Publishing Journal Articles: Tips for Early-Career Scholars

Keisha N. Blain draws on her experiences and observations as a writer, reviewer, editor and editorial board member to offer several practical strategies.

July 2, 2020
 
 
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Writing a journal article takes time, and scholars who embark on this journey hope it will lead to a publication. The reality, however, is that not all articles will be accepted or even advanced to the revise-and-resubmit stage. Yet the publication of journal articles, despite the many critiques of academic publishing, remains an important fixture in the academy.

Indeed, more graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences are encouraging students to publish journal articles in hopes of increasing their chances on the dismal job market. And tenure committees still expect early-career scholars to produce journal articles -- with some fields counting these articles, as opposed to a monograph, as the main requirement for earning tenure.

Although one can never guarantee that an article will advance to publication, several practical strategies can increase an early-career scholar’s chances of getting published. The following tips and suggestions are drawn from my own experiences and observations as a writer, reviewer, editor and editorial board member for several academic journals.

Do your homework. In Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, Wendy Belcher emphasizes the importance of doing research on a journal long before submitting an article -- and even before writing one. This strategy is arguably one of the most important points to consider in the world of academic publishing. Many articles are rejected after submission simply because the author failed to do their homework.

Doing one’s homework means thinking carefully about the question of fit: Is my article a good fit for this venue? Do the journal’s core mission and goals align well with the piece I have written? To effectively answer these questions, early-career scholars should not only peruse a journal’s website but also carefully read the most recent articles that the journal in question has published. For example, if an article does not seriously engage various disciplines, submitting it to an interdisciplinary journal may quickly guarantee a rejection.

Doing homework on a journal also includes finding out its general publication timeline. How long does it generally take for pieces to go through the peer-review process or to be published once they are accepted? In addition to receiving feedback from colleagues and academic friends, early-career scholars should consult resources such as Belcher’s “Reviews of Peer-Reviewed Journals in the Humanities and Social Sciences.” The time spent carefully researching journals to determine the best venue for your article is well worth it in the end.

Communicate with editors. Before submitting an article to a journal, early-career scholars should consider communicating with the editor of that journal. While some journal editors are more accessible than others, many do appreciate having prospective authors reach out to them. If you run into an editor at an academic conference, introduce yourself and briefly tell them about the article you’re writing. If the idea of approaching an editor at a conference makes you uncomfortable, consider sending an email. That may be a very short note simply expressing your interest in publishing in the journal and including a brief pitch or summary of the article you’re currently writing.

As a postdoctoral fellow, I contacted the editor of a leading journal in my field to introduce myself and tell him more about an article I was thinking of submitting. The piece I had in mind was a blend of intellectual and social history, and I wasn’t sure it would be a good fit. The editor responded positively and even offered a few pointers I should keep in mind as I finished the piece. The response proved invaluable -- I submitted the article several weeks later, and it went through the regular review process and was accepted and later published. Had I not had the courage to send that email, I might have talked myself out of submitting a piece to that journal. Asking a question -- and letting an editor know about my work and interest -- made a difference.

Create your own review process. As a reviewer, I’m sometimes surprised by the poor quality of some of the pieces that cross my desk. It goes without saying that you should always ask trusted friends and colleagues to read draft articles before submitting a piece to a journal. People are busy, but those who are invested in your success will make time to help you.

In the intense and competitive atmosphere of the academy, however, early-career scholars can often feel pressured to get pieces out quickly. While it’s understandable to be concerned about key journal deadlines and other timing issues, you should always strive to submit a strong and polished piece. It won’t be perfect and needn’t be -- the review process is supposed to help you identify areas of concern. But your article should have a clear argument and some compelling evidence, and it should not include a litany of typographical errors and missing citations.

Even a piece with a strong argument and evidence will undergo some scrutiny during the review process if the writer appears to be sloppy with citations and demonstrates a lack of care with the presentation of their work. Keep in mind that some journals do not have in-house copy editors and rely exclusively on authors to clean up their own articles. Your errors could very well appear in the final (permanent) version if published -- and pose a new set of challenges for you.

Take advantage of special issues. A special journal issue is often one of the rare opportunities that an early-career scholar might have to work -- and publish -- with leading academics in the field. These opportunities are significant for the potential of forging future collaborations and often yield more focused and useful feedback on your work from people who know the subject best (even if your piece is not accepted). While some special issues are organized by invitation only, many are open to anyone working in the field, regardless of their rank or publishing record. Keep an eye out for calls for papers for academic journals in your field, and it’s not a bad idea to ask an editor what special issues might be in the works that might fit your research topic. You may want to consider revising an article you have already drafted to better fit a special issue.

Be open to revising. As several scholars have pointed out, the peer-review process is flawed for a number of reasons, including gatekeeping, racial discrimination and gender bias, to name just a few. Early-career scholars will face these unfortunate realities. But it’s also a reality that many reviewers take the process seriously and carefully read and offer comments for feedback to strengthen an article.

As a guest editor and reviewer, I have witnessed too many authors give up on the idea of publishing in a specific venue after receiving a request to revise and resubmit. Reading a report for the first time can be jarring -- especially a very critical one. But it is worth thinking carefully about how you might address a reviewer’s questions or concerns.

One effective strategy is to share the report with a friend or colleague for a second opinion and help with interpreting the feedback. And even as a new author, you can challenge a reviewer’s critique in your response letter to the editor if you find a specific suggestion completely off base or well beyond the scope of your article. Simply pulling a piece from consideration after it has gone through review means starting the process all over again and potentially encountering similar issues in a new venue -- with more time elapsed.

In general, the process of publishing journal articles is fraught with challenges. Employing these tips and strategies will not guarantee outcomes, but it can improve your chances -- and make for a better experience over all.

Bio

Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and president of the African American Intellectual History Society. She is the author of the multi-award-winning book Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (2018).

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