Publishing Your Work
February 1, 2013
By Michael Munger
For better or worse, publishing your research needs to be the strongest leg in the three-legged stool of academic success. The other two legs, service and teaching, are also important, but publishing is clearly first among equals at most colleges and universities. Part of the reason, as I already pointed out, is that research output is quantifiable and objective.
Now, it is perfectly plausible to object that research publications are overrated as a criterion for success. But you need to realize that those are the rules of the game you are considering entering. Once you begin to write, and find out more about the unique joys of publishing your work and having other people read it through, some of those objections are likely to become less intense. When I entered academia, I had no idea publications were so important. When I first started writing, I had no idea that writing books and articles, and getting them published, would bring such deep and lasting satisfaction.
Think of it this way: how many people did Hayek “teach” by writing The Road to Serfdom? How many people have learned real and enduring truths from reading Frederic Bastiat? What can be learned by picking up David Boaz’s Libertarian Reader, and looking at the essays? There are plenty of people who claim that teaching should be more important than publication, but I have never understood the distinction. In fact, I think that those people have it backwards: I teach far more people through my writing than I ever could in the classroom.
That is not to say that most of the published “research” produced by the academy today is important or useful. Far from it. But that is why your participation, and the research of others with classical liberal sensibilities, is so important: Ideas matter. Good ideas can win out over bad ideas and wrong ideas; but only if those ideas are argued in a way that is timely, forceful, and articulate. The papers and books that you write can change the world, if you can get them published and presented for all the world to see. Classical liberals run the risk of devolving into a smug, exclusive group of Gnostics, inward-focused scholars who believe they have the truth and that everyone else, whether out of ignorance or bad motives, cannot be taught that truth.
I don’t believe that’s true. Classical liberal ideas are exciting, important, and infectious. Where will the next Hayek, or von Mises, or Rothbard come from? He or she might be reading this very essay, and trying to decide whether to try to scale the ivory tower, or to turn away and do something else. That person may be you! The academy needs you, your passion, and your writing ability.
My goal in this essay is to describe, and perhaps demystify, the academic publication process a little. The situation may vary depending on your discipline, but the general outlines are the same. Let’s consider four things that often derail academic careers almost before they start. But before I begin, let me say that much of what follows is simply a distillation, or even simply outright quotation, of things taught to me by my dissertation adviser, Barry Weingast. He thought more, and more deeply, about the problem of academic writing than anyone else I know.
Four Problems in Publishing Your Work
- Editors don’t have deadlines. This is obvious, but important. You are used to writing, and working, on deadlines. Papers are due on a certain date, tests happen at a particular time, you have to go to work to get paid, and so on. But once you are a graduate student past the classes stage, and for the rest of your life as an academic, most of the journal articles you will write are not written on a deadline. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Editors of journals get far more submissions than they have space for publication. In many journals, the ratio of submissions to publications is 5-1, or even more, in some cases nearly 20-1. So, the problem is that you can always put off submitting your paper until tomorrow, or next week. Or next year. And the editor will not call asking, “Where is that paper you were going to send?” Not ever. In fact, editors are pleased that you didn’t send it, for the simple reason that they don’t have to find referees and process the paper. Editors are looking for reasons to turn down papers, or get them off of their desks. This doesn’t mean you won’t get a fair chance. But if you send a paper that is not clearly thought out and not ready for publication, or if you just don’t send the paper at all, the editor will not mind.
- No one wants to hear about the labor pains. They just want to see the baby. Writing and publishing is hard work, and it takes patience and persistence. I have heard quite a few junior people say that, as far as they can tell, there is no relationship between work and publishing record. It is all luck, connections, and mystical “ability”; either you have it or you don’t. That’s nonsense. If you spend the time to write the paper well, and you are working on an important problem and have strong, well-developed ideas, you will get published. It’s that simple. You may ask, “But what about the 5-1, or higher, ratio of rejections to publications?” The answer is that it doesn’t have to be you that gets rejected. Sure, most papers sent to journals get rejected. Most papers sent to journals are really bad! If you just read the finished product, the papers actually published in journals, you may despair, thinking “I could never write something this good.” But you need to realize that a top publication is probably the product of six months’ work, or more, of doing nothing but working intensely on just that paper. In actual time, it may take eighteen months or a year to be able to devote six months of focused effort. Go to professional conferences, and you will see papers in progress, and those are much less intimidating. The difference between conference papers and publications is at the heart of the difference between successful scholars and failures: successful scholars know the conference paper is about 1/3, or less, of a final paper. You need to spend months finishing, polishing, and getting comments on, your conference paper before you send it off to a journal. No one will see you working away, in the middle of the night, putting in those extra hours. Then, when your paper is published, and other people tell you it’s just luck, you’ll know the truth.
- The Referees Hate Me. In fact, you can choose one or more of your referees. Most journals, in most disciplines, are “refereed.” What that means is that your paper is sent to three, and sometimes more, experts in the field for peer review. The level of anonymity of the process varies. Some disciplines use a “doubleblind” review process, where the author’s name is stripped from the paper, and the referee’s name is not known to the author. Other disciplines leave the author’s name on the paper. You have no direct control over the referees who are selected, and in fact you will never know who was selected, because the reports and recommendations you get back from the editor will be anonymous. But there are two facts that you should keep in mind. (a) Editors have a real problem looking for referees. Most journals don’t pay reviewers, and doing a review requires reading the paper, thinking about it, and then writing a review of 300 words or more. So editors are constantly trying to think of some new people who might serve as reviewers, provided they are experts in the subject of your paper. You can “suggest” referees in a way that seems obvious, but which many people ignore: put their names and publications in your references. Often, you should do this anyway, particularly if the other scholars have published in the same journal to which you are now submitting your paper. There is nothing immoral about doing this; the fact is that you are providing the editor with additional information, which he can choose to use or ignore. (b) Reviewers very much like to see their own names and publications in your references. I’m not saying that they will simply recommend your paper for publication if you cite them. But if you fail to cite a relevant paper, particularly one published in the same journal you want to publish in, it is likely to make them much less favorably disposed toward your paper.
- Bias: It exists, but…. I often hear from classical liberals who say that they don’t submit articles to journals, or book manuscripts to the main academic presses, because the process is biased against them. You need to realize that publishing books is an entirely different enterprise from publishing journal articles. Still, the question of bias is an important one, and so I am going to consider it here. Academic presses, and other book publication outlets, actually do have deadlines. Unlike journals, publishers always want more good publishable book manuscripts, because that is how they cover their costs. If you have a wellwritten, cogently argued book manuscript, you should have little trouble getting it published. If there is bias in the book business, it is against manuscripts that are too long, too jargon-laden, or too academic. The problem for the junior scholar is that book manuscripts take a very long time to write, and good book manuscripts take even longer. You should plan on at least two years between the time you submit a completed book manuscript and its final publication, and it could be longer. Depending solely on book publications to get tenure is risky, since if you get hung up in the review process your book may be delayed past the deadlines for submission of tenure review materials. Bias is more likely to exist in the publication of journal articles, but I am still skeptical that it is as widespread as some people claim. Suppose it’s true that people are working hard, and well, but that there is bias against people who take a classical liberal perspective. What would you expect to see? You would see lots of unpublished papers, or publications in lesser journals, field journals, that sort of thing. And some junior faculty have records that look just like that. But there is another, very dangerous point of view that guarantees and excuses failure. I often hear it this way: “Journals are biased against conservatives, so there is no use writing journal articles.” If this view were correct, then the lack of journal publication is not a sign of lack of work, but rather of ideological purity. I’m sure that’s very satisfying, but it is really just an excuse. Journals are biased against bad papers, papers that don’t cite anything written after 1986 or papers that ignore all the literature written by people with whom you disagree. Usually, when I ask for evidence of the supposed bias, the biasee has not one instance of rejection. He didn’t write any papers, because he had convinced himself that bias would prevent publication anyway. Yes, there are real instances of bias, but there are also plenty of examples of people very successfully publishing important papers that take a classical liberal perspective. You have to try, and keep trying.
Rules for Success in Academic Publishing
- Conference papers are not an end in themselves—If you have five papers you have presented at conferences, but have not yet sent to journals, you ought just to abandon pretence. You aren’t working. Finishing is work. Starting a paper and having dinner with friends at conferences is fun, but not work. I specifically look at the ratio of conference papers to published papers on CVs I receive for junior people when we have a position. If the ratio is greater than 3 to 1, I put them in the reject pile. In academics, like in every sport, finishing is what matters, and finishing is what so many people, even smart people, cannot do.
- Junior people should have three papers being considered at journals at all times— If one gets rejected, turn it around immediately and get it back out there. A paper on your desk is rotting. A paper on a referee’s desk, or editor’s desk, is germinating. If a paper gets accepted, you need to send out another new paper immediately. Don’t sleep until you do. Spend the time between hearing about papers from journals in writing new papers. Don’t spend all your time checking your mail and dreaming of what might be. Remember: Nobody cares about the labor pains; they just want to see the baby.
- Don’t rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic—Everybody has ideas, and lots of them are good ideas. Not all of them turn into good papers. You can’t tell until you work on them a long time. If an idea turns out to be not that great, write it up and send it right away to a second-tier journal. Fairly often, a referee will see something you didn’t. Several of my publications in “top” journals started as mediocre papers sent to lesser journals, and got turned down even there, with useful referee reports that allowed me to publish the piece in a better journal.
Looking back over this essay, I notice that I didn’t spend much time on ideas, on the nuts and bolts of turning ideas into powerful arguments. The reason I didn’t spend time on this is that you already know how to do that. You are excited about ideas, and the power of ideas, or you wouldn’t be reading this essay in the first place. Let me reiterate something I said in an earlier essay in this booklet: You have to focus on the ideas, and write about them because you care. If your goal is just to “get published,” you are probably in the wrong business. But I hope that some of the tips I have given in this brief essay help you get through the process of getting those ideas published.
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