By Phil Emmerson, Managing Editor: Academic Publications (RGS-IBG)
‘Publishing’ is a fundamental part of academic life. Lots of many academics’ time is spent thinking about publications, writing publications, or indeed thinking about writing publications (often whilst doing other more mundane tasks). The reasons for this are manifold. Publishing is key to communicating research, a core part of being an academic. It is also an important means through which academics gain jobs and get promotions. Many academics also simply love carefully crafting their ideas into a well-honed and evidenced argument, and I suspect the buzz of having something published never really leaves you, no matter how long you have been in the game.
Yet for many postgraduates, the process of publishing remains a bit of a mystery. Worse still, it can seem like something that is far away or that other people do, and that is too hard to even try. Well I’m here in part to tell you that it’s not far away, and to unveil some of the hidden elements in order to make the whole process feel a little clearer and a little closer to home. In this first of three blog posts on academic publishing, I am going to cover the basics of academic publishing, broadly framed through questions of what, why, when, where and how (although discussion of the last of these will be brief, given it is also the focus of the next blog).
What is academic publishing?
This might seem like a really simple question but it’s important to note that academic publishing is its own beast. It is different to say writing newspaper articles and opinion pieces, writing policy reports, writing grant applications, fiction or creative non-fiction for instance, all of which many academics do as well. By academic publishing, I am talking specifically about writing academic journal articles and/or books. (Mostly I will concentrate on journal articles here, but books share lots of similarities.)
There are similarities with other types of writing, but academic publishing also has its own distinct processes and approaches. One difference is that your writing will likely be peer reviewed, a system whereby experts in your field will assess and comment on your work, often asking you to make changes and clarifications. This is often done ‘double-blind’, so the reviewer won’t know who you are and vice versa, you won’t know who the reviewer is. This feels unusual until you get used to it.
Another major difference is in the audience for whom you write, which is largely other academics and specialists, rather than ‘the public.’ This means that your writing will likely be more detailed and technical than it might otherwise be, but also means you can present more complicated and nuanced information than you would be able to when writing for more general audiences.
I alluded to some of the reasons to publish above. Fundamentally, publishing is a core principle in scientific and scholarly work; it is the primary way in which academics communicate the outcomes of their research and study with one another, and it is therefore at the centre of how knowledge is collectively advanced. In order to take part in this, you have to publish in some form or another and to read the work of others.
Academic publishing is also something of a two-way process, between you and the reviewers/editors, and can therefore be a really productive way to develop ideas. The review process can be tough at times, but it always pushes you to think about your work in new ways and can therefore sharpen up your ideas and make them better. During a PhD in particular, it is always useful to test your work beyond your supervisory team and make sure it’s hitting the mark more widely. And having a paper published or having been peer reviewed can also add a lot of confidence going into your viva.
Publishing is also good for your career, there is no getting away from it. Whether or not you want an academic career or one in another sector, having an academic paper published shows employers a variety of skills: that you are able to grasp complexities, that you have made a valid contribution to knowledge, that you are able to innovate, that you can communicate, and that you can respond to feedback (from peer reviewers) in a timely and satisfactory way.
In academic careers specifically, your publications also often act as a form of ‘capital’. They are things that recruiters and grant assessors will look at when deciding between candidates. Your publications will also contribute to audit systems such as the UK Research Excellence Framework and may be used as criteria for promotion later down the line.
None of this is to say that you have to publish during your PhD; nor that you won’t get an academic job if you do not publish. Successful academics begin to publish at all sorts of stages in their careers and the trick is therefore being confident in your plan of when to publish.
When to publish?
There is no easy answer to this question; people will publish at different times and it depends on the structure of your research, what area of geography you work in, your work (and other) priorities and commitments, and your approach to academic life more broadly. Many people publish during their PhD (perhaps reworking one of their empirical chapters) but many do not until afterwards. Some people produce their PhD ‘by publication’ which means they will publish throughout and then parcel up these publications into a document for examination. What is key is that you have something to say.
There are a number of different kinds of article (see below), however, generally speaking, you will be in a position to publish a research article once you have a clearly defined argument to make which can be backed up by your research. You might instinctively know that you are ready to write a paper, but if you are unsure, your supervisors or mentors will be able to guide you. Sometimes, the opportunity will present itself fairly naturally, such as through an invitation to contribute a paper to a special issue or a chapter to a book, which might come about following a workshop or conference.
Overall therefore, my main advice would be to publish when it works for you, and don’t worry too much about what others are doing. It’s very easy to compare yourself with others who have published when you haven’t, but do know that in many cases they will only have published because their particular circumstances allowed them to, not because they are any better than you are.
Where to publish?
Another tricky question, because there are a lot of ‘it depends’ involved. The first of these is that it depends on the kind of article you want to write and who you want to read it. There are lots of different formats for articles (too many to cover here) but in geography we typically see the following:
- Research articles: what we might think of as a ‘normal paper’, in which the results of some research are presented with a discussion about their significance set in the context of previous research
- Review articles: papers that survey the most recent literature in a topic or theme, usually also presenting some form of argument
- Book Reviews: appearing in fewer journals (often online instead), these are short pieces that provide a critical review of a recently published book. (These are often seen as a good first publication because they are short and generally more lightly reviewed)
- Special or Themed issues: collections of papers on the same topic, usually brought together by invite of a guest editor
- Commentary: Short pieces that make a smaller academic argument or comment about an issue or paper that has been discussed in the journal
There are also many other formats associated with different journals, such as the ‘Themed Interventions’ in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, ‘Ethics in and of Geographical Research’ in Area, and the Data and Digital Humanities papers in Geo: Geography and Environment.
Not all journals publish all of these kinds of papers, so you also need to think about which journal you will write for. All journals also have their own specific ‘remits,’ so you will need to consider whether and how your paper will fit into specific journals. In the same vein, you will want to think about who reads each kind of journal, and therefore who you want to you’re your paper.
Some journals have a remit based on an area of the sub-discipline. Good examples of this are Economic Geography, Cultural Geography, Quaternary Science, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, and at broader scales Progress in Physical Geography and its ‘sister journal’ Progress in Human Geography.
Other journals, such as the four RGS-IBG journals or Geography Compass cover the whole of the discipline but set their remits and core strategies in slightly different ways. A description of these remits can usually be found in the Author guidelines on the journal’s website. Using the Society’s journals as an example for instance:
|Area publishes ground-breaking research and scholarship from across the field of geography. Publishing concise 5,000-word papers, Area is an outlet for new debates and original ideas from both established and emerging scholars.||The key elements of this remit are the short word length of papers and the fact that Area is supportive of new researchers, something that makes it a very popular outlet for PhD students and ECRs. (Area also offers a prize each year for the best paper published by an ECR)|
|Geo: Geography and Environment is a fully open access international journal which publishes high quality research articles, review papers, data and digital humanities papers from across the spectrum of geographical and environmental research.||The key elements of this remit are the fact that Geo is fully open access (all papers are free to read by anyone – more on this in blog number 3) and that it works across the spectrum of geographical and environmental work. In practice Geo is a really good home for interdisciplinary work between these two areas.|
|The Geographical Journal welcomes papers that make a major, theoretical, conceptual and/or empirical contribution to the advancement of both geography and ideas pertaining to ‘public relevance’.||Here the key words are major contribution and ‘public relevance’. This means the Geographical Journal is specifically seeking papers that engage with ongoing issues (big or small) and key policy questions.|
|Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers papers should stimulate and shape research agendas in human or physical geography and/or showcase the contribution of geographical research to advancing knowledge within and beyond the discipline.||‘Stimulate and shape research’ agendas are the key elements of this, alongside ‘advancing within and beyond the discipline.’ Transactions in this sense looks for those papers that will ultimately change the field of geography and wider debate in some way. This is a relatively high bar but in no way beyond the task of a PhD student, with many PhDs making exactly this kind of contribution to the discipline, and many publish in TIBG.|
In choosing where to publish then, you need to weigh up all of these factors together. If you are unsure if your planned paper will fit with a journal, email the editor and ask. They will not be able to tell you whether it will likely be accepted, but they will certainly tell you if it sounds like the right kind of paper for the journal and it fits the journal’s remit.
How to publish?
Once you have chosen what to write about and where you want to submit it, you will need to write the article. You can do this alone if you are writing about your research, or you might want to team up with your supervisor, or someone else who has a similar research interest and write the article together.
When writing the paper, it’s always important to check the author guidelines carefully. Different journals have different word-lengths, different stipulations on how many headings and figures you are allowed, and different referencing styles. As such, knowing what these criteria are before you write the article can save you a lot of work later down the line.
It’s also worth getting people to read and comment on papers that you write before you submit them, so that they can help you to refine points and arguments and check for areas where you might include better wording. I also personally like to leave a short gap (a week or two) between ‘finishing’ a paper and finally submitting it. This allows you to look at it with fresh eyes for one final time before sending to the editors.
The question that immediately follows then, is how to submit the paper? This will be the subject of the next blog, which will cover the details of submission systems and what to do with reviewers’ comments when you receive them.
For more information on publishing, please see the RGS-IBG’s “Publishing and getting read: A guide for researchers in Geography” (2017), available for digital download here.
About the Author: Dr Phil Emmerson is the Managing Editor for Academic Publications at the RGS-IBG. He completed a PhD at the University of Birmingham in 2018, where he also worked as a Teaching Fellow in Human Geography until 2019. Phil has published academic papers in Cultural Geographies, Environment and Planning A, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, and Area.