there’s no such thing as a free publication

This is a story told against myself. It’s about doing something that I really, really shouldn’t have done. Before I go on I will just say that the story is actually pretty trivial in the overall state of the world, but it is one of those things that irks. I just should have known better.

It started a couple of months ago when a colleague who edits a journal sent a quick email around the network saying that there were a few spaces in a couple of forthcoming issues and did any of us have anything hanging around that we wanted to put in.

Well this sometimes happens – a special issue falls through or is delayed, articles that are in the pipeline just take longer to get referees for and/or to get back from authors, and so on. I’ve been in that situation myself as an editor, and I know that there’s nothing worse than being down to the wire. It’s generally bad form to run late or skip an issue – it mucks up printing schedules, it counts against the journal in citation indices, and worst of all it says to the journal readers that the whole submission and editorial processes aren’t working particularly smoothly.

So when I saw the email I was tempted. I hadn’t been thinking about an article, but you always have a few things hanging around, so why not… So that was mistake number one. Being tempted. In fact in retrospect I can see it was less like temptation and more like a Pavlov’s dog situation – here was an opportunity to publish and I duly salivated on cue.

As it happened, I’d recently jettisoned a book chapter I’d been writing and decided to write another one, so I did have something hanging around. The chapter was a demonstration of an analysis of empirical data using a bit of sociological theory to guide the methodology and method. It was a kind of teaching text and wasn’t right for a journal article – but I could see how the data might lend itself to a different purpose and argument. So I did a bit of a rewrite, mainly shaping up a new introduction and conclusion, and duly sent it off.

Second mistake – it’s not enough to simply change the sandwich bread leaving the filling mostly the same. Cut and pasting bits and pieces to make something new more often than not ends up as a messy pastiche, rather than a well honed argument.

It was hardly a surprise then when the referee comments came back with a request for pretty significant revisions. It wasn’t a reject, there was still hope for retrieving the paper. The referees could see there was enough in the idea I was working with, but really, the middle of the paper needed a lot of work. When I read the referee comments I of course could immediately see the problem I’d created for myself. I shoved the paper in a drawer and thought about whether I wanted to bother.

I felt, and still do feel, like a complete goose for not following my own very sensible advice on how to construct a journal article. I do actually know that you can’t repackage things in the way I attempted/was tempted to do. I tell other people this often enough. But I allowed the seduction of a possible easy publication to over-ride my own good sense.

I did get the paper out of the dark place I’d constructed for it. I’ve now completely rewritten it. I’ve done what I should have done to start with. Rather than trying to shoehorn some empirical workings into a new argument, I have started with the argument and constructed the article properly, from scratch. Major revisions usually does mean just this – a big re-construction of a piece that has something going for it, a potential contribution to be made.

The revised paper now has almost nothing in common with the original. There might be a sentence here or there that is the same, but not because I’ve cut and paste. I really did put the original paper to one side and re-start. The referee comments were there if I needed them, but the truth is that I already knew what I had to do. I had to write the paper I should have written in the first place.

So, it’s hardly been a time saving exercise. It’s not been a quick publication, using something I had prepared beforehand. It’s been the slow tedious process it ought to have been originally.

At the end of all of this I have a paper I hadn’t intended to write, a publication I hadn’t planned for, and a somewhat embarrassing reminder that the call of the publish–now-with-little-effort rarely turns out like that. Rather, a decent article requires bespoke writing and dedicated time.

Next time one of those emails come around, I hope I’m strong enough to say, “Quick no effort publication, get thee behind me.” Just remind me if I forget.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in journal, journal editor, refereeing, temptation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to there’s no such thing as a free publication

  1. KiPjONES says:

    Not very fond of the academic publishing ‘system’, I decided a while ago now to use a different model or at least impetus to publish at all. I strongly believe that publication that results from efforts to use tools from the arts in disseminating social science (or a “Performative Social Science”) should have their own purpose. This doesn’t necessarily fit very well with the standard “Abstract, Intro, Lit Review, Method, Results, Discussion” formula. More interesting as documents are the scripts themselves, the notes or the diagrammatic evidence that our projects leave behind as a kind of trail, trace or map. When we do publish, these sorts of records certainly hold more relevance and interesst as scholarship.
    This required me to thinking about composing my writing differently, even thinking about what it is that I write in a new way. Thrown out the window was the idea that if you publish an idea one place, you cannot develop that idea later somewhere else; that would be considered ‘self-plagiarism’. Instead, I think of constructing writing for publication in the way that music is often composed: a theme is developed in one piece, then elaborated on further in another one. One example is Wagner’s ‘Siegfried Idyll” and ‘Siegfried’ the opera in the Ring.
    We are going through a period of great transition in academic publication, questioning the process, the funding and even the content. Now is a good time for those brave enough to challenge the system to make it more responsive to their needs, instead of us behaving like Pavlov’s dog, as you mention.


  2. nicolapallitt says:

    Do you have any nice resources/guidelines on writing academic articles? Something with advice, tips, what to avoid, etc.


  3. nicolapallitt says:

    I’ve seen these but was wondering if you had something that can be used during the writing process, paper templates with suggestions in particular sections or something like that?


  4. Perhaps my favorite patter post: it’s really enlightening to read an experienced author write honestly about their mistakes. Great way to generate/confirm insights!


  5. Ophelia says:

    Thanks for sharing! And for putting in the hard work to save your readers from making the same mistake. What a great post.


  6. Thanks so much for this, I’m busy trying to work out how to work aspects of my thesis chapters into journal articles and was tempted to use cut and paste – it seems a complete rewrite will be the way to go.


  7. Pingback: The Saga of Academic Publication | Nic Combe

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