Getting Published in Sociology

By | December 18, 2012

Along with other editors like Paul Higgs, Clive Seale, Gareth Williams and Ellen Annendale, I am often asked to participate in workshops and seminars on ‘getting published’. These invitations are clearly motivated by concerns about imminent assessments – presently, the REF. While I understand the pressures and maybe can deliver a helpful tip or two, I always insist on a few words about context. In this pre-Christmas blog I combine thoughts about context with the best counsel I can offer. I fervently hope no aspiring academic will want to act on any advice before the celebrations are over and 2013 underway.

I have been a fortunate babyboomer. I graduated in 1971 and after beginning – and deferring, although I never revisited it – a Ph.D in philosophy at Birkbeck College, I switched to sociology in pursuit of a steady income and settled readily enough into a research job at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1972. I there began a Ph.D in sociology that I was to knock off in only 11 years! When I was appointed to a half-time lectureship at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School in 1975 I had one publication to my credit and the Dean who interviewed me for the post quizzed me only on the number of foxes to be found on Epsom Downs. In short, these were very different times. While I engaged in institutional politics to ensure I was ‘returned’ for the last RAE, I have never paid any attention to a journal’s impact factor. I shall retire comfortingly just short of the deadline for entry for the REF.

The academic world presents very differently to current entrants and young faculty. They cannot ignore the tighter ‘iron cage’ of rationalisation that barely allows them to turn on the spot. They have to take out a lot more insurance to satisfy their line-managers, and to gain a degree of freedom to think and innovate, than ever I had to: hence the need for sessions on getting published.

So what more about context? Here are the two points I routinely make:

  • Academic life can be a kind of entrapment, leading to the construction of a cv and career for others rather than for self. So give early thought to what it is you want out of your career. Different goals will suggest different routes to their accomplishment. If above all else you seek quick promotion and/or a growing salary, then you will typically need impress with significant grant income and publications in high-impact international journals and would be advised to (at least threaten to) move jobs regularly to boost your return. All I ever had at the back of my own mind was the ambition to be a professor prior to retirement. If your goals lie elsewhere, to teach, research and publish either as part of a personal intellectual journey or to impact on social polity for example, then the route may well be different (not that these or other routes are necessarily incompatible: I know colleagues who can exchange routes with ease).
  • Sennett has written perspicaciously of our need to be proactive in an era (say, post-1970s) of compelling uncertainty and unpredictability. This applies to cv construction too. Goal posts keep moving in academia: rational decision-making can be one’s undoing. At any rate building a cv must now be a reflexive process of positioning. I have always been constrained by a need to keep line-managers in medical schools off my back (one idiot told me to bring in a small grant of around £1m and to publish in ‘Nature’). Books and chapters count for nothing in this environment, and theoretical or qualitative research papers for little more. As a visiting professor in a sociology department in the USA, however, it was my books that impressed. The balance of your cv should anticipate the audiences, often more than one, that you will need to impress to realize your personal ambitions.

So what about tangible advice towards getting published? Here are my pointers:

  • Wait until you have something to say.
  • Do a quick review of likely journal outlets, with – necessarily these days -one eye on their impact factors: different journals can have very different policies, preferred papers, formats and styles.
  • Have a clear message for readers in mind, whether it’s the presentation of research findings, a review article or a conceptual or theoretical piece. Make sure this message comes across, even if appropriately qualified by admissions of limitations or calls for further work.
  • Make sure that the manuscript doesn’t ‘fizzle out’, as if you got tired or realised you were about to go beyond the journal’s word limit and called a sudden halt. It’s amazing how many papers set things up interestingly, even excitingly, over 20 pages and then fail to deliver in the concluding two.
  • Bear in mind that your own focus can be quite specialised and of concern to relatively few colleagues in and around the discipline, so try and present your work in a way that suggests a broader relevance (e.g. set your substantive findings on ulcerative colitis in the context of the general literature on long-term illness).
  • It is normal to have papers rejected these days, not least because the REF is looming. Don’t be put off, and take every opportunity to learn from reviewers’ comments (my experience is that these tend to be very helpful, with the occasional ‘odd’ exception).

If your preference is for rapid promotion and a holiday cottage, fair enough. Personally, however, I find it very depressing when colleagues raise a glass or two to celebrate getting a grant, rather than what they want to do with it, and getting a paper in a leading journal, rather than what they had to say in it. I understand these reactions sociologically, but … But then I’m knocking on a bit. The best of luck to anyone reading this.

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