How academic publishing works

Learning: Quill pen on deep blue circle

One thing I see a lot of confusion about is academic articles (and publishing in general) and how it works. A lot of people assume that if it’s an academic journal article it must be right or have all of the relevant information – and that’s not a great assumption!

This essay is going to talk about what academic articles are, how peer review works, and what you should know before relying on information in an academic peer-reviewed source for your religious practice.

(A note: This article began as a thread on The Cauldron, which has some very useful commentary from two academics in two different disciplines at the time I write this. I’ve incorporated some of their comments, and used a lot of my original post there here, but you might also want to read that thread for more view points.)

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My relevant background:

One of the things we learn as librarians is how to find information. But not all librarians write peer reviewed articles for academic journals (only some librarians are in jobs where it’s particularly relevant or the best use of our time.) However, since the original post above, I have actually gone through the whole peer review process with an article (co-written with colleagues) and I’ve included notes about that here.

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What are academic journals and articles?

Basically, academic publishing is a conversation between people working in a specific field (or sometimes multiple fields) about a particular topic. It is never meant to be the final word on the topic: no single article (or even a single book) can include everything about a topic. There will always be new approaches, new ideas, and sometimes essential new information.

(For example, as we learn more about scientific testing of archaeological evidence, we are learning new things about history, ancient cultures, and many other topics all the time. We can now tell from a set of bones a lot about where that person lived, for example, and use that to begin to track migration patterns between places, where previously we had to rely on cultural items or written texts, many of which didn’t survive to the modern day.)

However, for this conversation to be useful, there are some conventions about how it works. While many academics these days talk about their research and what they’re working on informally (with friends, on forums and email lists, and through social media tools like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook), there are processes for academic journals to help make sure that material is going to be useful to others.

Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Academic articles are generally reviewed by others familiar with the relevant topics (a process called peer-review). This is different from magazine articles (where the article is only reviewed by the editor, normally, for how it fits with the publication.) They may be published in a variety of different journals: some are tightly focused, others are multidisciplinary. Some have specific criteria or approaches or tend to be conservative about publishing material that challenges common ideas in the field, others are more flexible and open to innovations.

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Who runs academic journals?

Some journals are run by publishers. Some are run by professional organisations in a particular field. Some are run by groups of academics (usually through a publisher of some kind.) Some journals have been around for centuries, some are very recent. Some make their work readily available for anyone to read, many are restricted to subscribers or specific database collections.

Academic publishing is weird (and depends a lot on the subject/discipline) and that is beyond the scope of this commentary. Basically, remember that there’s a lot of prestige and status stuff at play here.

Finances can also be weird. Some academic journals run on subscription costs. Others require authors to pay fees if their article is published. But the people writing articles and reviewing them normally are not paid at all.

Editors are also usually not paid as a full time job, though there are some exceptions for very large high-reputation journals, and some editors may get a modest honorarium. Much more commonly people (established faculty at universities) do it because allows them access to the latest work in the field, boosts their academic reputation, and because service to the field is one factor for tenure or promotion.

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What is peer review?

Let’s start with the basics. The peer review process is basically this:

1) Someone writes an article.

It could also be multiple someones: multiple author articles are common in the sciences, and vary a lot in the humanities.

2) They send the article to likely journals in their field.

At the early stages in one’s career, the prestige of those journals matters a whole lot, so you want the best-perceived journals you can get your stuff into. (Sometimes journals will also solicit an article, if they know there’s something interesting going on.)

3) The editor of the journal sends it for peer review.

In non-technical terms, that means “The editor sends the article to other people in the field to read to see if it’s any good.” If it’s a big field, these are probably people in the same subfield. If it’s a small field, it may be people who know the field well, but not the details of the subfield.

(For example, you might have a reviewer who focuses on the same general area of the world in your field, but not the same time period. or the same time period but not the same area. Or the same time and place, but they might be in a different discipline – history versus anthropology, for example. Some journals are multi-discipline, or encompass a wide range of times and places.)

The reviewers are generally anonymous at the time, but may not stay that way – in some fields, it’s really easy to tell who gave comments on your work because of what they said, or by knowing who generally does review work for that particular journal. You know how people on the internet can spot someone’s sock-puppet account, or a pseudonymous account belonging to someone whose writing they know well? It’s like that.

As you can tell by my saying ‘reviewers’ here, there is more than one – usually two or three.

4) The reviewers look at the work, and make comments on it.

Sometimes these are “Go ahead and publish this!” Sometimes it’s “This is basically good, but these things need fixing first.” (usually referred to as ‘revise and resubmit’) Sometimes it’s “There’s something good in here, but it needs a lot of work” and sometimes it’s “This thing should not be published, and I don’t think it’s redeemable.”

This does not mean the reviewers agree with the work. When the system works right, it basically means that the reviewers look at the article and research, the methodology, the results, whatever’s relevant, and agree that it’s usefully done research, there aren’t major flaws in the methods, and that it’s worthwhile for other people to see this.

However, this is a system that involves people, and people are pretty much inherently imperfect. There have been situations where there have been blocks of reviewers supporting each other’s works (even when those works are flawed). There have been reviewers with grudges (sometimes for the author, sometimes for the author’s dissertation advisor, sometimes for that line of theory in the field) who will trash a work because of those reasons, not the work’s merit. And so on.

When we got comments back on the article I helped write, one of our reviewers sent back a couple of sentences that basically said “This isn’t something anyone’s talked about before, great! It should be published” and the other reviewer sent back about a page of notes and corrections. Some of those were “You should use this term” when the term they said isn’t used in our field (and we said, politely “No, the correct term for our field is X”), some were corrections that helped make things more clear, and one was a thing that could be a whole different article, and we pointed that out.

5) If the reviewers approve it, then it eventually gets published.

Note that ‘eventually’ can take a while – it’s quite common for there to be a year or two between submission and publication in the humanities (and some journals only come out once a year, or every six months). In the meantime, other things may happen in the field. Once an article comes out, then other academics may respond to it in various ways (building on it, critiquing it, whatever.)

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Pre-tenure vs post-tenure

Where an academic is in their professional life makes a difference.

One of the reasons for tenure is that it’s supposed to encourage more academic freedom, because the academic has the security to explore ideas that may not lead to immediate results or new understanding, or they may be free to explore new/less orthodox/whatever methods, or they may take more risks.

But before someone gets tenure – whether that’s because they’re in a tenure-track job but don’t have tenure yet, or they’re a visiting professor (generally a 1-2 year contract) or they’re teaching a couple of adjunct classes (generally assigned on a semester basis), or they’re at the increasing number of colleges and universities that are moving away from tenure, there’s a lot of pressure to produce research and demonstrate productivity, but at the same time, a need to not make too many waves.

This is complicated, obviously.

This does mean that what someone focuses on before they get tenure (if they do) tends to be things that fit comfortably within the current scope of the field. They may well do new interesting research, but it’s probably of a kind where everyone looks at it and goes “Well, that’s a fascinating new thing about Etruscan basket-weaving” but there’s nothing that completely upsets the field’s apple cart about it.

What happens after tenure – well. More complicated. Some people keep doing more of the same: solid research in the field that is useful but not provocative.

Some people take the security of tenure and spread out, and do interesting things that give them more room to explore. Or they work on projects that are interesting to them, but harder to explain to a tenure committee. Or are in a less sexy and heavily desirable part of their field. (These are all, I think, good things.) Such articles may be heavily challenged, but that may mean they’re doing something new and exciting, not that they’re bad.

(The best widely known example I can think of here is Hildegard von Bingen. The early research on her was basically “Yeah, she wrote some interesting stuff, but her music is horrible, it’s not like anything anyone else was doing.” It took several decades before research in English got around to “She’s doing something new that is really awesome, but not like anything else anyone was doing we know about.”)

Some people go and do something very much not like what they did before. Sometimes this is awesome: they start researching bits of the field that would have been impossible to do before tenure, because they focus on things (including religious belief, which I’ll be coming back to!) that would make it hard to get material published in the journals they needed before tenure.

Sometimes they go totally off the rails and do very odd things, attack the institution, other academics, etc. for what appears to be no good reason. (There are several cases of this kind I can think of off the top of my head. They tend to get very messy, and they often include the sort of incoherent ranting that one sees in the less savoury portions of the Internet, but with fewer amusing gifs.)

It is often not easy to tell which of these things a particular article is without more context.

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The question of admitting personal religious belief

As I mentioned in the previous section, academics are under a lot of pressure on the tenure track. While you’re establishing yourself in a field (and particular in academia which is full of Very Opinionated People), you probably don’t want to run the risk of annoying large swaths of them.

You don’t know who’s going to be on your tenure committee, precisely (the standard time frame to tenure is about 6 years: people change jobs, die, deans change, etc in that time). You don’t know who’s going to be asked to review your work at whatever journals. You don’t know who’s going to read your work, and send a pointed note to someone in your department, or on your tenure committee. There is, in short, a lot of benefit and reason to be careful which stones you overturn, and which sacred cows you tilt at, to mix my metaphors.

Religion is a very complicated topic. And not just for Pagans.

A fair portion of academia is somewhere between ‘religion is a superstition and people who take it seriously are not to be trusted as academics’ and actively anti-religious. There’s another sizable portion who think that going to church on Sunday is a nice way to make social connections, but heaven forbid you actually believe any of it. Another fairly substantial portion thinks it’s something that one can do privately, but shouldn’t ever appear to impact your work at all. Another substantial portion is fine with their variant of religion, but not at all sure about anything else.

(My father was an academic, and also quietly very religious. My mother has been extremely active in every religious community she’s been a part of as an adult. The negative or just dismissive comments they both got at various points about this are not few in number.)

So. If you’re working on Pagan-related subjects and you might actually have some of those beliefs, what does this mean for you? It means that as soon as you start talking about religion, about what you believe (or whether you believe anything), you are immediately affecting your chances for hiring (anywhere but your current job) or tenure.

A lot of people in this position choose to keep their heads down and not write about the religious aspects (or bring their personal opinions anywhere near their writing.) For very very good reason. (It is amazingly hard to get academic jobs these days: anything that raises questions about you probably knocks you out of the running, because there are so many candidates, unless you’re truly a superstar in your field or can bring something unusually special to the table.)

Sometimes people will open up more after tenure – but even after tenure, being seen as overtly religious can have an impact on your professional career, how people in your department or institution react to you, what journals you’re invited to review for, what conferences you’re invited to participate in. People make various choices about which bits of this matter to them. (And this is without getting into the question of people who work at a college or university that is affiliated with a particular religion, even the more easy going sorts.)

So, what this means is that if you’re reading a particular article, you basically don’t know what they believe about the personal religious aspects of whatever they’re writing about unless they’ve explicitly said. They may be treating the topic as a pure academic field. They may be writing about it as an academic, but their choice in topic is influenced by their personal experience.

This isn’t that different from other fields: some people go into a particular line of medicine because they have major personal experiences with a disease or a particular population. Some people get into political or historical research because of particular personal experiences. However, both of those tend to be more socially acceptable to share broadly in academia than religion is.

Likewise, when they’re writing about a religious community, they may be very careful to write only about the parts which have academic and research backing, and leave out their personal experiences, even where those are not unreasonable points to share (You see this with criticism of Ronald Hutton, for example, who has been pretty consistent in writing for the academic genre with all its expectations, even when there’s probably more places he could extend things.)

Or, finally, they may be explicit about their beliefs and their reasons for interest to some degree (how detailed people are varies.) However, you can pretty much bet that this is the minority, and for every person in a general field who admits to personal religious interest, there’s probably a good handful more who have interest but do not disclose it in their academic work (or anywhere someone might find it by casual searching.)

As noted in the originating thread, this is something that varies by field – people doing academic work on religion are, for example, more likely to locate their own beliefs or practices as part of their writing. People working in sociology might. People working in history or literature or similar fields might or might not.

You may also want to read my essay on evaluating an academic article.

Last edited December 25, 2016

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