The primary purpose of publishing, even scholarly publishing, is communication.
If you centre the communicative role of publishing, with a focus on the audience and the difference you would like your work to make for that audience, decisions about when and where to publish will change.
This principle can also influence how you understand peer review, and how you understand (participate in, and contest) the various validation processes that use publications as indicators.
Table of Contents
Publishing as validation
Publication as part of the writing process
Publishing as communication
The role of peer review
The value of validation in the communication process
Citations as evidence of successful communication
Changing the dominant narrative
Publishing as validation
The validation narrative has become the narrative frame for discussing academic publishing.
- Will this count?
- How will this count?
- Am I wasting my time writing this if it won’t count?
Scholars lose sight of the fact that academic publishing is about communication. Or, perhaps more accurately, communication appears disconnected from the validation process. How often have you heard one or more of the following?
- No one reads journal articles.
- No one reads monographs.
- Citations are about acknowledging authority.
- Other people are gaming citations, they are meaningless.
- Why don’t conference papers count? That is where I have real impact.
- Work is out of date by the time it is published.
When you come to actually write, the validation narrative is often what gets you stuck. The reason your paper is never good enough to send off is not because you don’t have something to say but because you think of the process as validating your worth as a scholar. The content seems, in many ways, incidental to the fact of having a publication in a high ranking journal. The degree of stuck is exacerbated if you are skeptical of the validation process itself.
There are good reasons for this conflict, which Arlene Fyfe and colleagues have outlined in a recent briefing paper on academic publishing. However, the criteria used in validation processes are based in the communicative purpose of publishing even if the measures are imperfect, captured to a certain extent by commercial interests, and often trying to measure something that hasn’t happened yet.
Publishing as communication.
As Margaret Atwood so eloquently said in a presentation she gave in 2011, publishing (from the latin publicare, to make public) is nothing more than a means of getting stuff from one person’s brain into another person’s brain. There are myriad means of doing so. She starts her list with yelling. (I recommend watching the presentation. It’s worth it.)
Focusing on what you want to say, and to whom, can be a powerful road out of the stuck. If the point of publishing (making public) what you are writing is to share your ideas with others, the focus is on the ideas and the person who receives them, not on you as the producer of them. Note, I said “share your ideas”, you are not trying to win an argument. You are making a contribution to knowledge. Even if you have grown as a scholar and are now interested in pursuing other ideas, you can see that there are other scholars who will benefit from the product of your journey so far.
Understanding publication as communication also helps you see that some media are more suited to particular material (and communicative objectives) than others. The idea of the university and the scholarly association as communities of scholars engaged in critical enquiry has a long history. Conferences, seminars, classrooms, and blog posts are ideal publishing venues as you develop your arguments. The length of a conference presentation or blog post is well suited to small parts of an argument. You can solicit feedback. You can be less authoritative, more tentative, invite questions, suggestions, discussion.
The audience may be small but that small audience may give you an immediate sense of the significance and quality of your arguments. The fact that these forms of publishing are not worth much in the validation process should not diminish their importance to the process of knowledge creation. Many journal articles and scholarly monographs begin life as tentative conference presentations or classroom discussions.
Publication as part of the writing process.
Writing is a core activity for academics and scholars. The products of your writing are highly valued by other scholars, by others who benefit from your scholarly work, and by your employer (if you have or seek an academic job). But, like an iceberg, one should not mistake the visible part for the whole. Writing is also how you process ideas and make them intelligible to yourself and others. Writing is in many ways how you do the cognitive work of scholarship.
In fact, as Katherine Firth noted, in a Twitter conversation about my short guide The Scholarly Writing Process, “… an overstrong attachment to the writing as outcome is a massive barrier to success!”
The writing process (as a cognitive process of articulating, developing, and refining your ideas) is such that by the time you have something worthy of sharing with others, you’ve lived with the material so long it now seems obvious. That process has also produced more questions that you are now keen to investigate. The scholar you are when you receive whatever validation there is for this particular publication is not the scholar you were when you wrote it. The work may be significant for others in your field but it is not unusual to look back on your publications with a bit of embarrassment.
Successfully navigating the peer review process and having a piece accepted for publication is confirmation of the quality and value of your work to your scholarly community. However, it will take considerable time for evidence that your publication has had any impact on anyone else’s thinking to appear, because they are also engaged in the same very long process. And, there is still a risk that the reaction of some scholars will be negative. If you are in the scholarly publishing game for the praise, you will be sorely disappointed: it comes too infrequently, and is too uncertain.
The role of peer review.
That conversation with Katherine Firth gave both of us an AHA! moment about emotional reactions to peer review. Fyfe et al point out that the peer review system has its origins in is the scholarly associations that pre-date commercial involvement in academic publishing. It still carries with it those values of scholarly work as a collective endeavour, formalizing a certain type of collaboration in the publishing process. The fact that we continue to refer to publications as “contributions to knowledge” is an acknowledgement of this fact. Although the social, economic, and political forces that shape the validation processes try to attribute knowledge to individuals, writing and publishing are part of this collaborative process of knowledge creation.
With your focus firmly on writing as process and publication as one part of that process, it is easier to see peer review as a formal system for getting expert feedback on your work-in-progress. There is no shame in submitting something that is not quite good enough to be published, because there is a system in place to improve it. “Revise and Resubmit” is the decision you are aiming for when you submit your manuscript. You will then have the guidance of the editor(s) and the expert reviewers as you make your revisions. Even if your paper is rejected, you will benefit from the detailed comments of the expert reviewers as you make decisions about a more suitable venue and make further revisions. By shifting your perception of the role of peer review from validation to collaboration in the process of knowledge creation, even the worst case scenario looks pretty good.
As Melissa Dalgleish points out in a post on Hook & Eye, outside of academia, the involvement of editors and others in refining writing for publication is treated as normal and expected. Embracing the collaborative nature of the writing and publishing process means you can love being edited. Of course, for this to happen in academia, those doing the reviewing and giving feedback need to also shift their perspective from one of gate-keeping and validation to one of collaborating in the process of knowledge creation. Since you likely review manuscripts as well as write them, you can bring this perspective to your own efforts in this respect.
The value of validation in the communication process.
You may believe that journal articles (and scholarly monographs) do not serve this communicative role. And there are definitely problems with the current system for publication of journals and monographs which make it hard to communicate quickly and limit access to your work based on commercial considerations.
However, these higher status publications are acquired by libraries, have ISBNs and ISSNs, and so on, giving them a longer lifespan. They are abstracted and indexed in databases that are widely used by other scholars to search for relevant literature. Readers can encounter your work without ever having met you. Work published in this way will outlive you. And even those who have encountered your work via less formal modes of publication will use the validated medium (journal articles) to pass your work on to colleagues, students, and others. Lower status forms of publication are important, but their lifespan is shorter and they are harder to find and access.
While journal articles and monographs are primarily a means to communicate with other scholars, their status may also be important to other audiences for your work. The peer review process that is crucial to these publications ensures, for others, that your ideas and evidence have been accepted as part of that larger body of scholarly knowledge. It lends authority to your words, even when you also have to communicate in other ways for certain audiences. When you think about what you want to say and to whom, the question of whether that audience values the validation offered by a particular venue is relevant.
Citations as evidence of successful communication.
Although often used as indicators of the significance of your work in validation processes, citations are also evidence of successful communication. Scholarly communication is a crucial part of the writing process. You read other scholars work as you write and develop your own. You publish so that they can read yours. And so on.
However, for every citation there are several other readers you have reached and perhaps influenced. The time it takes for your work to reach readers and the depth of your influence means that it may be many years before citations of a particular article peak. The timeline for the various validation processes may not be optimal for capturing that engagement.
Citation practices are the means by which we indicate our membership in specific scholarly communities and conversations. They acknowledge the contributions others (even others you have never met except through their own publications) have made to the process of knowledge creation. They are also often used symbolically to signal the lineage of that scholarly conversation.
Citations can help you find your scholarly fans and discover the scholarly conversations in which they are referring to your work. You can then consider publishing directly for those audiences in those outlets. You can also actively build a deeper relationship through correspondence, social media, and conferences, which may lead to opportunities for co-creation of knowledge through formal collaboration.
Changing the dominant narrative.
Instead of talking about academic publishing as if it is only or mainly about validation, let’s foreground the communicative role it serves.
When we give advice, let’s think about what might motivate the person asking for advice to actually write. What might they have to say? Who needs to hear it? How might they develop that argument? When might it be ready to be publishing in a validated venue?
When we are involved in evaluating the work of others, make the real criteria explicit. Even if the outcome will be the same, changing the discourse from one of counting publications and ranking the outlets to one that makes the underlying quality and impact judgements visible (and contestable) makes a difference. And where new media, new journals, etc are part of the publications list, using the same language to talk about those, even if you give them less value, shifts the culture in which these evaluations take place.
At the end of the day, as much as you need a secure job and recognition for the work you do to live a meaningful life, if the work you do is not meaningful in itself, the job and salary don’t help. Communication is meaningful.
What do we write to convey? (Davina Cooper)
Who am I writing this article for? (Katherine Frith @ Research Degree Insiders)
Need more help?
Two of my Short Guides are related to this post.
- The Scholarly Writing Process goes into more detail about how your orientation shifts from satisfying your own curiosity to writing for a specific audience as you develop a piece of writing (or more than one piece of writing from the same research project).
- Scholarly Publishing helps you use this approach to make decisions about how to publish a particular piece with specific attention to how your communication goals relate to the validation processes you are also concerned with. Both are available as ebook or paperback and contain questions to help you figure out what’s right for you.
If you would like personal support figuring out a writing and publishing strategy, I offer personal coaching. I can help you figure out who you want to communicate with and how that relates to the specific concerns you have about validation right now and in the medium term. I can also help you prioritise the projects you have and figure out who can provide the support you need to feel confident enough to submit things.
Originally published 2 March 2011, revised 15 October 2014. Updated version revised to add Need more help? section 31 January 2019.