‘Scholarship, Money and Prose’

Author discusses his new book on scholarly journals and offers advice on getting published.

July 28, 2020
 

Scholarship, Money and Prose: Behind the Scenes at an Academic Journal (University of Pennsylvania Press) is the story of American Anthropologist, but it is also in many ways about scholarly journal publishing generally. Michael Chibnik, the author, is the former editor in chief of the journal and professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Iowa.

He responded via email to questions about the book, and he offers his advice for authors who want to get their work published.

Q: What are the tricks to being published? (In general, not just in your journal.)

A:

  1. Pay attention to what kinds of articles appear in the journal where the manuscript is being submitted. Look at topics, relative amount space devoted to theory, description and method, size and type of literature review, writing style, length.
  2. Work hard on clarity and organization. Avoid excessive jargon.
  3. Write a succinct introduction laying out the main points of the article and the evidence underlying your conclusions.
  4. Be sure that theory cited is relevant to evidence presented.
  5. Focus on a few main points. Do not ramble.

Q: What are mistakes many authors make that prevent them from being published?

A:

  1. Poor exposition. Unclear argument and muddled organization.
  2. Insufficient attention to relevant previous work on the topic. Insufficient comparison between author’s findings and those of others.
  3. Too much description and too little theory.
  4. Too much theory and too little description.
  5. Methodological errors.
  6. Unclear or insufficient description of methods.
  7. Poor fit between content of article and the goals/mission of the journal.

Q: Financially, what are the main challenges for journals today?

A:

  1. Pressures on libraries to cut journal subscriptions driven by reduced funding of universities (especially public universities and some small private colleges) and the high cost of some essential journals (especially in the sciences).
  2. Pressures to make content free for anyone (open-access movement). Often not at all obvious how to do this for some journals while remaining economically viable.
  3. In some fields, the slow pace of much journal publication and competition for priority leads researchers to prefer other means of presenting results and learn about new developments (and consequently less need to urge their libraries to subscribe to journals).

Q: How did you try to balance the scholarly and economic challenges facing the journal?

A: I attempted to ensure that the articles in the journal reflected diverse theoretical perspectives, topics, geographical areas and methodological approaches. It was important to include articles from all four subfields of anthropology (sociocultural anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology and linguistic anthropology). I gave some preference in my manuscript decision making to submissions that I thought would interest many of our readers. Most of these articles fell into two general categories. Some examined newsworthy issues in particular places, such as the changing nature of the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, reconciliation efforts in Rwanda and conservation efforts in Wyoming. Others were about broad topics such as difficulties with concept of informed consent, the role of anthropologists in studies of climate change, and epigenetics.

American Anthropologist brought in three-quarters of the income from the more than 20 journals sponsored by the American Anthropological Association (AAA). The publication of the journal considered alone therefore did not present significant economic challenges. However, income from American Anthropologist was expected by the American Anthropological Association to make up from the financial losses suffered by most of the other association-sponsored journals. The AAA and Wiley-Blackwell (our publisher) urged me to boost subscriptions by publishing articles that could be promoted on social media. I was able to do this to a certain extent, but perhaps not as much as the association and Wiley-Blackwell would have liked.

Q: Do you feel hopeful for journals in the future?

A: After I submitted my manuscript to the University of Pennsylvania Press, I was asked by editors there if I could add a section about the future of academic publishing. Here is some of what appears in the book. Please excuse the length and my ambivalence.

While editing AA -- and before that Anthropology of Work Review -- I only occasionally pondered the future of academic publishing writ large. I knew, in any case, that more knowledgeable people had written thoughtful books and articles on this topic (for example, Cope and Phillips 2014; Fitzpatrick 2011). Nonetheless, my editing experiences have left me with a couple of ideas about what may happen to academic journals in the years to come. First, journals are likely to continue to be of central importance in academic publishing. Secondly, the effects of changes in scholarly publishing will vary in journals of different types.

Academic journals have for centuries provided a key role in the dissemination and assessment of scholarship. They provide a semipermanent record of research results, theoretical developments and controversies. The more selective journals are also gatekeepers, in principle publishing only the best-argued and best-documented submissions. Even less-than-ideal gatekeeping influences the direction of scholarship. Despite pressures to get research results out quickly in mathematics and some of the sciences, I cannot think -- at least in the humanities and social sciences -- of substitutes for academic journals. What for example, would be useful replacements for AA, American Ethnologist and Current Anthropology? The formats of journals in all disciplines, of course, will change in ways enabled by new technologies and constrained by economic considerations. Innovative ways to present online information will develop; open access may well be feasible for some journals. But academic journals will not disappear anytime soon.

The effects of changes in academic publishing will not be the same for all journals. AA is a medium-cost, profitable, prominent journal with a large circulation and strong support from both its publisher and sponsoring scholarly society. Anthropology is a field where -- with a few exceptions such as paleoanthropology -- scholars do not ordinarily feel an urgent need to publish their research findings rapidly. Few institutional, economic and intellectual pressures make a drastic rethinking of AA likely. AA’s economic basis is similar to that of other major journals sponsored by scholarly societies in the humanities and the social sciences. This resemblance suggests that such journals are likely to see only modest changes such as those at AA.

The economic and institutional situations of many journals are not at all like those at AA. Anthropology of Work Review has a small circulation, is not profitable and is not considered prominent enough to have its impact factor measured. For such a journal, significant changes in format -- and perhaps also in content -- are likely. Although initial attempts to make Anthropology of Work Review open access with library support have been unsuccessful, changes of this sort seem much more feasible for this journal than for AA. There are many more small, specialized journals such as Anthropology of Work Review than larger, generalist journals such as AA. These specialized publications are perhaps the most likely types of journals to be significantly affected by the changing economics of academic publishing. Some will morph; others will go under.

Many academic journals are quite different from both AA and Anthropology of Work Review. These include expensive, prestigious scientific journals published by commercial firms and journals in fields in which speed of reporting research results is essential. I am not competent to even begin to speculate about how such journals are likely to change. I am sure, however, that variability in types of publications warrants caution in attempts to make sweeping generalizations about the future fate of academic journals.

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