Abstract - From Unpublishable to Publishable - Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

Writing for Publication: Transitions and Tools that Support Scholars’ Success - Mary Renck Jalongo, Olivia N. Saracho 2016

From Unpublishable to Publishable
Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

There are many persistent myths about writing for publication. Inexperienced authors sometimes hold on to the vain hope that there is a facile way to generate manuscripts that earn positive evaluations from reviewers and editors. It is a common misconception that successful authors generate manuscripts with ease and that their success is attributable to innate talent. Yet, as this chapter documents, highly regarded authors report that writing well is a persistent challenge that demands a considerable investment of time and mental energy. Chapter 2 explains the distinction between ordinary writing and publishable academic writing in terms of voice and style. It uses illustrative examples to clarify these important attributes and includes a variety of activities that assist authors in moving beyond the “writer’s block” stage. The chapter concludes with ethical issues in scholarship, including: intentional and accidental plagiarism, policies concerning simultaneous submissions, and the responsible conduct of research.

Practically everyone is familiar with the “publish or perish” dictum of higher education (Gray & Birch, 2001). The premise is that anyone without an extensive, impressive list of publications will be denied tenure and fired. Yet this is not an accurate portrayal of what actually occurs. Studies have found that approximately half of all doctoral program alumni publish and the majority of those who do first published to a small extent while still enrolled in doctoral studies (Mallette, 2006). In their review of the research literature on publication by faculty, McGrail, Rickard, and Jones (2006) concluded that, rather than being evenly distributed amongst the entire faculty at colleges and universities, a small minority of academics publish a great deal while others publish “just enough” or perhaps not at all. They cite a number of deterrents to publication supplied by academics for failing to write; interestingly, they are quite similar to those given for failing to write the dissertation: lack of momentum, motivation, and confidence as well as the absence of a framework or formal structures to sustain and support writing. Erkut (2002) estimated that 20 % of the faculty produced approximately 80 % of the publications.

Thus, while “publish or perish” may be accurate at major research universities, it generally is less so at many other postsecondary institutions. A more common scenario is that those who are competent in teaching and service activities will retain employment but perpetually remain at the lower ranks, so “publish or languish” might depict the situation more accurately. Either way, the implication is that the impetus to publish resides outside the individual as proverbial rewards and punishments of “carrots and sticks”. Writing for publication is not some onerous expectation inflicted by others on unsuspecting faculty members. The truth is that some combination of teaching, service, and research is a nearly universal and widely understood job description for higher education faculty. Stated plainly, this is the job professors have signed on for and a major reason that they are not found standing in front of a class all day, Monday through Friday. Teaching well is roughly one-third of the role; the other two-thirds are scholarship and service. So, begin with this perspective if you aren’t already there: View publication as an intrinsically motivated professional goal rather than something that is imposed upon you by others. If your graduate program does (or did) not socialize you into the values of scholarship, then it has failed you in a fundamental way. Joining in the professional dialogue of their disciplinary specialization is an important and expected behavior of anyone who claims to be a scholar. If you never contribute your profession through writing, you are no more of a scholar than an armchair quarterback is a professional football player. It is necessary, but not sufficient, for a scholar to be conversant with others’ published work. Unless or until faculty members subject their work to critical review by peers, they have not fulfilled the role of a scholar.

This does not mean, however, that the first piece ever written while still in graduate school is expected to be a seminal work in the field and skyrocket the student to eminence in the field. In fact, having such ambitious (and generally unattainable) expectations too early on can be paralyzing. For those of us who are mere mortals, a “begin early, start small and build” strategy is more likely to be effective. However, it isn’t just the “earlier” part that makes it better, it is the diligent practice and determined attitude, as reflected in self-efficacy beliefs.

Self-efficacy refers to a person’s appraisal of her or his ability to affect outcomes. So, if I have high self-efficacy beliefs as a college instructor, I would agree with a statement such as “I can improve my teaching effectiveness through careful planning.” On the other hand, if I have low self-efficacy beliefs, I would regard teaching effectiveness as attributable to forces outside my control, such as the time of day when the course is scheduled and whether or not I happen to get a “good” group of students.

A professor who had applied for promotion and been denied twice once remarked, “I just keep sending out my manuscripts. After all, you can’t win the lottery without a ticket.” This fatalistic outlook on publishing reflects low self-efficacy beliefs about scholarly writing. Worse yet, because this faculty member attributed success entirely to luck, he did not change the manuscript based on the reviewers’ feedback, thus depriving himself of an opportunity to improve the work and eventually earn acceptance. Contrary to the perspective of this very frustrated professor, writing for publication is more of a meritocracy than a game of chance. The lives of celebrated, highly creative individuals are characterized, not as much by stunning innate talent as by huge investments in deliberate practice (Shavinina & Ferrari, 2004). It is estimated that it takes, on average, at least 17 years of training and preparation to contribute to a field (Duffy, 1998). Most readers of this book would have academic writing experience during 4 years of undergraduate study, 2 years at the master’s level, and possibly four or more during doctoral study; they also would have some years of professional on-the-job training. Yet they still may have a way to go in terms of making published contributions to a field that earn the acceptance of their peers.

Interestingly, even academic authors who have succeeded in publishing their work will sometimes attribute that outcome to good fortune rather than their deliberate effort. They will diminish their work with statements such as, “Just lucky, I guess.” “They must have really needed something on that topic,” or “I really didn’t do that much, my dissertation chair did all of the work.” Part of becoming an academic author is to be realistic about time, effort, expertise, and the nature of the contributions made.

When people inquire about how someone became a writer, they typically are referring to the achievement rather than the process that was used to get there. They don’t want to hear about waking up every day at 4 a.m. to make time to write or that a short editorial was revised significantly 20 times. Accept the fact that, just as the person who wants to see the world devotes far more time to grappling with all of the annoyances associated with travel than to arriving at exotic destinations, academic authors devote much more time in transit to publication than in gathering up accolades for a published work. The celebrated novelist, James Michener, once said “Many people who want to be writers don’t really want to be writers. They want to have been writers. They wish they had a book in print.”