The primary purpose of academic publishing is to communicate with other scholars. This form of communication is rather formal. The bar for acceptance into the conversation is high. This conversation is asynchronous and takes place over very long time periods.
What happens once you’ve published your article?
By publishing your article in a scholarly journal you are making it available to a community of scholars. Although you have now moved on to the next thing you want to write about, the article has not yet made a contribution to knowledge. In order to do that other scholars need to read it, think about it, and engage with it.
Some of the scholars in the particular community you want to reach will read your article. A couple of things may then happen.
Scenario 1: Some of those who read your article will read it multiple times and think about it seriously. Some of those scholars will engage with your ideas and evidence in their own scholarly work. Depending on how directly and strongly your work influenced their own contributions to knowledge, they will cite your work when they publish their own contributions to this scholarly conversation.
Scenario 2: Some of those who read your work will recommend it to others.
- They may include it in the syllabus for a course they are teaching.
- They may recommend it to students or postdoctoral researchers that they are supervising.
- They may recommend it to colleagues to whom it may be more relevant.
Some of the scholars and students who read your article based on this recommendation will read it multiple times. They will engage with it deeply in their own work. They may go on to publish things that cite your work. They may go on to recommend it to their own colleagues and students.
This is a very slow asynchronous conversation
That’s okay. Slow, thoughtful conversations are sometimes a good thing. It took you a long time to develop the article you’ve just published, especially when you take into account that it is just one part of a larger body of work. The evidence and ideas represented here came out of numerous interactions with other scholars, long periods of reflection, many struggles with articulating your ideas clearly, and so on.
This process will never be fast. You want other scholars to take their time to think about what you said in the context of other things they are reading. You want other scholars to take the time to collect evidence to support their counter-arguments or elaborations of your position. Ideas and evidence only become interesting or meaningful in the context of other things scholars are reading and researching. If your article becomes relevant to a scholar in a couple of years time, you want them to read it even though it’s a couple of years old. Scholarly knowledge doesn’t go out of date very quickly.
However, there are parts of the process that are just frustratingly slow:
- The time delay between publishing and another scholar knowing your article exists and might be of interest.
- The time delay between another scholar deciding they want to read your article and actually reading your article. (We all have large “to read” lists and busy schedules.)
- The time it takes to develop a research proposal and get it funded before another scholar can even collect the evidence they need to engage with your article in the way they want to.
- The time it takes journals to review the article that other scholar submits.
- The time delay between accepting the article and actually publishing it.
Even the fastest scenario — the one in which a scholar finds and reads your article the week it is published, is able to engage with your ideas using the data they already have and writes their own article quickly, gets it reviewed in a timely manner, responds to reviewers comments quickly, and has the new piece in print quickly after acceptance — is going to take at least a year.
The time it takes to see evidence that you’ve had an impact makes it easy to miss.
Unless you take the time to look for the evidence, you may be completely unaware of the impact your work has had. It’s hard to motivate yourself to write something you think no one else will read or care about.
Collecting hard evidence that people have read and cared about your previous work will help remind you that there are people out there who will read and care about whatever you are working on now. You are probably required to write a review of your activities annually. In addition to whatever your institution needs, collect evidence that helps you. Check your own citations. Search for syllabi that include your work. (Not all syllabi are published on the web, but many are, and a quick search can at least give you a sense of this kind of impact.)
Added bonus: you may discover scholars who are doing work that interests you.
The asynchronous nature of the process is also frustrating.
By the time your work is having a noticeable impact on the advancement of knowledge in your field, you will have moved on to other things. You will have refined your thinking and may feel a bit embarrassed about the impact this earlier work is now having.
It feels like there are multiple versions of your scholarly self out there in the conversation. The you that is reading someone else’s article is not the same person who wrote the article that article is citing. It is tempting to dismiss the value of this engagement because it’s “old stuff”. Remember that in order for you to get to where you are now, you had to think those things. Your article is helping other people move along that trajectory more quickly.
You might also keep in mind that publishing also gives you a kind of life after death, bodily and professional. My work is still being cited more than 10 years after I left academia. The work of my friend and colleague Ailsa McKay is still influencing work in her field and public policy despite her early death from cancer.
Future scholars will be able to find your article when they are searching for literature relevant to their topics. They will see citations of your work in more recent things that have cited your work and may go back to read your article.