Ah, you’ve arrived. So good to see you. We don’t get nearly enough visitors.. We’ll start here. Over here in the corner. Yes, here. It’s a bit dark, but never mind. We always start here… with this filing cabinet of rejected papers. All of them written about literatures – papers based on the reading that their writers did for their doctorates. Sent out with great hope. Alas. Rejected, out of hand. Their writers crushed and bewildered by reviewer comments.
The first drawer is labelled So What. All the reviewers thought that these papers simply reiterated what they already knew to be the case. The reading had done its job in the PhD mind you. The examiners were reassured by seeing familiar contents – it helped them to decide that the writer did understand their field, its history and development. And you mustn’t think that these are bad papers. They might be just what Wikipedia and its ilk need. But journal reviewers want something more than a recount of what everyone in the field takes for granted and sees as their starting point.
The test of a publishable journal article is whether it makes a contribution to knowledge, a point that these hopeful writers didn’t get. They just didn’t think about the So What when they were writing. But I doubt that they’d all understand that the lack of So What was the problem. Here, leaf through a few papers. Look at the reviewers’ comments – some are really trying to be helpful with suggestions about additional reading and possible interpretations. But many of the reviewers are pretty terse – and look here! Some reviewer has just written So What. We know this already. Where is this going? So sad. The writers in the So What drawer just hadn’t cottoned onto the fact that they needed to argue for something a bit different, they had to take an angle that was less obvious and established.
Yes, you’re seeing correctly. The drawer underneath is labelled Keep Out. Why? Well it doesn’t mean us of course. Let me tell you a little story about the first paper here. In the envelope. It’s OK to get it out.
This paper was written by a young scholar studying in a health discipline. They were really critical of the ways in which their field ignored its own history and wider social questions about – well – health policy, class, race and gender and alternative ways of doing research. In their thesis literatures chapter the PhDer had put together a very persuasive reframing, it was a very critical review of the history of the field. The examiners, chosen because they were sympathetic to this view, had praised this literatures work and suggested it be turned into a publication. One of them even said that it should be sent to the most prestigious and mainstream journal in the field. So the newly minted Dr did just that. And the paper was rejected out of hand. The reviewers’ comments ranged from disputing his interpretation, to suggesting more things he should read since he clearly didn’t understand, to simply saying that the paper wasn’t suitable for the journal.
Territorial I hear you say? Closed minds? Gated journal community? Well, you might say that, I couldn’t possibly.
But this is not the only paper to fall foul of reviewers on this count. Just look at the number of papers in this drawer. Why, you ask, if they were well argued papers? Well, sending a critical – or even experimental – paper into potentially very hostile territory can easily end up with an outright dismissal. See what this reviewer has scrawled across the paper, Who does this person think they are? I’m afraid that some disciplinary communities are resistant to critique and to change. When they read something new, their first response is to critique back. The way to get a field to change is usually through a more sustained, sideways and collective effort, not via a lone charge by one of the most vulnerable members of the community. Unfair I hear you mutter? Well, probably.
But you know it’s all very well for examiners to suggest that critical papers from PhDs be sent off to big mainstream journals – when actually this may be something that they should be doing themselves. At the very least examiners need to warn a new Dr about the possible consequences. It may well be better for sanguine early career writers who want to avoid ending up in the Keep Out drawer to send their critical literatures review paper to a journal which is likely to be receptive – one which is already building up a body of work broadly reframing the disciplinary establishment.
The third drawer? Incomplete. These are papers whose writers said they were offering a comprehensive survey of the field but in fact didn’t. There are two reasons why they couldn’t – or didn’t.
(1) The writers confused the PhD literatures review and a journal article. These are not the same. A literatures paper isn’t establishing a case for a specific research project, it’s establishing something that the field more generally ought to be aware of – and perhaps even do something about (that depends on the type of paper). So the reviews that these writers did for their PhDs actually weren’t yet ready for this bigger – and different – task.
(2) The writers actually hadn’t read enough. Yes, really. They needed to do more. Yes they’d read a lot. However, it’s hard for a time-limited PhDer to have enough weeks in the year to get on top of fields with long and complex histories, with lots of side-streams and debates and a complicated sets of influences. Some people can do this of course, it’s not impossible. But it’s a big ask in a three or four year PhD. The writers in this drawer didn’t realise that just because their literature reviews got through their examinations it didn’t automatically mean they would cut it with reviewers – particularly if the papers promised something comprehensive. These Incomplete paper writers may just have needed more time to get through the material in order to produce a paper that really had coverage and traction. That’s why state of the art papers are more likely to be written by more senior scholars in the field, given as presidential addresses and so on … These people have had just had more time to read. Sad but true.
You’ll see that reviewers have made a range of comments on these two types of incomplete papers – all of them go to coverage of material. Some reviewers make suggestions of books and papers to be read, and these would probably be pretty useful next steps for the writers, if they can get over their initial disappointment at rejection.
The fourth drawer. An old target – Laundry Lists. Well you know about those I’m sure. They aren’t any good in the thesis and they work even less well for a publishable paper. These writers simply bundled summaries of vaguely related materials together under headings. Let’s not bother with those. The reviewers didn’t waste their time saying much either, as you can see. They just said no.
Yes, it’s a depressing little archive. I agree. A cabinet of crushed hopes and wasted time, a collection of lost opportunities. But your paper doesn’t have to end up here in the dark, unread by all but negative reviewers. Look into the next room. That big row of filing cabinets? Walk over there into the light. Those are the living papers. They’re in here, preserved, sure, but they’re also out in the world. They’re the papers whose writers knew how to avoid the traps I’ve just told you about. Their writers weren’t just writing a literatures paper because they saw the reading they’d done for the PhD as a waste if it wasn’t published. (Hey, it got them through the PhD, that’s hardly a waste of time).
Those published literatures papers writers chose the right journal.They were clear about what kind of paper they were writing, to whom and why. They had an angle. They had a ‘voice‘ and something to say. They had a point, an argument.
Time’s up now. That’s our little tour over. Just before you go I do need to say, again, that it’s obviously perfectly possible and do-able to write a literatures paper and get it published. Don’t be put off by the rejected examples I’ve shown you. Just remember the titles of the drawers and make sure you don’t end up here in the dark, unread, in the archive of lost papers.
Go well. Write away now.