early career researchers and the high impact journal

I was recently on a shortlisting panel for the three year postdoctoral fellowships offered by my university. Each of the five faculties had produced their own priority list from which the panel was to choose a subset to be interviewed.

Two of the other academics on the panel (medicine, science) were very focused on the status of the journals in which people had published. Having a paper published in Nature was held up as a marker of the quality of the applicant.

By contrast, arts, humanities and social science were much more impressed by scholarly monographs; the interest in journals was not whether they were the highest ranked, but rather that they were not obscure and marginal – a decent enough mid-range journal was perfectly acceptable. However, quantity of output counted as well as a reasonable quality – the more the better in reality.

I know that this would not necessarily be the same for the arts, humanities and social sciences in other countries and maybe even other institutions within the UK. However this was how it was in this instance.

I tell this story to illustrate two things – firstly, it supports what we all know, that where and what you write does count. But secondly, it suggests that different disciplines and different institutions in different countries regard these things differently. These variations are why it is difficult to suggest that it is always a good thing to try to publish in the ‘best journals’. It’s not the same everywhere.

Because of the diversity of ‘rules’ it is therefore pretty important for early career researchers to understand the kinds of expectations that are held within different disciplines and to try to get some insider information about what counts in the particular institutions where they are applying. If applying to another country, it’s equally important to get the drum on what matters about publications there, as opposed to where you are.

Are these kinds of expectation fair? Well not really IMHO.

It is obviously going to be pretty difficult to get into the high status journals because of their high rejection rates. It is equally hard to produce a significant number of decent articles for decent journals in a short space of time, during and post PhD. In both instances, the time taken for review and resubmissions and the backlog of articles of many popular journals work against time-pressed early career researchers (see comment from Mark Galeotti to last post).

And, given that many early career researchers are also juggling trying to publish with holding down a full time job doing someone else’s research, or doing a lot of teaching, it also becomes a matter of time/space to do the actual thinking/writing work required.

But there’s another reason why the emphasis on the journal worries me too. It seems to me that the focus on the journal and its status – or on the number of articles produced – significantly detracts from the point of scholarly writing. We write so that we can contribute to conversations about a particular area of knowledge production. We write to stake our claim in the field and to engage others in our work and to engage with theirs.

We need to be able to ask, in the first instance – not how good is this journal but – Who is interested in my work? Who would want to read it? Who needs to read it? What journals serve this community of scholars? What publics are also interested in this work? What do they read?

Performative regimes diminish scholarly work and obscure the reasons why we publish. Making publications a key to employment is on the one hand a reasonable expectation – institutions need to make sure that they employ people who will sustain a career of active and productive scholarship. On the other hand these kinds of expectations also work as a disciplinary mechanism to ensure that early career researchers enter the academy already well-schooled in the churn of production, and with due regard for the current significance attached to particular audit-driven, status seeking regimes ( e.g. REF in the UK).

And all this of course doesn’t even deal with whether citation indices actually do the work that they say they do!

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in dissemination, journal, knowledge production, publishing, readership and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to early career researchers and the high impact journal

  1. edwardpitt says:

    Thanks for the insights.


  2. Very pertinent, and well written :-). The publication game is particularly vexing in fields where timeliness is critical e.g. digital culture, information technology, marketing, media; or where text is not the preferred or only medium of communication – e.g. media production, radio journalism, creative arts. And that’s not even considering the growing problem of the consequence of the publication race by academics, which means that there is a smaller audience for the publications because having not yet mastered the art of time expansion, there is even less time for academics, or anyone else, to read all the stuff that is being churned out. As a media ‘scholar’ I find it puzzling that my media interviews and commentary don’t ‘count’ despite the significantly larger audience they reach, whereas I have had a handful of peers contact me about my ‘serious’ publications that deal with exactly the same material.


  3. M-H says:

    Your last two posts have been full of common sense and carefully-articulated experience. Your audience for these is presumably PhD students and possibly supervisors. So, a blog is the appropriate place to publish these ideas for ‘high impact’, because we know that students (and indeed most supervisors) don’t read the PhD literature (unless their subject of their research is the PhD). As one of my key informants said, “Most academics don’t even know there is a literature on supervision.” So, how can we get both supervisors and students talking about their experience and learning about more than the research project? Or am I being hopelessly naive in my desire to improve the quality of PhD experience without increasing managerialism?


    • pat thomson says:

      Great question. Wish I knew an answer. Lots of attempts, some godawful institutional attempts made with the best of intentions, and I assume psome decent ones … Maybe a tweet search first up??


  4. midgardarts says:

    “Performative regimes diminish scholarly work and obscure the reasons why we publish.”
    It’s nice to see this acknowledged. Early career academics need to publish early and often (this is certainly the expectation in the humanities) but there is a concern that the work is sub-standard. Yet, most early academics are told that few, if any, people on recruitment comittees will actually read your work. Instead, the status of the publication is the measure of value. At least, that’s the cynical view.

    Anyway, great post and I appreciate the effort you have put into this.


  5. Pingback: dealing with the cold calling journal | patter

  6. Lily says:

    I’m a Junior Academic and I have been publishing my PhD thesis as articles in different journals in America and Europe. However, I’m not sure whether I should submit the thesis completely as articles since I want to publish the manuscript as a book pretty soon. What’s your advice?


    • pat thomson says:

      I think you probably need to have something new to offer in a book. This from both a reader and publisher point of view, the want something over and above what’s already out there.


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