Thursday, September 21, 2006

Some Reflections on Publishing

Now that I am somewhat settled in Oxford I have a chance to post something on the blog. Oxford is a beautiful city and the weather these past 2 weeks has been great.

I have had a few conversations with people here about the upcoming RAE that will take place in the UK in 2008 (see ). And this has motivated me to write this brief post on academic publishing.

My first three academic appointments were in UK departments and thus the RAE played a formative role in shaping the publication strategies I pursued in the early stages of my career. Since leaving the UK in 2003 I have been in a tenure-track position in Canada (though now I am back in the UK for this year). There are many parallels between the two systems but there are also important differences. So I offer some thoughts on publishing which might be useful to those considering a job in academia or those in the early stages of their academic career.

The motto “publish or perish” is very much alive in the competitive academic job market. From the pressures of the RAE (in the UK) to those of landing that first job, getting tenure and applying for promotion, academics must continuously give serious consideration to implementing an effective publication strategy that will permit them to fulfil the important intellectual services they are employed to perform.

Given how important publishing is to academia, those entering the field (recent PhDs and junior faculty) will no doubt want sage advice concerning how best to develop their research programmes. I do not pretend to offer such sage insights. Instead, I offer some reflections on my own experiences (and thus one should take them for what they are worth). Furthermore, I don’t think one can make universal prescriptions on this subject because a lot depends on the
research expectations and culture of one’s institution, discipline and country.

When I worked in the UK between 1999 - 2003 I received explicit advice on what journals and publishers to target so as to maximise the RAE submission of the department. When on the tenure stream in North America this is a bit different. Junior faculty members need to know what the research expectations are for getting tenure in their particular institution and make long-term plans to meet those demands in the years to come. An attractive feature of the tenure system is that you are given a set number of years (e.g. 6 or 7) to develop your research programme. This can be contrasted with the publication expectations with the RAE. In the latter a lot really depends on *when* you enter the job market relative to the next RAE. If the RAE is just 1 year down the road, permanent jobs will most likely go to those who have the necessary number of publications in print before the submission deadline. If you enter the job market immediately after the RAE cycle things will look very different.

The stakes involved in publishing for an RAE submission and for tenure can also be different. If you don’t get tenure you lose your job. If you have a poor RAE submission your whole department suffers in terms of the funding it will receive (and you probably won’t land a permanent job in the first place). So the motto of “publish or perish” will mean slightly different things for those in different countries, disciplines and institutions (e.g. research

Scholars in research institutions will inevitably have to grapple with the difficult issue of weighing the importance of “quantity” of publications with “quality” of publications. For example, is it better for an academic to publish 3 articles on the same specialised topic rather than investing their energies in tackling new problems (with the result that, at least in the short
term, that they might have a lower publication output)? How much weight should be placed on intellectual breadth versus impact of specialisation?

There are no easy answers to these kinds of questions. And the weight placed on these different variables will no doubt depend on *who* is asking these questions (i.e. the academic her or himself, a tenure or hiring committee, etc.) Departments, administrators, and individual scholars will have different (in some cases conflicting) visions of what the priorities of higher education
are and thus what research is important /outdated/ irrelevant/ ill- conceived / “pie in the sky”, etc.

From the perspective of the academic her or himself, I don’t think it is wise to attempt to answer these questions purely (or even primarily) by considerations of career advancement. Rather the answers should come via reflections on one’s own intellectual curiosity and their determination of what research is the most important for them to invest their finite time and energies in. Ideally, an academic’s intellectual aspirations and judgement will cohere with the likely judgements of those charged with evaluating an academic's performance. But of course we do not live in an ideal world. So a prudent scholar will give due consideration to the constraints they face in the real life of academia (e.g. time constraints imposed by tenure, the RAE, etc.).

One useful source which academics can utilise when contemplating where to publish their work is the ISI Web of Knowledge Journal Citation Reports (subscription needed) which ranks the impact of journals by discipline (e.g. Political Science, Law, etc.) and specialisation (e.g. Ethics, etc.). These rankings are of course controversial and should be taken with a grain of salt, but it is important (especially for junior scholars) to be aware of them.

Knowing the impact factor of a journal can be very useful. The primary goal of publishing is the dissemination of knowledge. And publishing in a high impact journal will help optimise the dissemination of one’s work. The impact factor and rankings of the journals fluctuate from year to year. Here are the impact ratings for the top journals listed in the ISI category for “Ethics”:

Rankings in Ethics (with impact factor):

1. American Journal of Bioethics 2.50
2. Hastings Center Report 1.70
3. Bioethics 1.37
4. Journal of Medical Ethics 1.31
5. Philosophy and Public Affairs 1.24
6. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 0.82
7. Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 0.81
8. Ethics 0.80
9. Business Ethics Quarterly 0.78
9. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 0.78

The internet itself is also a great tool and can help researchers get a realistic sense of what the publication output of their peers is. Take a look at the web pages of junior academics in your field hired in institutions you would like to work at (or those recently tenured or promoted to full professor, etc.). How much have they published? Where have they published? Google them
and see what comes up. Are they presenting at important conferences you should consider presenting at? How much teaching experience do they have? Perhaps they have applied for research grants that you should also consider applying for.

The internet provides us with a multitude of information that can help a junior academic get a sense of where they are in the larger pool of job candidates and the things they need to do to improve their job prospects.