In this season of setting goals it is worth thinking about how you frame those goals.
At the end of a workshop on publishing plans, clarifying objectives, figuring out when to apply for a SSHRC grant, and related issues, one participant made an interesting comment. Thanking me for the workshop she contrasted my approach to the advice she had had while a doctoral student. “I was just told to publish 2 things a year.”
A lot of the pressure academics feel is related to a sense that they need to publish more regardless of how much you are publishing now.
In a certain sense, this is true. When you are competing for jobs and grants, you do need to publish more.
Do you think Olympic athletes just look at how fast the medalists are running? Sure they are aware of that as a goal but they mostly focus on their own performance. How can I run faster? How can I improve my technique?
It’s only at the point where they are entering a race that they look at how their times measure up to the likely competition.
Why do you do the research you do?
Seriously. Take a moment and really think about that question.
I’m pretty sure you don’t do it to get promoted or to get a grant, though you also want those things.
You do it because you find your topic fascinating. There is an intellectual challenge. You think there could be a better explanation of something or it could be better theorized or …
You publish to contribute to the advancement of knowledge
Research is part of a conversation. A debate.
You were inspired by other research. Research you thought was missing something. Or research you thought would benefit from a different approach, or a different/additional data set.
You have something to contribute to that conversation. So you publish your work.
You want to have an impact on the advancement of knowledge
Impact is not a function of how much you say. It is a function of how many people listen and use what you say.
To have an impact you need to
- reach the people engaged in the same conversation
- reach as many of those people as possible
- use a means of communicating that assures those people your contribution is worth reading
You also need to build a reputation.
Eventually, people in your field will keep an eye out for what you have to say. Just like you keep an eye out for particular other researchers in your field.
Luckily, you are evaluated for having an impact on the advancement of knowledge
The reward system in universities is in line with your own goals. You are rewarded for the thing you want to do.
Peer review, in journals and with some presses, is a system for ensuring quality. This is why publications in peer reviewed journals, or with particular presses, are more highly valued than publications in edited books or with other presses.
Some journals have lower acceptance to submission ratios. They are more competitive. They are, thus, more likely to publish higher quality work because they are choosing the best from a larger field. This is why publications in those journals are more highly valued than publications in journals that are easier to publish in.
Some journals are more widely read. Articles in those journals will be read by far more people than articles in other journals. The impact of work published in those journals is thus likely to be greater. This is why publication in those journals is more highly valued than publications in other journals.
Although some disciplines use statistical measures of impact (called “impact factors”) and others use more qualitative, cultural notions of “good” journals, all are working with these same principles.
Yes, the peers evaluating your publications will use imperfect measures to assess these things. All measures are imperfect.
Focus on the work not the numbers
Start with the goal of influencing debates in your field, having an impact on the advancement of knowledge.
Select publication venues based on the principles of suitability of audience, size of audience, and reputation for excellence.
These are your people. You want to reach them.
I’m willing to bet that you also have a lot to say to them.
I have expanded on the ideas presented here in my Short Guide, Scholarly Publishing, available in eBook and paperback.
This post was originally published on August 13, 2009 and again on May 7, 2013. Edited October 10, 2016. Additional related posts added 8 October 2019.