Post Academic

Academic publishing: A trickle-down theory and other ways to streamline the process

Posted in Process Stories,Publish and Perish by Arnold Pan on April 27, 2010
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"Water drop animation" by Gmaxwell (licensed by Creative Commons)

We’ve discussed some of the difficulties with getting publishing before, which was mostly me extrapolating from my personal experiences.  An article titled “The Back-Up Plan” from Inside Higher Ed last week proposed an interesting solution to making turnaround in the editorial process quicker, so that you don’t end up in an experience like mine where I had a proposal for a piece going back-and-forth with various editors and project proposers for a year-and-a-half only to end up with nothing.

Enter “The Back-Up Plan”: According to the article, the American Economic Association has set up a process whereby submitters can opt in to a plan where their essays can be automatically submitted to another “back up” journal if it is not accepted by the group’s top publication, American Economic Review.  The idea is that readers’ reports would be passed along to the secondary journal, which is supposed to speed up review of the proposed article.  Now you might argue, as some in the comment threads do, that resubmitting an essay using unfavorable readers’ reports is a kamikaze mission times two, but the choice of doing so is up to the writer.  And apparently, most of the submissions going through this process are borderline cuts that were well-received–just not so much to be included in the assocation’s #1 publication.

More about the “back-up plan”, below the fold…

From Inside Higher Ed:

A key reason for creating the program, economics journal editors said, was that so many papers that are rejected by AER are quite good. The 100 papers a year that are published represent only about 8 percent of submissions.

Robert A. Moffitt, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University and editor of AER, said that many review reports for rejected papers are quite positive, suggesting only that the work didn’t quite make it over the bar, or was slightly too specialized for a flagship journal.

A couple caveats and objections might arise here.  First, most disciplines are either too open-ended or splintered into subfields for this trickle down method to work, as sociologists and anthropologists interviewed in the article suggested.  Second, it’s also hard to define a clear pecking order of publications in many fields: Even if we all know by common wisdom which journals are held in the highest esteem, who’s to say what’s a second- or third-tier publication, since research by younger scholars can be just as trenchant and thorough as work by rock stars–sometimes even more so, because there’s more at stake for the former?  Third, do you think any single publication that is scraping by to make its evaluations in a reasonable amount of time would be able to have it together enough to share its reports with another publication?

Overall, though, the back-up plan approach seems like a novel way of trying to get more research out there in a more efficient and more timely way, especially for submissions that are oh-so-close to being published.  Maybe the more renowned publications tied to professional organizations could be a clearinghouse for articles, assuming they the had staff and budget to do this: Let’s say PMLA takes submissions, culls the few essays it will accept, then kicks the “revise-resubmits” to an appropriate journal within a specific genre or period.  Or maybe American Quarterly could make its initial decisions, then send out the articles that didn’t quite make the cut to publications within a particular field?

Here are a few more suggestions that might help writers get published:

1. Allow multiple submissions: Since simultaneous submissions are frowned upon, any fair-playing scholar is stuck putting her/his eggs in a single basket.  What makes this situation even tougher and more unreliable is that most folks will try to shoot high first for the best and longest-shot venue to publish in, further delaying rejection or acceptance by a journal that’s a more likely fit–and that’s not to mention the limbo of “revise and resubmit.”

So why not let publications fight over what might be the best research, so that the pace of review might be quickened?  Okay, this might mess up production schedules and might make editors’ lives miserable, since it would be up in the air as to whether or not a submitted piece that gets the thumbs up would be available for the journal.  But, one, there’s probably a glut of acceptable pieces pooled at any journal and, two, this production model depends on static print model, not a potentially more dynamic online one that could accommodate more articles more quickly.  Plus, if the submitter is greedy and won’t take the first accept waiting for a more prestigious one, then s/he might lose out in the end.

2. More transparency: Our commenter Len mentioned that it seems many of the “top” journals rely on solicited essays, which might be why some journals seem to feature only well-known scholars–you think that chaired professor at an Ivy League school is offering up blind submissions?  And that’s fine if that’s the publication’s m.o.  But these journals could make it easier on young folks who really need the line of the CV by just stating they don’t accept unsolicited work.  Everyone can then just go about her/his business without the extra few months of futile waiting and perfunctory review only to get a piece rejected with no comments.

3. The essay should reflect the writer’s research, not the readers’: Look, I know that a semi-revised seminar paper does not a publication make and a lot of stuff that’s submitted isn’t fully thought through, but, on the other hand, journals shouldn’t be so much about professional dues paying.  This kind of mentality often comes through in comments that hedge on a writer’s essay because it doesn’t cover the particular and sometimes peculiar topics that the evaluator would like to see.  That’s not to cast aspersions on readers and say that they all do this, since they do offer their own time, effort, and accumulated knowledge to help younger scholars write the best essay they can.  But should it really be such a monumental task for any earnest, hard-working young scholar to be published, in a profession that depends on new research?

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