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Four golden rules to guide your publication strategy

Academics are driven to publish, mostly by the hyper-competitive job market, but also by a desire to share their knowledge and shape their field. Still, the task can seem daunting, and not only for early career researchers. Even senior scholars sometimes struggle to balance the demands of teaching with producing research publications. 

I propose four golden rules that can help smooth your path.

1. Prioritise publication goals

Different types of publications are valued differently, depending on their length, rigour and your discipline’s particular demands. 

Chapters in edited books are often less valued than journal articles. Many scholars work in ‘book’ fields, where a monograph is necessary for hiring and promotion. You’re going to be pulled in several directions at once and must decide where to focus your time and energy.

Book fields can be particularly tricky. Although a monograph is essential to career progression, books take far too long to be your sole focus. If you are an early career researcher, you also need to publish shorter pieces to bolster your CV for job applications and increase your name recognition. More established academics will often find themselves juggling their current book project with invitations to publish in edited volumes. And then there is the Research Excellence Framework. Although a book may take ten times longer than an article to write, it only counts twice as much in the REF weightings. 

A good strategy is to plan your research projects as a suite of outputs to reach different audiences and accomplish different goals. In a book field, the most important of these will be the monograph, but also identify potential journal articles and chapter contributions, as well as other publications, such as policy papers and news articles. Your publications should complement one another intellectually, to extend the reach of your scholarship and to advance your career objectives.

2. Prestige isn’t everything

It might seem obvious that you should publish your book with a famous university press, but presses are field-specific. The standout series in your field may be with a non-university press, and some big-name presses don’t publish some subfields. 

Survey recent publications in your field, or look at the publishers in your bibliography. Talk to more senior scholars about where they think you should place your book. Then reach out to the commissioning editor—the best editor is an interested editor.

Equally, the most prestigious journals are not always the best targets. They often have single-digit acceptance rates and long publication queues. By all means be ambitious, but the job market or the REF might mean you can’t take that risk, or wait that long, or it may be you want to reach a more specific readership. 

It can make sense to submit to a specialised journal in one of your subfields. These get fewer submissions than the big names, but their editorial standards and their peer reviewers are often just as good, and their publication delays can be much shorter.

3. Use feedback constructively

It usually takes about three months, sometimes longer, to receive a decision. A piece may be accepted with minor or major revisions, or rejected, or you might be asked to revise and resubmit it. Strange as it may seem, an ‘R&R’ is cause for celebration. It means the publisher wants to see it again and there is real potential for it to be taken on.

Unless your submission is desk rejected—meaning the editor did not think it worthwhile to have it peer reviewed—reviewers’ reports will accompany the editor’s decision. You have to grow a thick skin and learn to benefit from criticism. In my mind, reviews are the most useful part of publishing because I get an honest evaluation of my work. I may not always agree with it, but I always find something that improves my thinking.

Once you’ve finished swearing eternal vengeance, sit down and work through each item of criticism and how you are going to address it. If you have been invited to resubmit or to publish after minor revisions, you will need to write a cover letter to the journal or editor explaining how you have addressed every critique and defending any decision not to make a particular change.

4. Don’t give up

Writing takes grit. Rejection is far more common than acceptance, and you often have to say something repeatedly, in different forms, before it begins to influence the field. 

Thinking about my work in terms of intellectual exploration for its own sake rather than as a prelude to publication often restores my equilibrium after a disappointing decision and gives me the impetus to send the piece somewhere else. Over time, that perseverance pays off. 

Justine Firnhaber-Baker is a senior lecturer at the University of St Andrews

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com