So You Want to Publish an Academic Article: 5 Essential Things to Keep in Mind

By Mika Kennedy
Visiting Assistant Professor of English
Kalamazoo College

Anthony Lioi

So you want to publish an academic article. You’re in good company! Last August, ASLE graduate students gathered in Zoom University’s palatial quad to begin demystifying academic publishing in the humanities. Joining us was Dr. Anthony Lioi, a Professor of Liberal Arts and English at The Juilliard School, and one of the editors-in-chief of Resilience: A Journal of Environmental Humanities

Here are my 5 top takeaways on the theory and praxis of article-writing, according to Ant:

1. Know your audience; own your argument.

Writing a journal article may seem like uncharted waters, but really, it’s a variation on a theme. The advice you learned in your first-year composition class (whether it’s the one you took or the one you teach!) still applies, because writers at different levels of experience tend to manifest similar issues as their writing becomes more complex.

You might be familiar with the foundational composition text, They Say, I Say, which frames writing as the process of entering into a dialogue with other writers and thinkers. What distinguishes your voice from another scream into the void is the “So what?”–that is, your ability to explain why your contribution to the conversation is important.

This is where a lot of first-time article submissions go wrong. Ultimately, it’s a question of knowing your audience: A journal article is not a seminar paper; it does not need to declare its fealty to the idea of the seminar. It is not a dissertation chapter; it does not require the author to demonstrate their mastery of the conversation to that point. This is assumed, unless proven otherwise. 

What editors and readers of an academic journal want to know is what your own idea is, and how it is in conversation with the rest of the superorganism. Ideally, they want it in that order, and in that hierarchy. What they don’t want is 6-7 pages summarizing the details and exigencies of the concept of the Anthropocene before it’s apparent why you’re talking about it in the context of your own argument. Ask yourself:

  • Is my voice as a writer and thinker in the foreground of my own writing? 
  • Do I understand why my idea is important, and can I articulate it so people know why they should care?

2. Take peer review as a form of success.

You’ve probably made and failed enough New Year’s Resolutions to know that “publish a journal article” isn’t a SMART goal. Rather, you know it cerebrally; if you’re like me, you’re still struggling to accept it emotionally. The “publish or perish” adage makes it difficult not to see in tunnel-vision. In that tunnel, peer review lurks in the darkness as an obstacle to overcome, a roadblock en route to success. But here’s Ant’s take: Receiving peer review is already a form of success. Publication is not the only goalpost you should aim for; and at the level of the idea, and your growth as a scholar, it may not even be the most important one.

Let’s back up a bit. When you submit your work to a journal, the editors will give it an initial read in order to determine whether it is appropriate to consider further. This will result in either a desk rejection, or it will be sent out for blind peer review. Regardless of what comes of this peer review (rejection, revise & resubmit, the mythic accept without revision), the process will result in feedback, and feedback is dialogue. Feedback is success.

The goal of the peer review process is to draw out the assertiveness of your idea, whether that means putting it in conversation with additional scholarship, refining its terms or applications, or structuring your writing to better support it. It’s about “what we as the audience can learn from you as a colleague, peer, or teacher,” Ant said. Remember that peer review is a productive act in itself, not evidence of failure. Because scholarship is not about universal consensus! If an idea were met with universal consensus, it wouldn’t need to be written in the first place. Remember that disagreement is interesting and productive. 

3. Heed the clock, but don’t let your work be ruled by it.

The length of time it takes to publish a journal article varies by journal. For Resilience, the acceptance-to-publication pipeline takes 2-3 years. For other journals, publication can take as long as 5 years, or as little as 6 months. This might sound harrowing, particularly if you’re coming up on a career milestone that desperately needs the CV line, such as a job market season or tenure review. While the temporality of publishing is outside of any one person’s ability to control, there are some things you can control. 

Once you’ve had an article accepted at a journal, for example, you’re completely within your rights to ask the managing editor what their expected publication timeline is. If it does not align with yours, you can withdraw your article and take it elsewhere. Make sure you do this as early as possible in the process, however. This is not a time to hold your tongue and wonder!

Also know that even in situations that “desperately need” the CV line, a rushed and half-baked piece of scholarship will not serve you, even if that rushed and half-baked piece of scholarship gets published. If your peer reviewers recommend substantive changes, for example, it’s in your best interest to seriously consider their advice first, rather than immediately shopping your article around to different journals until you find one happy to take it as-is. You are in charge of the footprint of your scholarship; make sure it’s something you want to put your name behind.

4. Align your publishing effort with your values.

The degree to which “publish or perish” describes your job (or prospective job) depends on the type of institution it’s affiliated with. If it’s at an R1 institution, that pressure will likely be quite high. At a more teaching-oriented school, publishing pressure may be less. Ant was emphatic about noting, however, that this doesn’t mean one of these situations has less pressure–it means the pressure is differently apportioned across research, teaching, and service. Ask yourself: 

  • What kinds of pressure am I under? 
  • How can I meet these expectations while maintaining my well-being, and doing work I find valuable? 

To answer these questions, you’ll need to know where your personal priorities lie. Ant spent three years on the job market, first landing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Early in his career there, he received a shocking teaching review: “You’re teaching a great class,” he was told, “and that’s a problem.” It was a problem, because research was king, and if you’re teaching is that good, it means your research isn’t getting enough of your attention (i.e. all of it). Good teaching was for after tenure.

“This offended me,” Ant told us. He left MIT, and was lucky to get another job that better aligned with the types of pressure he preferred and valued. The Juilliard School is a conservatory, so his publication history doesn’t count toward promotions or tenure, but he’s since published in a wide array of journals; he also published an academic monograph in 2016, and has another on the way.

5. Know that we’re not done yet.

“I want everything to be open source,” said Ant, when asked what he hoped to see in the future of academic publishing. He wants everything to be open source and digital. These two things would reduce time to publication; it would allow scholarship to be seen and taken up faster; it would keep costs down (with no print edition); and would offer more chance of equal access to work being done. 

Ant wants to see more opportunities to publish, especially for junior scholars. One of our group noted that a prominent journal in their field had a de facto two-tier publishing system, where any given issue would publish 6-7 book reviews written by graduate students, and 4 articles, generally written by senior scholars. Why not move the book reviews elsewhere and use the pages gained to publish more articles? Even in the world of digital journals, the form is at a crossroads. Often, publishers still hew to character limits–artifacts of a fully print era, even as the digital form should all but release a publication from such constraints. And it’s not about publishing the slushpile: There is more good work being produced and submitted than can be published. Digital might be a way out of the bottleneck. 

Academic publishing is not static. Change is incremental but persistent. For instance early in 2021, the geological sciences announced the birth of three new digital, open-source journals, joining their sibling, Volcanica. While submitting your first journal article won’t change the face of academic publishing on its own, we can still imagine new and better futures by getting creative about pushing your work in multiple forms! Write the article, but maybe you also want to put together the Podcast segment, or present your ideas at a virtual conference. Maybe that conference results in a YouTube video you can then continue to share and circulate. Grow laterally–get your idea seen by as many potential interlocutors as you can. From peer review to publication, remember: It’s all about the dialogue. 

Coming up next

On Friday, February 26, 2021, from 1-2PM EST, ASLE is hosting another workshop with Dr. Anthony Lioi, where he will be discussing Letters to the Editor, and how to harness the form to influence local and regional politics. The workshop is free, but pre-registration is required: