Publishing and Perishing

There’s an old adage in academia: ‘Publish or perish.’  The basic tenet is that in order to prove your academic worth, you must publish peer-reviewed articles and monographs on a consistent basic.  In the UK it all goes on the REF; in the US it leads to tenure.  I’m sure there are similar concepts in other countries throughout the world.

So it is with that background that I received my first journal rejection this week.  I know it is an academic rite-of-passage to receive journal rejections.  I know in the long-run it will make the article better, should I follow the suggested comments and resubmit or even try a different journal altogether.  In fact, having just re-read the article, I already see numerous points for improvement.  Once I take the reviewer comments on-board, I’m sure it will be much stronger and better written.

Still, knowing these things logically does not lessen the pain and disappointment of receiving that rejection.  When I was researching and writing the article over the summer, I was very excited by my argument.  I thought it was a new take on a well-researched topic — collective memory.  I was writing about collective memory, but this time in music, which has very little literature associated with it as of yet (that I can find, anyway.  Maybe the reviewer comments will highlight some missed books.)  Similarly, the people I asked for comments also seemed enticed by the argument and take on the subject.    So, obviously, I had high hopes for the article.

I had followed much of the previous advice I had heard about publishing — cater the style and content for the specific journal; find the right journal; get to know the journal audience; etc.  The journal I was aiming for is the one I have been using most in my research so I thought I knew the audience well and found the right journal.  I had changed my style from my normal way to fit in with its editorial format.  I thought I had done everything right.  Except write an article well enough to get published, apparently.

I wonder if it’s possible to perish before you even get the chance to publish?  That is how I feel at the moment.  My academic career will finish before I even had the opportunity to begin it properly, the tiny voice at the back of my brain says.  As a self-funded PhD student, I already had doubts about contributing in the grant-grabbing areas of higher education.  And, as a recent THE article attests, many PhD students feel ’embarrassed’ to be self-funded.  In some respects, I certainly do.  So my self-funding and lack of publishing seem to doom me to a non-academic career before I even have the chance to start it.  Or so that tiny voice keeps saying.

But one article, or lack thereof, does not a career make (unless it’s Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, I suppose).  Plus, I was an editor for an academic journal (Retrospectives), so I understand some of the realities of publishing.  I know that most articles don’t get accepted in the first instance.  I know that reviews play a critical role in making articles better.  I know that reviewers can have vastly different opinions.  One might think an article is brilliant whilst another might think it’s the worst thing ever.  I experienced all those as an editor, so I know about them.  But it’s different to be on the other side of the spectrum and actually experience the first instance rejection and read reviewer comments.

While it’s not quite ‘back to the drawing board’ (computer screen?) for the article, it will take a bit more work to get into publishing shape.  So I eagerly await to receive the reviewer comments, though not necessarily the revising that comes with them.  Still, I had hoped to have at least one article published before I submitted my PhD.  Of course, since I’m planning on submitting in September I still have time; and even more should I need an extension for some reason.  Thus, I will re-work my article and try again.  In academia it may be ‘Publish or Perish’, but often in the rest of the world it’s ‘Try, try again’.  I suppose that works in academia, too.

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