The Art of the Article

Publishing in Journals in the 21st Century

Peter A. Coclanis, April 2011

I don't have to tell anyone reading this piece that this is a tough time to be trying to crack the academic job market. Stories on the bleak job picture in literature, history, and even economics are commonplace these days, and a piece in the Education Life supplement in the New York Times (January 3, 2010) pointed out that only 27 percent of jobs in higher education are now tenure or tenure track—down from 75 percent 50 years ago. Welcome to the brave new world of academe.

The theme of the 2010 AHA session upon which this forum is based—advice on getting published—is timely, because getting published can prove helpful in launching a career. Getting a publication or two under one's belt early on shouldn't be seen as an elixir, much less a magic bullet for guaranteeing that one ends up as part of the elect—that is, among those with a job—but publications can help to improve one's odds of at least breaking through the clutter in the early stages of job searches.

I received my PhD over a quarter century ago now, so I'm kind of a grizzled, old veteran at this point, but it seems to me that in addition to the intellectual pleasure one gets from writing—or rather from "having written" (writing qua writing is hard work and seldom fun)—there are two important advantages to be gained from publishing early in one's career. The first of these advantages relates to professionalization, the second—itself related in some ways to the first—to what economists refer to as signaling. Regarding the first, professionalization: I cannot overemphasize the importance of learning early on how to become a competent professional in one's chosen academic field. However brilliant one might be, however much potential one might have, one needs first to prove that one is a competent, reliable craftsman or -woman, someone who inspires confidence in hiring committees and peers. The streets are littered with dazzling flame-outs, ABD nonpareils, and so forth, but at the end of the day the quads—and the faculty lounges—belong to people who are professionally competent.

There are a number of components to competency (such as mastery of a body of knowledge, honesty, conscientiousness, dependability, trustworthiness), and competency is measured in various ways—via transcripts, timely completion of degree requirements, letters of recommendation, syllabi, teaching evaluations, and so on. But one of the most important measures of competency for many jobs in higher education is the existence of a scholarly paper trail, that is, publications. For embedded in the fact of publishing are a range of competencies—some research skills, some facility with language, the ability to meet deadlines, sufficient soft skills as to work with editors, and so on—that are integral to long-term success in academe.

Moreover, publications, to use economic language, function as a signaling device—that is, as a mechanism by which someone indicates to someone else (a member of a search committee, for example) that he/she has certain characteristics even though such characteristics are not or may not be directly or readily observable. Two job candidates may have similar academic records and seem equally smart, but if one has a refereed publication in a reputable journal and the other doesn't, the published candidate has a leg up. For he/she has signaled that he/she possesses the competencies that lead to publications, and that other independent parties (editors, reviewers, and so on) have also endorsed and validated this fact. Hiring committees, indeed, history departments as a whole are institutionally conservative. In general, they would rather risk an error of omission—missing out on brilliant outliers—as long as they can justify the choices they make by going empirical and pointing to the historical record, which record is at once affirmed and amplified by publications. So it is a truth, (almost) universally acknowledged, that publishing can be very helpful career-wise. If we accept this proposition, we perforce must turn next to the question: How do you get published?

There is no easy, facile answer to this question. Trying to answer it is in some ways analogous to a campaign I witnessed in Singapore a few years ago when the government was interested in encouraging greater creativity among its citizenry. As a result, the government-linked newspaper, The Straits Times, would sometimes run stories with headlines like "Be Creative: Here's How." So in this essay I won't be suggesting that the best way to get published is to be brilliant thinker, an indefatigable researcher, and a great prose stylist, though that stuff obviously helps. What I will do is to make a few tactical suggestions about ways of working the system to your advantage. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • Familiarize yourself with the standard journals in your field(s) of interest.

  • There is an art to writing an article, and it pays to learn it.

  • Select some model articles for close reading, then analyze their narrative strategies and structures, the disciplinary and expository conventions and protocols to which they adhere.

  • When doing research practice thinking conceptually about how to frame what you've found (or parts of what you've found) into an article or essay format rather than into something longer.

  • Routinely monitor journals, newsletters, and listservs for publication opportunities of one sort or another.

  • Network assiduously at your own institution, at meetings, conferences, and other gatherings. Try to make contact with other graduate students or people just joining the profession, with senior scholars, and with editors. Developing relationships and networks is important for enhancing the flow of information and cutting information costs regarding scholarly publishing, for reducing friction in scholarly transactions of one type or another (an editor you know will likely give you the benefit of the doubt at the margin), and for creating publishing opportunities of one type or another.

  • Don't be snobby about where or how you break into print. While there are diminishing returns to publishing book reviews in graduate-student journals, writing encyclopedia entries, and appearing in obscure conference proceedings or on fugitive and perhaps fleeting electronic sites—all of these venues are perfectly good vehicles in moderation.

  • Try to create a diversified publication portfolio. A c.v. that lists a paper in a conference proceedings, a refereed article, several encyclopedia entries, and two book reviews looks stronger than one with eight encyclopedia entries or six book reviews.

  • Try to learn something from each foray into publishing, and try to establish a reputation for attaining a solid professional standard in your work. In this regard, reply promptly and honestly to editors, try to meet deadlines (more or less), and learn to accept the possibility that referees and editors are sometimes right.

  • Similarly, learn to accept constructive criticism, develop a thick skin, and acknowledge and, when necessary, try to accommodate referees and editors. Even if you feel that they have missed certain points in your argument, or that they are being unfair or even obtuse, try to work with them. In publishing articles—especially early on—don't let the quest for, much less insistence on the perfect be the enemy of the good. As you begin to establish a publication track record, you get more and more leverage with editors and journals, but until you do, play nice.

I had a pretty good, diversified publication record when I entered the job market in history in 1983–84. More specifically, I had six publications: One article, coauthored with my dissertation adviser, in a collection of essays; two lengthy biographical essays on historians in separate volumes of the Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB); a short story; and two refereed articles—one in the Journal of Southern History and one in the Journal of Social History. The piece coauthored with my adviser was obviously networked—collaborating with one's adviser is a time-honored and time-tested strategy, after all—but the two pieces in the DLB were networked as well. A graduate student friend from the University of South Carolina, a person I met while doing research in Columbia, introduced me to the editor (a professor at the University of South Carolina) of the volumes for which I later wrote entries; the editor and I hit it off, and the rest is history, as it were. The short story and the two essays in refereed journals were non-networked, but a quick tally demonstrates that half of my "original six" were. In retrospect, it is clear that none of these six pieces set the world on fire. Still, I was able to enter my chosen profession in the spring of 1984 and I'm sure that my publication record helped me to get my foot in the door.

Peter A. Coclanis is the Albert R. Newsome Professor of History and director of the Global research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.