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Academic Publishing and Peer Review

I don't know that I'm necessarily the best person to write about academic publishing, but I do have experience with it from various angles, and if I say something patently wrong, I'll trust to the comments. Probably the most fundamental unit of academic publishing, at least for those of us in English studies, is the research article, and so that's where I'll focus most of this entry.

What's the point of the research article? There are several:

  • For researchers, publication provides us with the chance to share our knowledge, to participate in scholarly conversations, and to receive feedback on our scholarship.
  • Since many of us teach courses in the areas where we do research, publication provides an incentive for work that will enrich our understanding of the material we teach, ideally making us better teachers. At the graduate level, scholarship often comprises a significant portion of course readings, becoming in part the material we teach.
  • Publications operate as tangible evidence of our research, and for our tenure and promotion committees, that evidence plays an important role in those decisions
  • however minimally, publications also serve some function as a recruitment tool for graduate programs--I've encouraged MA students to look at the whos and wheres of published scholarship to help them decide where to apply.
  • ideally, and perhaps debatably, from the reader's perspective, the research article sheds light on a particular text, idea, or phenomenon, and provides some lasting insight. In other words, I'd argue that one of the ideals of research is that it contributes to our knowledge and/or understanding.

In other words, the research article plays a number of different roles, in various contexts, and I suspect that the relationships among these roles vary quite widely from person to person, from specialty to specialty, and even within one person's own career. I've held two different tenure-track positions, and in each, I was expected to publish 1-2 articles a year. Some of the articles I've published have taken me a couple of years to develop; some were conceived and executed much more quickly.

In my opinion, at the core of the research article is the fact that it is a contribution to at least one conversation, and sometimes several. As in KB's parlor, it's a conversation that has begun before you arrived, and will continue after you leave. When tenure committees count one's publications, what they are doing is basically verifying that you're participating and contributing to these conversations. The article itself is the tip of a fairly daunting iceberg, though. In order to publish an article in a journal, you must be familiar with what can sometimes be a long-developed, insular, and/or jargon-laden tradition that precedes you. One of the points of graduate school is to assist students with building familiarity in the scholarship of their chosen areas of inquiry. Specific journals (and editorial boards) may also have well-defined perspectives or expectations that scholars must familiarize themselves with--some journal boards see their audience as specialists, or adhere to particular theoretical perspectives, for example. In short, the "research" part of the research article requires not only knowledge of a particular subject, but also familiarity with how that subject has been handled previously and knowledge of the particular audience that one is targeting.

When one sends a draft of an essay to a journal, typically that essay undergoes what is known as peer review. The article is read by several people (usually at least a member of the editorial board and 2-3 outside readers with specific expertise in the subject), so-called "peers" in one's field. When the peer review is "blind," this means that all language that might identify the author is removed so as not to influence the readers' decision about whether or not to accept the submission. Most journals will either accept a submission, accept it conditionally (i.e., with some amount of revision), or reject it. Some journals will provide extensive feeback, and some will not. The turnaround time from submission to decision also varies widely from journal to journal.

Typically, the research article does not result in direct compensation. In other words, we don't make money directly through publishing our scholarship. Some universities will award merit raises based on publication, and one may benefit monetarily through name recognition, but for the most part, academic publishing is a prestige economy, one that operates almost exclusively within one's own field or specialty.

That's probably enough for now. Feel free to suggest corrections, additions, subtractions, etc.


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