The Hard Way #7: It takes a village for academic publishing

If someone had told me that graduate school was the only time it would ever be someone’s job to read your work and provide advice on it, I would have spent a significantly longer amount of time in graduate school, and been much more grateful for my advisors there at the time. Given that, once you get a PhD (and even, for some of us who are less lucky, in graduate school), no one has a structured and remunerated support system for  research and publishing, the business of creating a peer network is an important one.

The RelationsInternational dolls-holding-hands is partly to think about global politics relationally, but partly to think about the profession relationally. This is not my first post on networking and community, and it won’t be my last – but I thought it was important to talk about how it takes a village to publish, particularly in the context of the ongoing conversation about how to publish journal articles.

When I say ‘it takes a village’ – I mean that in a couple of traditional ways – that there is a significant amount of value to co-authorship, and to getting advice from one’s advisors, for example. A future post will be about co-authorship, and I will also address advisor-student co-writing. This post is more to address the non-traditional ways that I think developing ‘villages’ of peer networks can help with publishing, both early in your career and in a lot of ways continuing throughout it.

Often, the initial reaction to my suggestion that publishing success can be greatly enhanced by the development of peer networks to help is met with skepticism, mostly from people who feel inherently competitive towards the peers with whom they would most naturally form those peer groups: other graduate students at their graduate institutions, other post-docs at their post-doc institutions, and other junior faculty either at their institutions or in their fields. While I have always been interested in succeeding professionally (whatever that means), to me, that’s a competition with self rather than with others – others can only help me be better at what I do, and helping others can only be beneficial to both them and to me. I talk about working with others with that as an a priori assumption; I don’t really know how to do it otherwise. If you feel the need to be competitive with others around you and see professional success as a zero-sum game, my advice on these issues is not going to be of much help to you, and we’re just going to agree to disagree.

But if you are on board, I think there are a lot of ways that peer networks can be useful to the publishing process. The ideal peer network, in my view, is five or six people whose research interests are loosely related (in my world, political science, gender studies, or related social sciences) and who have a reasonable understanding of your epistemology/method (that is, understand regressions if that is your flavor of research, or know what discourse is if you write about it), but whose research is not a carbon copy of yours. These people can read your work, but can also point out when it would not be accessible to people who don’t think exactly like you do. That’s important because your audience of reviewers and editors is never going to be as focused on your subject matter as you are – and from a specialist journal in your sub-sub-field to a generalist journal in the discipline, you are going to need to master the art of writing so others can read it.

I use my peer network in a number of ways:

  1. Reviewing abstracts before I start writing an article, a grant proposal, or anything else I am about to write. I call this the “dumb-idea-check” – where they let you know if you are missing something major in the literature, if the idea does not make any sense, if there are serious potential methodological problems, or if I am making assumptions that are unintended;
  2. Reviewing a second draft of a manuscript. Different ways of doing this might work for you – for me, I present a first draft of a manuscript at a conference to get feedback on the idea, the argument, and the research. That way, I can correct the issues that even people who haven’t read it can see before I spend the valuable time of my peer network on the manuscript. Peer networks are valuable resources – so I use them for feedback I can’t get from other ‘cheaper’ venues, like conferences; or feedback I need to succeed in alternate venues, like peer review. Sometimes, a decade into my writing career, I skip this step with something I’m pretty confident is good enough to get an R & R – because I write a lot, and want to save these resources for times when I need the help.
  3. Looking at my to-do list when I get an R & R – see discussion in my post about revising and resubmitting. I always make a to-do list about what I intend to respond to about reviews and editorial letters, and
  4. Reading my completed revised draft of an R & R –  after I’ve completed my to-do list and revised letter, I use my peer network to serve as a check on my having done so both thoroughly and professionally. More than once, they have caught my being sassy, taking shortcuts, or being less clear than I could have been. I’m sure those ‘catches’ have saved me several rejection letters, and I’m very grateful for it.
  5. Read the title and abstract in the proofs of accepted articles. At that point, I’ve read an article about a million times, and I read the title and abstract to say what I think they say or what I want them to say rather than what they actually do say. This step is relatively quick and painless for a peer network and saves a lot of embarrassment for you.

There are several rules that I have found in peer networks, and I’ll share a few of them:

  1. Reciprocate. Be willing to do the work for other people in your network, and do it with the quality that they do for you. It is always worth the investment of time.
  2. Vary who you rely on. Don’t ask one person to read four articles in a year. Vary who among your network you rely on with the varying weaknesses of a particular projects, or just on fairness of workload. You will be more successful if your peer network is more successful; spreading the workload is one way to make sure everyone is successful.
  3. Know what your peers don’t know, and go to senior people for that. Senior people will be more open  to answering questions if you aren’t relying on them for every little grammatical error. Peers can help with the writing, the methodology, the contribution to the literature; senior people might be needed for questions about the politics of the field, the strategy of submitting to one journal rather than another, etc. Again, this depends on your particular specialty, your network, and your senior people.
  4. The effectiveness of an effective peer network only increases as your career advances. This isn’t something you do until you are able to take care of yourself, until you get your own job, or until you get tenure – peer networks transform in their functions and in their needs over the course of careers, but having a group of people who are supportive of your publishing, and of whose publishing you are supportive, never stops being helpful.
  5. Peer networks should not be shortcuts to good process in the field. You shouldn’t be using them to break the anonymity of the peer review process, to throttle through mediocre articles, to artificially inflate citation counts, or anything else like that. If you are doing the rest of this stuff well, and doing interesting research, those things will happen. If you are known for taking shortcuts, it will catch up with you at some point. And that won’t be pleasant.

While a peer network will never be a built-in and paid advisory system, it is a very exciting way to grow into the discipline, the profession, and one’s research agenda; then grow with it.