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Career Advice

Worthy of print

Two authors of a recent Canadian volume on scholarly writing offer solid advice on building a solid academic bibliography


Clearly, all academics know that their publication record is paramount to career success. The best foundations for successful scholarly publishing, however, are less clear, particularly to graduate students just entering the marketplace.

Graduate students and junior faculty are continually reminded of the “publish or perish” edict. Without a respectable bibliography, careers will be quickly terminated and hopes rapidly dashed.

How do you build a bibliography? When do you find the time? It is estimated, for example, that most professors put in a 60 to 80 hour work week. You must prepare your lectures, deliver your lectures, update your lectures, develop exams, proctor exams, mark exams, supervise theses, answer correspondence, chair committees, attend meetings, coordinate TAs, mediate disputes, write references, collect data, secure grants, read journals, and write and publish.

This primer summarizes just one aspect of our book; namely, the writing and publishing cycle. The cycle is divided into five parts: finding a topic, finding an outlet, writing the manuscript, submitting the manuscript, and managing feedback.

Finding a topic

Your topic should be one with which you are familiar. It should be timely and tailored to a specific audience. Abstracting parts of your thesis or dissertation and reworking the material into two or more papers is often a good place to start. You can also publish some of the data that you gathered during your studies, but did not include in the dissertation itself. You can write:

  • a how-to paper,
  • an information paper,
  • a literature review,
  • a philosophical treatise,
  • a position paper, or
  • a research paper.

In addition, you can publish a book or a monograph from your dissertation, provided that not more than 30 percent is prepublished. It is your responsibility, however, to ensure that copyright laws are not violated.

Finding an outlet

You should have two or three target journals in mind for each paper. How do you find them? Look at the sources used in your thesis or dissertation. Where are they published? Could these journals be outlets for your work?

How do you select a journal? There are ever so many. Some are generalist journals; some are specialist journals. Some are theory-based; some are research-based. Some are sponsored by institutions; some are sponsored by learned societies. Some administer internal reviews; some administer external reviews.

So, how do you decide? There are at least three factors to consider. First is the match between your paper and the journal. Most rejections are due to mismatches. Study the Author Information page of each journal to discover the sort of material it is looking for. Does the journal have a niche, and, if so, what is it? Look at back issues. Check the table of contents, the writing style, and the references. Become familiar with your target journals.

The second factor is exposure. Exposure is gained through the periodical and abstract indexes. If the journal is not indexed, your readership will be confined to subscribers and their friends. As a new author, you want to maximize the exposure of your work. Target outlets that are widely indexed.

Third, is quality. Quality is determined mainly by the review process, which can be open, blind, or double-blind. An open review is one in which the author’s identity is known to the reviewers. A blind review is one in which the author’s identity is concealed from the reviewers, but not the reviewers from the author. A double-blind review is one in which neither the authors nor the reviewers know each others’ identity. Refereed publications (those that use blind or double-blind review) usually carry more weight in promotion and tenure decisions than nonrefereed publications (those that use open review).

Writing the manuscript

Begin with an outline. There are two types: nonlinear and linear.

Nonlinear outlines go by different names (branching, clustering, mapping, etc.), but the basic concept is the same. The focus is first on generating ideas, and second on developing structure. They are often used to develop linear outlines.

Linear outlines are step-by-step summaries of a subject set down in abbreviated or sentence form. There are four kinds: scratch, topic, sentence, paragraph. The type of outline you choose will depend on your skills as a writer. Some writers need much detail; others need very little. As a rule, though, the more detailed the outline, the easier the writing.

You can expect to write at least two drafts of your paper; some parts may require three or more drafts. Write first and revise second. Writing is a creative act; revising is a critical act. Mixing the two is a recipe for block.

Set up a schedule: so many hours a day, so many days a week, so many weeks a year. Writers who keep regular hours produce more writing than those who binge. Start with about six hours a week. You can gradually increase your commitment, but be reasonable because overreaching can trigger block. Keep your sessions short: two to three hours. Set a quota. One thousand words (about four double-spaced pages) per sitting is realistic. If initially this is too much, lower your expectations. It is better to leave each session with a sense of accomplishment, however small, than a sense of failure.

Unity is your guiding principle. Unity within paragraphs demands that every paragraph have oneness of thought, that every sentence in the paragraph bear upon a central idea. The central idea should be stated in the topic sentence.

Unity across paragraphs is achieved by arranging the parts according to your outline. Your paragraphs must be structured so that there is continuity of thought from start to finish. If you have trouble ordering your paragraphs, print them out on separate pages. Then move the pages around until you are satisfied with the order. As you follow your outline, you are in essence testing it, just as you test your paper, by comparing it with your outline for it.

Submitting the manuscript

Multiple submission is unethical: you should send your manuscript to only one journal at a time. If it is rejected, you can send it to another. Each submission should be accompanied by a cover letter and a title page. On average, you can expect an acknowledgement within two to four weeks. The review period varies from journal to journal. Some take six months, others take longer. Some journals use checklists and comments, some use rating scales and comments, and some use comments only. There are four possible verdicts: accept as is, accept with minor revisions, accept subject to major revisions, reject.

Managing feedback

Accept as is and accept with minor revisions are good news. Accept subject to major revisions is bad news. You will have to decide whether the revisions are worth the effort. You could make the changes and still get rejected, particularly if the revisions are sent back to the reviewers who can, and often do, make additional demands on the author. This cycle can continue for several months and, in some cases, a year or more. Reject is reject. At first, you may be devastated, but it is best to accept the verdict, as it is rarely reversed. Study the feedback, make revisions, and try again.

Abridged from: Scholarly Writing Worthy of Print
y G. Patrick O’Neill & Robin P. Norris.
London, ON: The Althouse Press, The University of Western Ontario, 2006. (267 pp., $39.95-pb (Cdn.), ISBN 0-920354-59-9).

Note: We encourage readers to consult the full text of our book for details. This article was printed with permission of The Althouse Press, The University of Western Ontario.

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