Publish or Perish

DAVIS: So I’m an undergrad here at A&M. I’m entering my senior year as a humanities student and a lot of the stuff I’m starting to read isn’t so much factual as it is opinions that are really well informed and argued. And that’s piqued my interest in academic publishing: how it works and how scholarly opinions gain wider acceptance. My office at the writing center is at the library, and the anthropology department is only a few feet away, so I wandered over there to speak with Dr. Ted Goebel who gave me some insight into academic publishing, a subject he’s familiar with, both as a scholar trying to publish and now as the editor of the journal PaleoAmerica.

TED: “Hi I’m Ted Goebel I’m a professor in the anthropology department at Texas A&M.”

DAVIS: Maybe not surprisingly, given that he’s an anthropologist, Ted talked a little about how academic publishing has evolved:

TED: “In the old days professors used to write a lot of books or they would write chapters in edited books, and things of that sort. Nowadays the scientific journals are the ones that have the highest impact ratings by independent organizations that keep track of these kinds of things.”

DAVIS: An impact rating, by the way, is an independently calculated and assigned score that lets you know how widely read and trusted a journal is. That score is calculated—in short—by how often articles from that journal are cited. If you want to know what everyone’s talking about in a field, in a good or bad way, that’s one way you tell: impact scores. The logic goes that the more people that cite something, the more important it is and that the people who published it know what they’re doing. These journals typically have an editorial board and use peer reviewers to determine which articles should be published.

TED: “The Editorial Board has to be reputable and the authors have to recognize those people as being leaders in the field so that they know that they’re publishing in a potentially high quality place”

DAVIS: You have to be a recognized expert to help run this stuff, to make sure the best papers are published and maintain the impact score of your journal. And this is all important not only because we, as a society, value knowledge (well, sometimes, anyway) but also for more pragmatic reasons. Namely, academics’ careers typically rise and fall on their ability to publish, a phenomenon often referred to as publish or perish.

TED: “A lot of decisions that relate to professor’s jobs and their careers relate to where they publish their work. All of us are striving to publish our work in the highest profile journals, those that have the highest impact because more people read those journals than the ones that have lower impacts and if more people are reading our stuff then more people are going to cite our stuff and if more people are going to cite our stuff then we can show our deans that hey, people pay attention to what we’re doing so you better give us more money. So it all comes down to that, you know, us trying to strive to advance our own careers and to earn tenure and promotion and at the same time to enhance the reputation of our departments and our colleges.”

DAVIS: Basically, academic careers are built on not only the classes that professors teach, but how much research they’re putting out and how that research disseminates into the field. In that way, citations basically become the life-force of academia. I talked with Steve Jones, editor of the journal New Media and Society, who told me that citations are not only relevant to building an academic career, but they’re a large part of how he finds reviewers for submissions to New Media and Society. But there are other ways too:

STEVE: “Yeah, there’s the genius rolodex that every journal editor gets… Yeah, I’m just kidding of course.”

STEVE: “Sometimes authors will suggest reviewers.”

DAVIS: Steve said that suggested reviewers are super helpful, but he doesn’t always use them. A large part of scholarship is making sure that the research being published is reliable and rigorous, and avoiding fraud is paramount in the review process. A lot of journals maintain an editorial board of experts in the discipline, and those members are often well connected, and able to find suitable reviewers. Additionally, reviews are often done double-blind, so that neither the author nor the reviewer know who the other is.

STEVE: “The double blind part of it is critical, that’s one of the real values, is that research is reviewed objectively that way.”

DAVIS: So we know now how a journal works and how journals make sure they’re getting good stuff, And that helps to explain something else that’s true of academic journals: a lot of what they publish seems incomprehensible–at least to outsiders, including, sometimes, undergrads like me. But if a journal article is written by experts for other experts, that may not be a problem, since those other experts understand that type of language or as I like to call it, “academese”. Sometimes, though, academics find that they do need to be able to write for both their fellow scholars and outsiders, such as members of the general public or the foundations that may fund their grants. And personally as I continue my journey in the humanities, I’m finding that is one of the tricks of successful academic writing: learning to adjust my tone, word choice, and syntax to meet the needs and expectations of my audience. It’s about who you’re writing for, the context of the piece. It comes back to the importance of knowing your audience and purpose—who’s reading it, where it’s going, and why it needs to read a certain way.

This has been an episode of Write Right, a production of the Texas A&M University Writing Center, a service of the Department of Undergraduate Studies. My name is Davis Land and I wrote and produced this episode. I had editorial help from Nancy Vazquez, Flo Davies, and Nick Cenegy. If you’re a Texas A&M Student we offer online and in person consultations about your papers, presentations, and anything else that involves communicating clearly. You can find us online at and on Twitter @tamuwc. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, and probably five other things they haven’t told me about. Go looking, you’ll find us.