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Flourish: An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers May-June 2007

vol. 3, no. 5

Apologies for missing you all last month! I was traveling and couldn't email. But we are back to regular scheduling now!

Sharing Publication Experiences

A scholar from a non-Western country recently wrote to me about his experiences of not getting an article published. I am grateful to him for taking the time to detail the whole story, which provides several insights and lessons.

In 1983, the scholar wrote an article about agrarian social formation in Marxist thought, trying to clarify his thinking on the subject. He enjoyed writing the article and it became a turning point in his intellectual development. Soon the article was annually attracting a wide student audience at his own university, and he thought publishing it in an international journal would be appropriate. Editors seemed to think otherwise.

He first presented the paper to a workshop at a university in England in 1984. When it came time for the editors to select articles for publication in the proceedings of that workshop, however, his paper was not considered. It was too theoretical, they said, and lacked an empirical case from his home country. The editors’ requests for revision did not sit well with the scholar, who was not interested in rewarding the western “obsession with the minute details of the exotic other” or in altering an essay deliberately intended as a theoretical piece. As he puts it so well, “I didn’t appreciate the request to localize an article I believe deserved the label ‘Made in England.’ Maybe I was just violating one of the rules of the ‘International Intellectual Division of Labor,’ whereby ‘local’ researchers must produce empirical case studies while their ‘international’ counterparts assign themselves to theoretical engagement!” He decided that he would submit the article to a journal, not the proceedings.

Due to the heavy teaching load at his underfunded university, it was another ten years before he could fully revise and refine the paper as he wished. In 1996, he submitted the much revised paper to an international journal. The journal editor acknowledged the paper’s receipt and promised to send it to anonymous referees, but never contacted the scholar again and did not publish the article. The scholar speculated that the editors decided that the Marxist topic was out of fashion, despite its clear relevance in his own country. (I speculate that they may have been thoughtless or disorganized!)

The scholar grew discouraged about the possibility of international publication, but in 2001 he read a journal article calling for more attention to his particular topic. Further, the article misread the very text that the scholar had been insisting should be reread with an eye for its complexity. So, in 2002 he submitted the fourth version of his paper to that international journal, using a new title and introduction that referenced the published journal article. Four months later, the scholar received a decision from the editor stating that although the paper was “very well written,” it did not qualify as it stood for publication in their journal, because it was “quite dated and did not link to more recent developments.” The editor’s message was supported by one and a half pages of an anonymous referee’s comments. “That’s the end of that,” the scholar thought.

What can be concluded from this scholar’s experiences? On the one hand, it eloquently proves that power reproduces itself and that international editors can participate in marginalizing scholars. On the other hand, it provides some lessons about what authors can do to improve their chances of publication.

First, the latest, hottest debate in one country can be yesterday’s news in another. Be aware of whether the topic you address in your article is of current international concern. If it isn’t, support your local journals by submitting to them. Regretfully, many universities in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia are now pushing their faculty to publish primarily in international journals. Eventually, such a focus will have a dire effect on the vibrancy of local intellectual debate at those very universities and in those countries. Support your local academic journals, which can do a better job of reflecting and responding to local concerns.

Second, most editors prefer articles that have both a theoretical and an empirical base. They very rarely publish purely theoretical articles, and then usually by someone already famous. Again, this is how power reproduces itself, and there is a fascination with the exotic other behind requests for more "natural resources," but scholars should know that theoretical articles are a tiny fraction of published articles. Almost all editors will reject a social science article without a case study or data.

Third, scholars must cite recent international journal debates and articles in order to be published in international journals. Editors will not publish articles that have dated bibliographies—that is, which lack citations to other scholars’ work published in the past five years. Unfortunately, this presents an almost insurmountable challenge to international scholars at underfunded universities. Finding titles of recent books and articles, much less getting access to the full text of those materials, is a real problem. However, such access has gotten easier in the past year or so, due to several international efforts. Sites like Google Scholar or Google Books or PubMed or Highwire provide access to free full texts. Some sites like Ingenta or ProQuest can at least help you identify articles or dissertations you would like to read, although access to full texts are limited to subscribers. Some sites like JStor are leading initiatives to provide free full-text articles to non-western universities. See also a helpful list of free archives.

Finally, all editors have suggestions for improvement. No editor writes to an author saying, “this is fabulous, please allow us the honor of publishing your magnificent work.” (Well, if you have an example of such, please send it to me!) For someone who is not used to this system of critique, it is easy to get discouraged on first receiving these suggestions. In this instance, the scholar afterwards shared with me the full letter from the final editor and I was surprised to find that, as these things go, it was quite encouraging. The referee made many helpful suggestions and the editor asserted that a return to the topic was timely and warranted. So, I encouraged the scholar to think about revising one more time. After all, few can claim to have published an article after twenty-five years of effort! Certainly, I admire and salute him for his wonderful perseverence so far--that is the real lesson for all of us.

News from the Editor

I had a wonderful time in Sudan, holding my writing workshop with faculty from the and the Afhad University for Women. The participants were extraordinary, doing such interesting research on a number of challenges facing Sudan today. Their dedication is inspiring. I hope to post some video shortly, but until then, you can learn more about the wonderful hotel I stayed at, the Acropole, and Khartoum itself.