Thursday, October 15, 2009

60 Days of Scholarly Journal Article Writing -- Day 20

For background on the 60 Days of Journal Article Writing, please click here.

Writing a query letter to editors is one of the most contentious issues on campus when it comes to scholarly publishing. Faculty are massively confused about inquiry versus submission, and there is a hoary old "rule" floating around that says you can only contact one publishing outlet at a time, and only with a full submission. I think I've used the word before, but I'll say it again, "Balderdash." That may have once upon a time been the story in academia, but real editors at real publishing outlets (great ones, the best, and an amazingly wide array) say differently.

Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks agrees, much to my relief, and all of Week 4 was devoted to choosing a journal. It ends by having the article author (you, me) write an inquiry to editors. She provides a model, and a long rationale about why this makes sense, not only to get a sense of whether you should even submit your article to that journal, but whether it is functional, whether it has a backlog of several years (some do), and whether a forthcoming article is too similar to yours for a journal to even consider one of your type. So today I'm writing my query letter. After ranking the journals from my earlier post on who they are and what they publish, I will send it to five of the 21 journals I have identified as potentially right for work like mine.

60 Days of Scholarly Journal Article Writing -- Day 19

For background on the 60 Days of Journal Article Writing, please click here.

Revising my abstract again? Yes again -- one interesting feature of Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks is how often Belcher has you re-think your abstract and argument. She feels that most articles, especially in the humanities, are insufficiently argued, and she brings you back to those important places again and again. This is not the assignment for today, but she has taught me the habit. This week is about seeking the right journal, and I'll do a blog post on query letters in the next entry.

For the record, it is only four weeks into a 12-week program, and I already have a 33-page draft. That doesn't mean terribly much, since if length were any indication of quality then all knowledge would have been gathered by now (I'm astonished at the sheer number of books and journals published every year -- so much stuff!). But it feels great to have words on paper, and to know what my job is every day. This has been a remarkable experiment, and I hope to repeat it Spring semester with a new article (probably with one blog post on the book every week).

Monday, October 12, 2009

Portrait of the Prodigal as a Profiteer

You can win free books and a t-shirt by visiting England Rents, Rants and Raves and entering the fierce competition celebrating Denis Lipman's new book A Yank Back to England: The Prodigal Tourist Returns. Michael Dirda of The Washington Post loved it, and Michael York, who has had a long and varied career, but whom I best remember in 1973's Lost Horizon (a film that perhaps wasn't terribly well reviewed but that I enjoyed at a young age) says, "A perceptive, engaging and informative take on contemporary England as seen through the eyes of a fellow expatriate who writes with humor and affection. The cast of characters has an almost Dickensian vivacity." I've managed to dig up two England photos from 1986 (it's all part of the rules)... hurry to send in your own. The one above is from a bus as I first entered London on the ride from Gatwick Airport. I've been back several times now, but that was my first time abroad as well as my first time in England, so it was eerie and special.

60 Days of Scholarly Journal Article Writing -- Day 18

For background on the 60 Days of Journal Article Writing, please click here.

In two more posts I'll be 1/3 of the way through this project. So far I have a 25-page manuscript that reads fairly well although it has quite a few holes in it that must be patched by visiting the library and consulting physical sources (i.e. I've done what I can from my office and online). More and more research can be done electronically these days, but there is still plenty that sits on library shelves. Hmmm, how long will that be the case?

Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks spends this entire Week 4 focusing on selecting a journal, and I feel as though I did that in one fell swoop on Saturday, two posts ago. So I may wrap up days 19 and 20 in the next post, and then move on to Week 5.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

60 Days of Scholarly Journal Article Writing -- Day 17

For background on the 60 Days of Journal Article Writing, please click here.

What do you do when good journals publish bad articles? One consequence of studying journal articles this semester (in addition to my usual focus on scholarly books) is reading more key journals, where most of the articles are quite good and sometimes excellent. But once in a while a clunker gets through. I'm still fuming at one I encountered on a woman writer whom I have studied for some years. The article was published rather recently, yet seemed ignorant of the previous decade's scholarship on that particular woman, attributing an anonymous broadsheet newspaper to her that previous scholars demonstrated she probably did not write, mis-stating the circumstances surrounding her arrest, mis-identifying with whom she was arrested, and (to add insult to injury), citing Foucault and Habermas as somehow having commented on the result. The Foucault quote was particularly tacked-on and clumsy -- it wasn't quite "'Books are good, notes Foucault," but it was close.

So how did this mess sneak past the censors in a journal that I won't name because it should have known better? Sometimes it boils down to a common problem that most editors acknowledge but none know how to remedy: the vulnerabilities and perils of peer review. When peer review works it is a rigorous way to subject new work to scholarly scrutiny. When it fails (and it sometimes does), several possible things can happen:

1. Sometimes peers don't review. If a scholar is very late reviewing a promised article, a desperate editor can end up enlisting an alternate, perhaps at the last minute;

2. Sometimes peers do review, but incompletely. Skimming an article and approving it even when it has unfamiliar content (such as, in this case, references to an author who is obscure even for area specialists) is fraught with peril. Just because the article's author gets Samuel Johnson right, for example, doesn't mean s/he has done a good job with Frances Burney, and it behooves the peer to spot-check some of those lesser-known facts. Many don't;

3. Sometimes biased peers do the review. In Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks, Belcher cites incidents (although she doesn't name names) when an article went to a peer reviewer who recognized it as the work of a particular author and approved it because of a sense of collegiality. This conflict of interest isn't supposed to happen, but it does. It is particularly a problem when an author is the student of a board member at the journal, yet does not disclose that to the editor, and the board member does not recuse him or herself.

I love editors, and I can't think of a reason why one of them would knowingly pass a substandard paper through their system. They have too much to lose, and most of the ones I've met are ethical simply because the unethical ones all went into other fields where the rewards for malfeasance are richer. But peer reviewers are another matter altogether, because they comprise such a wide range of individuals with varying degrees of interest in the outcome.

What's the moral of the story? For one thing, those of us who value good scholarship can offer to participate in peer review. The more we agree to review and do so in a thorough yet timely fashion, the better for our professions overall. Editors need this support, and those of us who want to publish in the best journals owe it to our colleagues. One of the first things you can do after publishing some key articles and (if your profession demands it) your first major book is to turn around and give back to the system that benefited you by becoming a scrupulous peer reviewer. You don't have to do it very often, and if you're busy you can't, but even one article per year will help the system. If we widen the pool of potential peer reviewers, and if every good scholar begins to consider this service part of her or his professional mission, better articles will result, and fewer clunkers will sneak through.