Flourish: An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers
April-May 2010

vol. 6, no.3

Yes, it’s true, for the first time I have not sent an issue of Flourish for a couple of months. In the past I have sometimes skipped one month, but this is the first time in five years of writing monthly issues of Flourish that I’ve skipped two months, the last issue came out at the end of February. The reasons for this are two pieces of good news, but good news with implications for Flourish.

First, I was fortunate enough to receive the Fulbright US Scholar Award to conduct research in Ethiopia next academic year. I will be leaving for Ethiopia in early September and returning to the United States in July 2011. I’m ecstatic at this chance to spend significant time in the country that meant so much to me as a girl, when my family lived there for three years.

I am going to be studying four things that most people don’t believe exist: (a) African texts written before 1950, indeed in the 1600s, (b) in an African language dating to the first millennium BCE, (c) in an African Christian church that long predates all forms of European Christianity, (d) about and perhaps even by powerful African women leaders, including some who lead a successful nonviolent movement against European imperialism. In particular, I will be focusing on “our holy mother Walatta Petros,” perhaps the first African woman to have a biography devoted to her, a book at the very least co-constructed by African women.

Second, I submitted a revised version of my dissertation to Oxford and received three reviews recommending publication. However, one reviewer recommended that I cut half the book out, the medieval and early modern sections. Although at first it was difficult to hear, when I steeled my courage and resolved to do it, I found that the massive cuts solved all sorts of problems. The title is currently (long-time readers know how often I change titles before publication) Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author. I am going to spend the summer revising and hope to send it back to Oxford by September.

Unfortunately, both of these pieces of news have implications for Flourish. Although I may have better internet access in Ethiopia than I anticipate, it will not be regular access. I hope to spend significant time in the countryside, not in the capital Addis Ababa. And this summer I’ve got to focus on finishing the revision of my book.

I can’t bring myself to say that Flourish will thus be discontinued, but at the very least it will be irregular for at least a year. One way of sustaining Flourish would be to have others write some of the issues over the next year. Therefore, if anyone is interested in writing an issue or two of Flourish, please let me know and I’ll give you some guidelines on the format. I think it would be great to have some other voices, so please don’t be shy. Many of you tell me that you depend on Flourish as part of your writing process, so writing an issue would be a way of giving back.

Writing Peer Reviews

If writing journal articles is arcane, reviewing an article for a peer-reviewed journal is even more so. The best article on the topic is perhaps still “How I Referee” by D. A. Pyke, the former editor of the British Medical Journal. So, here are several tips.

First, be prompt. It is better to write a one- or two-page review in three weeks than a ten-page review in six months. You want to do a good job, but the value of a great review over a so-so review diminishes over time. As Pyke says, “It doesn’t take any longer to read the paper today than in a fortnight.”

Second, assume that the author is going to read your words without emendation. Don’t assume that the editor will pretty them up to salve the author’s ego. For this reason, start with praise and only then offer criticisms and recommendations for improvement. And don’t take advantage of the anonymity. As Pyke warns, “Your opinion may be confidential but write it in such a way that if it were published [with your name] you might be embarrassed but not ashamed.”

Third, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the article, but do not offer a decision on publication in the body of the peer review. It is the editor’s (tough) job to tell authors that something is not ready for publication. So, when you submit the review by email or electronically, provide a separate cover letter to the editor stating your recommendation about publication (minor revise and resubmit, major revise and resubmit, reject). When you are deciding what to recommend, Pyke advises that “If in doubt, add a bias in favor of recommending publication. A borderline paper published is not a sin, but a reasonable paper rejected is a shame. The temptation is for the referee to be superior and advise rejection. It should be resisted. The purpose of … journals is to convey information, not to block it.”

Writing Workbook

Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks continues to sell well and receive positive reviews. CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries (September 2009) gave it a “highly recommended”; and it was praised in The Academic Author (April 2010); Reference & Research Book News (May 2009) and, as previously noted, Journal of Scholarly Publishing (January 2010). I have also received an offer from a Mexican academic publisher to translate the workbook into Spanish for the Latin American market.