Do you ever think about what the best publication strategy is in the social sciences? Have you ever wondered how successful scholars reflect on their approaches to getting published? To find this out, the journal Sociologica invited ten prominent sociologists to contribute personal essays on academic writing and the publication process.
What exactly is a publication strategy? Generally speaking, it is determining in advance the answers to different questions related to writing and publishing. These are a few examples of such questions: Which language do you choose if you work in a non-English-speaking country? Are you going to write an article or a book? If you do write an article, what journals are the best for your work? As you answer each of these questions and more, your publication strategy slowly takes shape.
Let’s take a look at what some of these sociologists had to say about their publication strategies.
Do I have to always publish in English?
Christine Musselin and Jens Beckert raise the important issue of selecting the language of publication. Currently, everyone believes that Anglophone international journals are synonymous with quality and a wide audience. The only way to reach as many colleagues as possible is to write in English. However, some countries are large enough to have their own audience of experts. For example, French and German sociology have an intellectual community rich in sociological tradition and reputable journals.
Yet in spite of that, even in these two countries, there is significant pressure to publish in international journals instead of local journals. Even an unnoticed international publication carries more symbolical value in contrast to a paper that attracted considerable attention from the French or German community.
German sociological institutions buy into a symbolic hierarchy which rewards linguistic reach into the English language and positions American academia at the top. (Beckert, 2019, p. 5).
Both Musselin and Beckert continue to write in French and German, respectively. Firstly, the nature of data sometimes requires too much effort to frame it for a non-local audience. An English paper is not a simple translation of already-written paper in another language (Beckert, 2019). More often than not, authors have to write an entirely new paper to get through the peer review process of international journals (López Piñeiro & Hicks, 2014). Secondly, the local language is a way to reach not only a professional academic audience but also lay communities (Beckert, 2019). This is critical considering how public sociology strongly supports the idea of public engagement. As an example, Beckert’s papers on the reform of inheritance law and estate taxation primary provide insights for a German audience.
For Christine Musselin, the choice of language is not only the issue of the audience but also the choice of tradition of academic writing. The French tradition, in the words of Wolfe, can be described as a literary model where “a leisurely development of ideas, more frequent obiter dicta, less consideration of economy of presentation, single authors, idiosyncratic styles, use of first-person singular, reliance on metaphor, and more complex rhetorical strategies” occurs (as cited in Pontille, 2003). This literary model gives a chance to present research results in a narrative, storytelling style with nuances and detours that are less evident in the IMRaD style of academic paper.
Choosing the medium: books or papers?
Another essential question to answer is whether to write a book or a paper. Sociology and some other social sciences recognize two different mediums of writing: books and journal articles. Clemens and her coauthors (1995) explain that each genre is associated with distinctive career trajectories in sociology, institutional locations, and intellectual impact. For example, books generate attention across sub-fields and disciplines, while articles provide recognition within the broader field of sociology. One might ask, how does one decide on this issue?
The advantage of books is the possibility to develop extensive, in-depth arguments and elaborate explanations, says Michèle Lamont (2019) that can bring more intellectual joy than shorter formats. Musselin supports this view by asserting that books tell the whole story and provide room for detailed descriptions of linking mechanisms. Both Lamont and Fligstein mention that books help escape slow and capricious reviewers who influential authors might face during the double-blind peer-review process.
What are the downsides to writing a book though? One significant limitation is that you need time, which means not running “from one funded project to another,” but give yourself the time to think the complexity through, which is something many people do not have (Musselin, 2019, p. 47). Perhaps, the best chance to publish a book is to distribute your PhD research, because when you’re employed you’ll never have sufficient time to read, think, and write like when you were a graduate student.
On the flip side, book publishers use solicitation to acquire books while rejecting unsolicited projects after a very short once-over (Powell, 1985). This means that an author has to be a part of a network that provides a chance for the book to be published. In this regard, journals are more open for early-career academics as most journals treat unsolicited papers the same way as solicited ones. As a result, patronage is less prevalent when publishing an article, which leads us to our next question.
How to choose the right journal for a manuscript?
Neil Fligstein emphasizes how selecting the right journal is essential: “After putting in hundreds or even thousands of hours, your published work can go completely ignored if it appears somewhere where audiences are sparse” (Fligstein, 2019, p. 18). The principal advice is to go the extra mile and get published your paper in the best possible outlet. It is particularly important for early-career scholars to choose a highly-visible place because they have not developed their reputation yet, whereas established scholar can afford to be published in a less visible journal because his or her reputation is the crucial factor in attracting attention (Fligstein, 2019). A good example here is Lamont’s first paper in English, published in the American Journal of Sociology, which became famous quite rapidly.
What factors should you consider when assessing a journal’s visibility? One factor is to look at the impact-factor. For example, in sociology, two American sociological journals are at the top. The problem is that while top American journals can be international in theory, in practice they are crowded by American authors. Christine Musselin collected data on the institutions of authors who had papers published between 2001 and 2010 in the top journals in sociology and political science.
The data revealed that the percentage of papers written by authors affiliated to US universities reached more than 82% in all of them, while the percentage of papers with at least one author affiliated with a US university is between 92 and 95% (Musselin, 2019, p. 48). The most visible disciplinary journals are less open to European authors for different reasons. Therefore, there is some risk involved when submitting to the most visible American journals, which might mean you could be wasting your time.
However, experienced scholars rarely rely on indices only. They know which journals are considered relevant in the field and the kinds of papers they prefer to publish. Their strategy is to match the journal with the paper. Musselin shares her approach:
I will also read the recent publications of this journal to check whether it could fit with it.
Another obvious step is to consult with more experienced scholars. In the higher education field, you can look at the list of higher education journals as a starting point when looking for a suitable outlet.
The dark side of publishing in a highly-visible outlet is that you need to be patient: prestigious journals have a lot of submissions, so it takes time for them to make a decision (for example, The Review of Higher Education had to suspend submissions to clear a two-year backlog). Some journals have desk rejections, meaning you’ll get the response quite quickly if you’re rejected. Others prefer to send almost all papers to reviewers even if they accept only 3-5% of all submitted papers. You have to be ready not only to wait but to also work a lot if the decision is “revise and resubmit,” which in practice is the best possible outcome. Sometimes it takes years to push a single paper (Lamont, 2019).
Moreover, you have to get used to rejections. Even seasoned scholars face rejections, such as Shamus Khan, who serves as the chair of the sociology department at Columbia University: “I’d say I have to send work to 2–3 journals before it’s published. My ‘hit rate’ is probably around 30–40%. We’re not in the publication business; we’re in the rejection business” (Khan, 2019, p. 24). It is probably better to develop the ability to get over inevitable negative emotions, because otherwise, it might be challenging to revise a paper. You may want to look for a detailed description on how to deal with revisions in Khan’s paper.
Before submitting a manuscript
Here are a few questions you could ask yourself before submitting a paper, suggested by Wendy Espeland (2019). What is the main argument? Why is this argument interesting? Who is the intended audience for this article? Is my answer convincing? You should have a clue as to why the research question is interesting or important to answer. As Fligstein put it in his essay:
The biggest mistake graduate students make in picking projects is to fall in love with a research site and fail at the beginning to have an idea about what their site is a case of.
Khan advised thinking less about one’s own ideas and more about what others take from your ideas: “Your job is to join rather than ruin the conversation” (Khan, 2019, p. 23). For young researchers, it is important to emphasize that you find the right way to frame your research question even after you have done the research (Abbott, 2014).
Writing tips and advice
We can all agree with Khan’s words that the most significant challenge about publishing is not getting something published, but rather about getting something written. For junior scholars, the challenge might be related to the fear that “their professional futures rest on how peers judge what they write” (Becker, 2007, p. xii). Experienced scholars face the problem of finding time to concentrate on writing because they have other professional obligations. Khan recommended developing a daily writing routine – write every day for a couple of hours instead of waiting for the perfect moment to start writing.
To be unafraid of presenting a work in progress might make the paper better and increase the chances of acceptance by a journal (Fligstein, 2019). Lee suggests engaging with a more diverse audience that might help to understand what points resonated most strongly and how to deliver those points in the most powerful way (Lee, 2019). Another useful tip is to make sure that different academic activities – giving papers, arguing, collaborating, editing, teaching, and talking – feed into your publications (Lury, 2019).
One final piece of advice comes from Michèle Lamont: “Young scholars should keep in mind that what truly matters is not where you publish but what you publish: the work should be original, daring, stimulating. Otherwise it is not worth doing… and it is unlikely to interest others. Doing exciting work opens all doors” (2019, p. 34).
For further information, read the fascinating book by Howard Becker, Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article: Second Editions, in which he explains why so many people in academia have serious trouble writing and how they can overcome their struggles with the writer’s block.
Katerina Guba is a lead researcher at the Centre for Institutional Analysis of Science and Education, European University at St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2015, she defended her thesis on the comparative analysis of the journal publishing market in American and Russian sociology. You can follow Katerina on Twitter.