The P word – a rant

In Spring 2009 I attended a paper at the Institute of Historical Research, after which I joined the room for dinner. Over wine and pasta a colleague holding editorial posts with a number of journals expressed dismay that my institution and supervisory team had not advised me more forcefully towards publication. He was right. Although I had an idea for an article floating around, I was a second year PhD candidate whose work-in-progress output was restricted entirely to conference papers. Not good.

As the conversation progressed it was suggested that writing reviews was an easy means of familiarising oneself with the process of publication, getting ones name known, and increasing the size of ones library (for free!). I was enthused. The next day I drew up a list of recently published books that fell into my specialist area, and contacted the established publications my colleague had suggested. Within days I received positive replies, and within a week my first book arrived. This was a revelation.

In the days that followed I read two books, collected my thoughts, and submitted a circa 400 word review for each.

To date the established publications in question have published neither of these reviews. By contrast a less established, though innovative and forward thinking journal, published an article of mine within seven months of submission; Reviews in History published an extended review within six months of first contact; and collaborative blogs such as Comics Grid turnaround contributions in a matter of days.

As the numbers of graduate students and early-career scholars swell, a clamour for posts has seemingly put greater pressure on traditional print journals, and especially the established ones, as scholars attempt to flesh out their ‘List of Publications’. One disgruntled scholar has even created a wiki aimed at shaming journals with the farcical time periods some take to even reject a piece submitted to them.

The situation is exacerbated by the attitude of some established scholars towards non-traditional outlets and paths. By way of a personal example, a colleague recently assumed that I had “given up on an academic career” because I was not spending my days writing and applying for jobs/fellowships. He had no appreciation of the job market at present, no sense of the reality of rent, bills et al, and gave little credence to the ‘portfolio career’ I had chosen. No doubt the ‘non-traditional’ places I have chosen to publish by work will suffer the same fate.

Faced with an expansion of communication and terms such as ‘Creative Commons’, the little piece of academia I occupy has to a large extent chosen to board up the windows rather than open itself to fresh ideas. By defining ‘dissemination’ and ‘impact’ as only that which trickles down from scholarly monographs, and not vice-a-versa, the REF has only added to this problem.

All major transitions are hard. This one however seems to have placed peculiar pressures on the postgraduate and early-career researcher, forcing us to choose between investing our time in going along with a outdated system of publication or in exploring new media outlets. Or both. Though I would love the luxury of a spare (and rent-free) 3-4 months to execute my book plan, reality dictates that my attention is focused on those areas where the rewards are diverse and more readily forthcoming. Initiatives such as Press Forward demonstrate that the cogs are in motion, that the profession is lurching uncomfortably into new arenas. Hopefully with humanities scholarship being the big, lumbering ship that it is, these initial lurches will soon translate into some palpable (and unstoppable) momentum.