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Publish or perish? How about publish and persevere?


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    Katherine K. Chen

    The mantra “publish or perish” is a misnomer. Instead, “publish and persevere” more aptly describes the fortitude needed to reach the often far-flung lands of peer-reviewed publication.


    Drawing from my own career, I describe how one journal manuscript embarked upon an Odysseus-ian voyage before finding an unexpected home. This story illustrates the uncertainties that academics face when submitting a manuscript for review, as well as the actions that they can take to reduce those uncertainties. At the end, I offer several tips and resources that will make the publication journey less lonely and – dare I say it? – more revitalizing.


    A bit about myself: I am a sociologist and ethnographer whose primary specialty is organizational research. I study how organizations develop and the consequences of organizing practices for members and other stakeholders. For years, people had suggested that I explore a more cultural angle in my research of the Burning Man organization, which coordinates the annual Burning Man event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Prompted by such encouragement to engage a different audience, I spent some time reading interdisciplinary literatures about art worlds and art movements. I also reanalyzed some of my data, including observations of meetings and interviews with artists.


    When I submitted a presentation examining this new angle at a mini-conference, the mini-conference’s organizers proposed putting together and pitching a possible special issue to a specialty journal. A few of us submitted our manuscripts together under a shared theme. My manuscript received a revise and resubmit (R&R), indicating that the editor thought the manuscript had enough promise to invite a revision for another review. Using the reviewers’ comments, I made the revisions and resubmitted the manuscript. However, the journal editor had changed, a concern because an incoming editor might have different tastes, aims, and reviewer pool. As the months ticked by, I asked the new editor about the status of my manuscript. He answered that he was still assessing the revised manuscript.


    Finally, after more than 9 months, a decision finally arrived in my in-box. In an email, the editor recounted how he had decided to reject the revised manuscript; to account for the long delay in making this rejection, he noted that the journal was housed at his institution, a “small operation.” After re-reading over his decision letter, I realized that he hadn’t elected to send the revised manuscript out to reviewers. Instead, he had taken almost a whole school year to render this verdict.


    At the time, I was a novice scholar, trying to understand how to navigate the tenure track and publication system. This experience felt dispiriting. It also revealed entrenched power asymmetries of the peer review and editorial system and its associated costs, including the opportunity costs of research not reaching a wider audience sooner. In my field, the peer review and editorial system depends on the largesse of people gifting their uncompensated time and labor to the academic commons. Academics contribute their free labor to this system while struggling to pay their bills; meanwhile, certain publishers profit from the costly licenses that they charge to academic institutions for access to journals. When universities cannot or will not pay for these licenses, authors can’t access their own works, much less those of their colleagues. Even worse, the general public, the greatest beneficiaries of peer reviewed-works, face even bigger hurdles accessing publicly-funded and subsidized research.*


    Following this manuscript’s rejection, I could have just consigned the manuscript to a filing cabinet, never to be seen again. Instead, I took action. I emailed the original people who had proposed the special issue and explained what had happened to my manuscript. I got sympathetic commiseration in response. That affirmation of our common humanity helped, and I moved on, attending to the ceaseless cycle of academic responsibilities.


    Then, I got a personal email regarding a call for papers for a special issue of a respected interdisciplinary journal. The email asked whether I would consider submitting to this special issue, organized by a big person in the field. When I read the call for papers, I realized that the featured theoretical concept would help animate the manuscript, filling in a piece that I felt had been missing. With a renewed sense of direction, I spent time conducting a new literature review that I integrated with the arts literature. I rewrote the manuscript to engage with this concept, gaining confidence with this mastery of the reanalyzed material. I submitted the rewritten manuscript. After getting the comments, I made the revisions, with the glorious “home at last!” feeling that this manuscript had finally found its audience.


    Looking over this manuscript’s development and eventual publication, I recognize that the published peer-reviewed journal article is much improved over its original submission, and that its interdisciplinary venue reaches a wider audience than the original targeted specialty journal. Moreover, this publication led to another chance to write for a different journal. The guest editor of the special issue asked me to write and submit a research note, inviting me to critique and respond to his article about the utility of his theoretical concept of prosumption. (Prosumption describes an increasingly prevalent practice where people simultaneously product and consume – some of you practice this daily, when you bus your own tables at a fast food restaurant, self-check out your library books, file your paperwork online, etc.)


    I viewed this invitation as an honor: the chance to directly dialogue with a senior, much accomplished, widely published scholar! (Also, a CCNY alum!) Through this opportunity, I got to write about possible directions for the field, using examples that I had observed firsthand (Mikey’s Hug Deli) or had read about (JerkTech, cone-ing, SantaCon) to illustrate my claims.  So, what initially seemed like a dark dead end, swirling in the Charybdis while awaiting a journal decision and then delving into the Scylla of finding a new path, forked off into a generative branch to multiple destinations.


    Besides explicating the often unseen paths of publications, I write this partly to remind and motivate myself that the journey is as important as the destination. While I have earned tenure and promotion with the above and other publications, I have more research to share, including new research projects, one about organizations supporting older adults who are aging in place and another about learning organizations. I anticipate that I will accompany more manuscripts on their voyages to find homes over the years to come. (In particular, I am girding myself to work on a second round of revise and resubmit on data from one of my newer projects.)


    Tips for lashing yourself to the mast and avoiding the siren call to abandon your manuscript or academia:

    • For the nuts and bolts of publishing in peer-reviewed journals, Wendy Belcher’s How to Write Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks is my go-to guide. Besides showing how to find possible publication venues, Belcher details how to write a letter to the editor. For inspiration, Belcher also imparts the story of how a repeatedly rejected journal article “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism” about information asymmetry in the used car market became a seminal paper in its field, and its author eventually earned a Nobel Prize for his work.
    • Writing groups offer crucial moral and developmental support. FFPP can offer the beginning of a long-term relationship with colleagues.
    • Some professional associations and local programs offer additional opportunities to find support.
      • Given “social closure” (aka gatekeeping) tendencies practiced by some academics (see Aldon Morris’s work on the obscuring of W.E.B. Du Bois’s contributions to sociology, for instance), support and mentoring are even more vital for academics of color, first generation academics, and those laboring at under-resourced universities and colleges.
      • If you are a person who benefits from being a member of a more advantaged group, consider participating as an “ally” for less advantaged colleagues, students, or members of the community.  This includes curbing homophily and tokenism and advocating for recognition of the higher-service load undertaken by less advantaged groups, such as committee work and student mentoring.
    • In fields like mine, mini-conferences and specialty conferences offer more intimate and conducive venues for meeting other academics who could be potential collaborators, reviewers, or (guest) editors and testing the waters for publications.
      • Some conferences that have flagship journals have scheduled Q&A sessions about their journals where you can meet the editors. By attending, you might find information not available on the website, like whether word limits are strict or not, and what kinds of directions editors want to pursue.
    • Unlike general issues that have less accountability regarding turn-around time, special issues have specific deadlines. Keep an eye out for call for paper (cfps) for relevant special issues in newsletters, listservs, etc.
      • Let colleagues know what you are writing about so that they can make recommendations.
    • Prompted by the lengthy review process at traditional peer-reviewed journals and the public’s limited ability to access paywalled articles, academics have created journals intended to rectify these problems – for example, see PLosOne and SociologicalScience. In addition, academics have mobilized to create new repositories, such as SocArXiv, an “open archive.”  See these discussions:
    • Consult with our knowledgeable librarians to help you distinguish between predatory and legitimate journals.


    *Universities, including the most affluent ones, are starting to balk at these licenses and encourage their faculty to publish elsewhere .


    Katherine, I just wanted to say how much I appreciate this post. The process you describe can be so frustrating, and reading about the way your perseverance eventually led to new and unexpected opportunities is both helpful and inspiring. I especially appreciate the way you contextualize your own experience in the labor and power structures of the academy, as well as the concrete resources you offer. I’m sharing this with all of our graduate and postdoctoral fellows—thank you!

    Katherine K. Chen

    Hi Katina,

    Thanks for taking the time to write a comment about my post. Glad to hear this was useful for yourself and others. Many of us have papers that take us on long, circuitous journeys!


    Katherine K. Chen, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor
    Dept. of Sociology
    The City College of New York and the Graduate Center, CUNY

    Mailing address:
    Dept. of Sociology
    160 Convent Ave., NA 6/133
    NY, NY 10031
    email: kchen@ccny.cuny.edu
    phone: 212-650-5850 (email is the best way of reaching me)
    book website: http://www.enablingcreativechaos.com(http://www.enablingcreativechaos.com)
    blog website: http://www.orgtheory.net

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