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Monday, January 30, 2012

[1246] a few tips from a journal intern

I did some time as an intern at a scholarly journal. It was eye-opening.

"'Accept?' What the hell is this
shwords?"
I haven't been in this whole academic world long (well, aside from the first 22 years of my life, I guess), but it doesn't take much time at all to realize that getting published is a necessary evil--emphasis on the evil. The process of submitting to a journal is frustrating, disheartening, and ultimately unavoidable for most. The much sought-after "conditional accept" is nearly mythological; I mean, who even gets those amongst the sea of "revise & resubmits" and "rejects?" Let me actually go ahead and answer that for you: Next to no one. Trust me, I know. I'm the girl entering those decisions into the database, and the appearance of an "accept" totally throws off my autopilot.

I don't tell you this to dissuade you from submitting or to make it seem hopeless. If anything, this should make you feel a little better. When you open up your email and see that bright, shining rejection letter, know that you are in the company of hundreds of other super smart and talented academics from top schools and institutions all over the world.

There are some things I learned during my internship, though, that might be helpful for those trying to close that gap between reject and R&R.  And that also just might make you feel a little less crazy. While trying to get published can be daunting, it can also be a great learning experience and a fantastic opportunity to get feedback from your academic peers. So here we go....

Academic Journal: Headquartered
where signs like this are not only
necessary, but hotly contested.
First off, the process is long. You're going to need to come to terms with that. If the journal website gives you a timeline for how long it'll take, that's probably a minimum. It's going to take longer. A journal is not Vanity Fair. If you're imagining a big ol' staff of people working 'round the clock in some bustling, New York high rise, you are sadly mistaken. If you were imagining a cramped office with the thermostat perpetually cranked to 90 and a few overworked and overheated staffers doing their darndest to make sure the massive influx of submissions are processed each day, go ahead and collect your $200. On top of the staff shortage, journals rely on external readers who may not be super punctual in returning the critiqued manuscripts. On that note, if you are asked to read a manuscript for a journal, know that a lot of thought was put into asking you and everyone's relying on hearing back. You hold the fate of the author in your hands, and if you don't send it back, you've put the person in publication limbo.

When it comes to submitting a paper, don't just throw buzzwords against the wall and see what sticks. One of the head honchos of the journal lamented the volume of submissions we receive that feature a certain set of hip and happening key words, but that lack any useful contribution to the dialogue. We can probably all name five things off the tops of our heads that EVERYONE'S talking about in our respective disciplines right now. It can be tempting to jump on the bandwagon, thinking you're on the fast track to publication if you can get in on that action. You're not. You're quite likely to become another disappointing bit of white noise that leaves everyone with that feeling like when you take a sip of what you think is going to be ice cold lemonade and discover it's actually lukewarm Mountain Dew.

Your point should be significant, but you don't have to come up with something that completely blows all other research out of the water. To paraphrase something a board member said recently, you don't have to be the first word or the last word; you just need to engage the conversation. Let me reiterate, though: Your point should be significant. It doesn't have to foment revolution or change the trajectory of all future studies, but it should also be more than just a cool story. It's that white noise thing again. I've watched whole editorial board get super excited about the subjects of papers, only to then have to reject them because, while they were fun to read, they didn't add anything to a larger conversation.

Make sure you know what you're talking about. If you claim to be the first person to ever talk about transnationalism, intersectionality, and the Jumbaco, there'd better not be an entire anthology of Jumbaco studies readily available on Project Muse. And if that anthology does exist, wouldn't it be a fantastic idea to see if you can dialogue with some of the current scholars? The journal is going to send your paper out to readers who are experts on your specific topic. If you can connect with someone who's already established in your field, that person can probably tell you whether you are the next shining star of your discipline, or you're the next Stephenie Meyer. I'm a big advocate of showing any kind of paper or proposal to as many people as are willing to read it. And as one of my profs recently pointed out, most academics have been in exactly your position and consider it paying it forward to be able to help you out. You might not be able to get the top scholar in the discipline to critique your work, but you can probably get your grad advisor to do it. There's really no excuse for yours being the only eyes to have seen your work before it lands in the journal's inbox. And when your profs, friends, conference audience, or whoever else gives you suggestions, you should really take them into consideration.

If you get a revise and resubmit, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY, REVISE AND RESUBMIT!! And do it soon! Most of the people who submit don't get that opportunity, and when you do, it's a sign that, not only did some external readers think your paper had merit, but then the powers-that-be at the journal discussed it, too, and determined that they'd really like to publish your work with the proper tweaking. They've got a ton on their plates as it is. They don't ask you to R&R just to screw with you. Giving you an R&R means that they are willing to take time out of their days to read your paper AGAIN after you've heeded their suggestions. That's right. These extremely busy, established scholars have signed on to read your work twice with the distinct hope that it will be publishable. Take a moment to soak that in. That's kind of awesome, right? Yes, you might still be rejected after going through the R&R process, but now you've been rejected with a ton of feedback that could help you get published elsewhere or write something that might be a better fit for the original journal. You know what they're looking for. Use it.

And now a note about getting rejected...

I see no possible way that this could be harmful
to my reputation with my peers...
It sucks. I know. And you might feel indignant. You might think your paper is the best thing to happen to Jumbaco studies since the inception of the discipline (about three paragraphs ago). Surely, those shortsighted hacks at the journal will rue the day they turned away your masterpiece. That's fine, but you REALLY shouldn't tell them so. Even in a passive aggressive way. I've seen everything from the I-wouldn't-want-to-be-published-in-your-bleeping-rag-anyway missives to the I'm-sorry-you-couldn't-see-the-timeliness-and-significance-of-this-groundbreaking-research digs. At the end of the day, the journal's readership is not suffering due to the absence of your submission, and you've just sent off a really cranky email to a fairly influential group of your peers. Who now know your name. So next time you're about to have a kneejerk reaction to the cruelty of rejection, maybe back away from the Gmail for a bit, go look at some lolcats, and try to keep in mind that your poorly chosen words in the heat of the moment may be the reason your academic idol cringes when s/he sees your name in a conference program.

Note: Opinions expressed in this blog are, as always, purely my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the unnamed journal for which I was once an office jockey. 

3 comments:

Yvonne said...

Wow. Nicely stated. This post has a ton of great information for people who are working to get published. It makes a rejection letter seem not so bad.

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