attach a huge importance to their ratings in the Research Assessment Exercises, and good overseas departments place equal if not more weight on research promise.

Note, though, the injunction "publish" certainly doesn't mean "publish as much as you can, without real regard to the quality of your work or to where it appears". Publishing a lot of third rate stuff (which is possible if you try hard enough) is highly counterproductive. It is much better to produce two or three pieces that make it into top-class journals than sprinkle third-division outlets with hack work. Go for quality, not quantity.

There's a lot of useful information in the APA Guidebook for Publishing Philosophy, edited by Eric Hoffman (in the philosophy faculty library, F 12 HOF); so these brief notes don't aim to be comprehensive. They just try to distill one ex-editor's experience.

The main route into publication is through professional journals, and below the emphasis will be on publishing articles in journals. But there are other kinds of publication -- and perhaps the key one to mention which is relevant to graduate students/JRFs is ...

The book review

You certainly won't build a career on the back of book reviews, but it is probably good to do one or two. But how do you get invited? One way is to put yourself around a bit at conferences, give a 'graduate paper' here and there so that you get recognized as someone working in your field. But also your research supervisor may be able to pass on an invitation to you, or use his or her own contacts with journal reviews editors to get you an invitation to review. In particular, if you know that a book is forthcoming on your own research topic, then you could ask your supervisor to put out feelers with some journals ahead of publication date (reviews editors are hard pressed to find enough people to review books, and will probably welcome the recommendation of a new reviewer).

If you are asked to review a book, you will be given a word limit you should stick to. And remember that the readers will mostly want to know what is in the book and how it adds to the literature (do they have to read it?). Readers will be rather less interested in your views! You can be critical, of course, but if so be temperate and judicious: nobody likes a smart-arse! If you find what seem to you bad errors that you are going to focus your review on, then it might be worth contacting the author by e-mail and check that your reading of the text is a fair one (most authors are only too glad to find there is someone actually interested in their stuff!).

Try out a draft of your review -- as indeed a draft of anything you want to submit for publication -- on a critical friend, asking for a frank judgement about clarity and readability. Another general point: if at all possible, put your final draft in a drawer for a fortnight or so before sending it off: a final re-read after a period away from the piece can often show up some glaring inelegances or clumsy passages.

But as I say, reviews -- while worth doing -- don't count for much in the scheme of things, so let's turn to our central topic, the journal article.

One journal

First, some rather specific info about how one journal works, or at least worked while I was editing it (until 1999 in fact). In some ways, ANALYSIS is atypical -- but since it publishes shorter papers, it is often the first journal that a budding philosopher submits papers to. So the info is perhaps of especial relevance.

When a paper arrives (the better part of 400 a year!) the editor will make an initial triage into "must publish", "send to referees", and "no thanks". Different journals will differ in the proportions in each category. When I was editing ANALYSIS, the proportions were something like 4%, 12%, 84%; and in the end about 11% of papers got published.

Why, then, do papers get turned down, as most do? Some common reasons ...

  • They are badly written at the micro-level-- too many sentences are clumsy, or even just don't make clear sense.
  • Even if the sentences make sense taken severally, they don't add up to very clear sections. The writing is bad at the macro-level.
  • Section by section things go quite well, but the sections don't add up to a well-structured, well organized paper.
  • The writing and structure is fine, the message is clear, but the paper re-invents the wheel (the point has already been made in the recent literature).
  • The final message is novel, but it comes after far too much scene-setting or exposition of familiar stuff (a very common mistake, especially it seems from USA grad students, who seem to think that ten pages of scene-setting are needed before they offer two pages of original stuff: not so!).
  • The message is novel, and put crisply, but is too trivial/obvious/doesn't really need saying. [The previous faults of bad writing, too much scene setting, or being old-hat are fairly objectively discernible -- now we are getting to the sort of things that will vary somewhat from editor to editor: that's why you shouldn't be too disheartened by a rejection first time around. Another editor may well take a different view. Still, editors will probably tend to share a view on what counts as a footnote or paragraph puffed up into a paper.]
  • The message is novel and non-trivial but a contribution to a 'dead' debate (no one much is interested: sorry, but philosophy is as fashion prone as other intellectual enterprises! if you do want to heat up some 1980s dish, you'll need to do it with extra zip and with exciting advertising spiel!).
  • The opposite fault: the message is novel but a contribution to a debate that is currently too over-exposed (so the editor is reluctant to print yet another article on [as it might be] externalism and self-knowledge, unless it is unusually striking).
  • The message is novel but the conclusion is just downright implausible. That's a judgement call, of course!-- true, a neat argument to a novel apparent paradox can be fun and instructive, but sheer perversity palls. If you do find yourself arguing for a highly heterodox view, then you need to sugar the pill in various ways (explain why your view isn't as mad as it might seem, or why it has really positive pay-offs, or ...).
  • Worthy but dull: the message is novel, there isn't too much scene-setting, the conclusion is interesting and well-argued, the prose is clear -- but it is just all too laboured and manages to produce boredom in the reader rather than interest (that's another judgement call, of course)! This is another frequent fault -- you must remember that not everyone will find your research topic riveting, so you need to sell your piece with some crisp prose, neat illustrations, nice turns of phrase.
  • The message is novel and interesting, the piece is well written, it has all the virtues, except that it comes in second -- it is pipped to the post by another piece making a similar contribution to the same debate (often happens in a journal like ANALYSIS).

Presentation matters a lot then, then! You can't easily forestall the bad luck of being pipped to the post (though if you do think of writing a piece on a hot debate, best to do it quickly as soon as the idea strikes you!). But some of the other failings can be avoided by giving quite a bit of thought to how you package your arguments. Brevity is a great virtue, given the pressure on space in journals; and cutting your article down to the bones will almost always make for a zippier read.

If the editor decides to publish or reject straight off, without consulting referees, then you should hear within four weeks (I'm still talking about ANALYSIS here). A straight rejection may well be unexplained (I took the line, as some editors do, that authors prefer speed to comments, unless the comments are extensive enough to be useful).

If a paper is sent out to referees, then it could be more like eight weeks before you get a decision. You should, in the second case, get at least excerpts from the referees comments; but not necessarily (referees are allowed to write 'for the editor's eyes only', or to be very brisk if they are pushed for time). If what you receive is a reasoned rejection then you should take your medicine without complaint (unless the referee's comments are quite wildly off-key, e.g. based on an obvious misreading of your argument -- you can protest, but I think in my 12 years of editing, I only changed my mind in response to authors' protests very rarely).

If you are asked to revise taking into account the referee's suggestions and worries than try to do just that (even if the referee's worries don't always seem terribly well-based to you, at least take this as an opportunity to fend of possible misunderstandings). Remember it is possible that the same referee will be asked again to read the revised version, so don't write something along the lines of "someone might object ...; but that is obviously naive and foolish because ..."! Explain in a covering letter how you have dealt with the referee's comments: if one of the referee's comments does seem off-beam, then do explain in a quietly reasoned way why you haven't changed anything in response to that comment. An invitation to resubmit is not a promise to publish, but indicates a high probability of publication if you deal with the referee's suggestions in a positive and constructive manner.

If your paper is accepted, then, with luck, it should appear within nine months of acceptance.

Other journals

Some American journals send pretty much everything they receive (whether it initially looks rather good or pretty bad) out to two referees: so the proportions in their initial triage are more like 0%, 95%, 5%. But whatever the mechanism, the final result is much the same: most good journals publish no more than about 10% of the papers submitted to them (considerably less for the really prestigious journals).

Journals should make it clear what the expected turn-around period is and it is quite in order to e-mail a query if the expected date for a decision has passed: but basically you have to be very patient -- many journals can take over six months to give you a decision. And the lead time to publication can be two years... (Some journals print acceptance dates: then you can tell how long it typically takes the journal to get papers into print.)

Do try sensibly to match submitted paper to the journal you are sending it to. You need to do some homework: has the journal recently been publishing similar sorts of papers (construing 'similar' broadly)? In a similar sort of style? For example, some journals are much more receptive to very straight history of philosophy than others. Again, some journals are much more receptive to papers that straddle discipline boundaries than others. And even if you are writing straight analytic philosophy, ANALYSIS (say) has a rather different flavour to Philosophy, even though they are both mainstream analytic journals. Your own reading in your own area should make it pretty clear which journals are 'your' sort of journal.

And there is a pretty well understood pecking order of journals in terms of quality and prestige: are you aiming sensibly? By common perception (and by difficulty of getting accepted) Journal of Philosophy trumps Nous or the Australasian Journal (say), yet the latter are highly respected. It is absolutely not done to send a paper to more than one journal at a time (you may be asked to confirm in your covering letter that the paper isn't under consideration with another journal). So it could be unwise to tie up a paper maybe for six months or so by aiming too high, when (for CV purposes) it would be pretty much as good to get a piece into a slightly less exalted home.

You can get some information about relative acceptance rates of different journals, etc., from the APA Guidebook . Many journals also have web-pages these days, which may contain useful additional information.

How to increase your chances of getting published!

Let's assume that you've got something interesting to say. Something novel (even if only critically novel). Something that you've tried out on your supervisor and on the graduate seminar and it has stood up to criticism. Something that strikes you as worth saying and as moving the debate forward. You now need to package it for publication:

  • Make sure the topic really is paper-sized (not a footnote inflated beyond its worth, as has already been said -- but also not too action-packed to be readily readable: some papers by beginners try to pack too much in, and or are short papers padded out to be longer). Keep it focused and tightly structured.
  • Make it absolutely clear from the start what the thesis of the paper is (opening paragraphs make a very big impression). What is the "take home message"?
  • Make it absolutely clear at every point what the structure of the paper is (it is surprising how often as an editor I had to read material two or three times to see whether, at some point, the author was stating her own view or presenting the view under attack).
  • Use absolutely clear and direct prose (use the 'does it sound well if read aloud' test -- and there are many more recommendations about style here). Be terse and crisp.
  • Use a professional tone (not over casual, no over flippant remarks, no abuse of your target!).
  • Make sure your paper is really well presented, well laid-out following the proper bibliographical conventions for references, well spell-checked, printed using a quality printer, etc. (If the author can't be bothered to make the paper look really good, that doesn't make a good impression!).
  • You needn't slavishly follow the finest details of the particular journal's style on first submission -- but if you don't, you should say in your covering letter 'If the paper is accepted. I will send a version formatted according to your style-sheet' (or some such).
  • Do conform if the journal insists on, or encourages, submissions prepared for 'blind' refereeing -- i.e. use detachable cover sheets giving the your name and affiliation, so that the main body of the paper which is sent out to referees is free (as far as possible) of indications of who the author is.
  • To repeat, do try sensibly to match submitted paper to the journal you are sending it to.
  • Good luck!
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