Hidden Curriculum: Publishing in Journals
Advice for junior scholars from our APSA-MENA workshop
I am just returning from an intense week in Amman, where I took part in an amazing workshop for junior scholars from the MENA region organized by the American Political Science Associations’s MENA Workshops and by the REMENA project led by Lisa Anderson. The program was a successor of sorts to one which my Project on Middle East Political Science organized with APSA-MENA in Tunis five years ago. It brought together more than forty early career scholars from across the MENA region to workshop their research papers in progress and to integrate them into the networks of American and European political science. The workshop was a great success, brimming with energy from brilliant young scholars and a dozen senior scholars from the United States, Europe and other MENA countries.
On the final day, I gave a short talk about academic publishing. My remarks drew on my experience on both the publishing and the editorial side of things. But more than that, they were based on having very similar conversations with many of the early career scholars at the workshop. Their questions were very familiar from the more than 100 virtual and in-person research workshops I’ve run for junior scholars from the MENA region over the last decade. At the urging of some of the workshop participants and organizers, I’ve decided to write them up here as best as I can remember them. This is not intended to be a foolproof guide to getting published, just an attempt to improve your odds and have you not get rejected for the wrong reaons. Others may have different experiences and recommendations which I’d be thrilled to see shared. And, of course, disciplinary standards differ, and what works in political science might not be as effective in anthropology or economics. That said, here’s what I had to say.
The Hidden Curriculum: Publishing in Journals
Graduate students need to publish in peer-reviewed journals. It’s an essential part of an academic career, and a critical stage in the production and circulation of knowledge. But there’s more to publishing than simply writing a paper, deciphering the guide to contributors on a journal’s website, registering for Editorial Manager (which will require a unique user name and password for each journal which will not work on any other journal, something which baffles me to this day), and submitting. And there’s more than just having solid field research, interesting theoretical ideas, a good research design, and impeccable research ethics (though all of those are necessary).
There’s a hidden curriculum here, as in so many things - a set of unwritten and amorphous norms, expectations, behaviors and cheat codes which can greatly improve one’s chances of getting an article accepted for publication. As Elena Barham and Colleen Wood have pointed out, “relying on informal networks to provide access to instruction in these skills can reinforce preexisting inequalities in the discipline.” If they are lucky enough to go to an elite American university or to have an exceptional mentor, they will probably be taught these things and thus be more likely to get their articles accepted even if their research is not necessarily better. Scholars from the Global South and non-R1 American universities tend to be particularly hurt by these informal norms. Let’s even the playing field a little bit.
In this first of what I hope will be a series of presentations on the hidden curriculum of our field, this post attempts to synthesize some of my answers to questions from junior scholars from the MENA region which I’ve heard in over a hundred research workshops and trainings I’ve run over the last decade. As a reality check - you know, to make sure I was successfully decoding the hidden curriculum myself - I ran it by four current journal editors and a few other experienced colleagues for feedback and a reality check.
First, what should a junior scholar towards the end of her PhD be aiming to publish? The brutally competitive nature of academia and the arms race for jobs might make you think that you should just publish everything you have as quickly as possible. Not so fast. Have a publication strategy and know what you are trying to achieve with each article you are producing. In general, at least in our field, we’d like to see your dissertation produce two peer-reviewed journal articles. Typically, one of them will include your core theoretical argument and your best evidence; this is likely your job market paper, and it should be aimed at the highest-ranked disciplinary journal as possible (but see below). The second might be one case study or chapter, sent to a specialist journal or to an area studies journal. Be careful about going beyond that, though. If you hope to publish your dissertation as a book - as you should in our field - then academic presses will not want to see more than that already in print.
It’s fine - indeed, encouraged - to try to publish articles which are not drawn from your dissertation - a really good paper you did for a course, a side project. Be sure that this paper is ready for prime time, though. When you go on the job market, you will only have a few publications at this stage of your career and you don’t want the first (and possibly only) work people see to be underdeveloped, incomplete, or not representative of your best work. One really good use of articles like this is to signal your multiple academic identities. If your dissertation primarily looks at, say, protest mobilization but you also consider yourself a feminist theorist, then publishing quality non-dissertation work in a women’s studies journal will render you visible to other scholars working on those issues. Something like that will be more useful to your career than, say, publishing a third article which is sliced out of your dissertation making very similar theoretical arguments and methods as your other articles and which conveys no new information about your scope or reach as a scholar. It’s good to have a few papers going at different stages: one under review, one that you’re currently working on, one that you’re conceptualizing and maybe beginning to collect data.
Second, identify your target journal before you finalize your paper. Each journal will have different standards and expectations and be centered around a particular intellectual community. (Also, each will have its own citation style. Whether or not you’re using citations manager software, changing the style can be a real pain.) Look at your own citations - which journals tend to be publishing the articles you cite? What journals do papers in that journal tend to cite? Look at the table of contents of journals you think might be good outlets for your work. Have they published the kind of work you do in the last three years, whether methodologically or substantively? If you are doing an ethnographic case study, and the journal has only published quantitative work for the last three years, they are probably not going to make an exception for you. Look elsewhere.
Has the journal you like published articles relevant to your project? Great! Be sure to cite them to show the editor that you are a part of the journal’s intellectual community and that you’ve read what they’ve published (and that publishing your article will help the journal’s impact factor). It’s okay to ask your mentors, other senior scholars, or peers for suggestions of which journal would be right for your article - use their experience and let them help you! But don’t reach out to editors to ask them if they they think your paper would be a good fit - this compromises the anonymity of the review process, something which most (though not all) editors take seriously. Once you’ve settled on your journal submit it, and trust the editor to desk reject through the regular process if you’ve guessedw rong.
A word here on what counts as the “best” journals to target. The tyranny of impact factors has created a warped sense of what makes a good journal; we would all be better off as a profession if impact factors were abolished. Beyond impact factor, there’s an informal hierarchy which puts certain disciplinary journals at the top, for reasons that have little to do with the quality of the articles in your particular field. It’s great if you can land a piece in one of those journals, obviously. The new editorial team of the American Political Science Review, for instance, has been urging qualitative and area studies scholars to submit their work (see this POMEPS webinar with APSR editors and authors for more) - take them up on their outreach, but only with your very best work.
But let’s be honest: those “top” American disciplinary journals might simply be out of reach for many MENA scholars (junior or senior) because of their methodological priorities or because of their lack of interest in international or comparative topics. What’s the next best option? In general, I think that a journal’s standing within a specialized field is more important than its impact factor. I tend to define “good” as one of the journals publishing the best work in your specialized field. That journal will tend to be widely read by the scholars working on topics like yours, and it will make your research visible to the people who you need to be seeing your work. Do your research on the journals, and think carefully about which journals seem to publish the kind of work you do and which scholars in your field seem to take seriously. How do you know if it’s well-regarded? Here’s some things to think about. Do the senior scholars you admire tend to cite articles from the journal or to publish their own work there? Are they on the editorial committees (look at the journal’s website, the editorial committee is usually identified there)? Have they suggested that journal to you as an option? This is the hidden curriculum in operation.
Third, what happens when you don’t get accepted? Don’t panic! The top journals have very low acceptance rates and often take forever to turn articles around. If you’re lucky, you might get a “desk reject” - meaning that the editor decides to not send your article out for review because it is not a good fit for the journal on topical or methodological grounds. That might sound bad, but it’s actually a mercy - it saves you a nine month wait for that journal’s pool of reviewers to reject you. Being rejected by a top journal isn’t necessarily a bad thing, by the way. When it happens to you, don’t despair - they reject almost everyone! But there are good rejections: for instance, you might get back three or more very serious, detailed reviews which identify what you need to do to make your piece publishable in another disciplinary journal.
Let’s say you get a “revise and resubmit.” Here’s where the hidden curriculum operates in its most pernicious form, in ways that are both gendered and elitist. Many young scholars from outside elite networks will take an R+R as a reject and just give up, or else their response will not be what journal editors are looking for. Other young scholars will be more persistent and will resubmit, perhaps even multiple times, and ultimately get their work published even thought it’s no better than the article which their less-networked peer abandoned. So here’s a big one: do not quit on your R+R.
Here’s what you need to do. Go through the comments by the peer reviewers, as well as the editor’s decision letter. Triage them into three categories: the obvious changes, which you’ll just do; the judgement calls, which you need to think about; and the ones which you don’t want to do. Do it, and make sure you don’t miss or ignore any of them. Then, after you do the revisions, write a response letter. I can not stress this enough: the response letter is extremely important. You need to tell the editor everything you did: tell her what changes you made in response to the reviewers and which changes you did not make. You do not have to accept every reviewer suggestion - sometimes reviewers will make contradictory suggestions, sometimes they will ask for things which you are not able or willing to do. But you do have to explain your reasoning for each point along the way. Oh, and do not complain to the editor about the reviews and ask them to overrule them — they won’t, and this is a good way to get a bad reputation at a formative time in your career.
Think about this as an argumentative process in which you are seeking to persuade the editor that you have engaged seriously with the reviewers and have done the best that you can do. Express your gratitude for their thoughtful and rigorous comments, and your conviction that your paper is significantly better in its revised form. Remember: you may think you were clear or that you did something, but if a reviewer didn’t see that in your paper then at a minimum you need to make your argument more clear. Explain what you did and why: “I ran robustness checks adding…”; “I expanded my discussion of the concept of emotion to engage with a broader range of theorists”; “I cut the extended discussion of the United Nations, as suggested.” Explain why you think your changes effectively respond to the criticism.
Finally, explain why you did not incorporate those suggestions which you opted against. Do not ignore them, hoping they will go away - they will not, and the failure to engage with the critique will likely be grounds for rejecting the piece. Tone matters here: do not dismiss or belittle the reviewer comments (“clearly did not understand what I was doing”). Never say anything negative about any comment or suggestion - ever. Even if you think it’s wrong, treat it respectfully and offer a sincere explanation for why have not followed it. The editor chose the reviewer, and so presumably believes that they have expertise in the area. Also most journals will send revised papers, including the response letter, back to some of the reviewers for a second round, which means that your critic will see your response. Do not dismiss them. Instead, explain in as much detail as possible why you do not think that this is the right approach for your paper: the proposed method would not generate the kind of data to answer your question; you tried it in an earlier version of the article and it didn’t work; adding an additional case study would be an undue burden but you’d definitely consider it in subsequent work on the topic.
Sound like a lot? It can be. But that’s what is going to maximize your chances of publication. Some journals have a page limit on response letters, others don’t - be sure to follow their guidelines to the letter to be sure you don’t give them an excuse to reject. Be thorough, transparent, persuasive and persistent -- and be gracious. Trust me. A response letter which is thoughtful, open, sincere, respectful and nice is going to to do better than one which insults referees or takes an obnoxious tone. Try to win the argument on its merits. If you ultimately fail to persuade, take the loss graciously. Thank the editor for her time and careful attention, and then prepare to resubmit what is hopefully now a much improved article to a different journal. Remember, your career is a long game - don’t burn bridges with a toxic response to a single rejection.
Okay, a few other points which I’ll just mention at less length.
Do not submit to multiple journals simultaneously. This will not maximize your chances of publication. It will maximize your chances of being blackballed by both journals and could damage your reputation. Don’t do it.
Be strategic with your citations. In addition to the scholarly function of supporting your arguments, footnotes contain valuable signals to editors and reviewers. On the one hand, your citations tell the editor whether you are engaged with that journal’s scholarly community and norms - and that will differ from journal to journal. Make sure you are citing and engaging the authors and texts appropriate to that specific scholarly community. On the other hand, editors often mine the footnotes for ideas about which peer reviewers to invite. If you cite and engage a particular scholar, there’s a good chance that scholar might be selected as a reviewer. Be sure you have got their arguments right!
Read the contributor guidelines and follow them. If there is an 8000 word limit, do not send a 10000 word article. If they ask for Chicago style citations, do not send it in APA style. If they ask for an abstract and keywords, provide them; if they do not, then don’t. Make sure that your anonymized version is really anonymized. Proofread, don’t just spellcheck. Have someone else read your piece before submission with any eye towards grammar, spelling, repetition, legibility, and so forth. Make sure your formatting didn’t change in some weird way after being uploaded to the journal’s editorial platform. Another way of saying this is do not give editors a reason to desk reject your piece as not meeting the standards of the journal.
Good luck! Doing great research and publishing it in academic journals can be a daunting task. Hopefully following the informal rules of the hidden curriculum can help make it just a little easier.
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