“But What Should I Publish?”
Last year, I posted a series on article writing, offering a method for the novice on how to approach writing an article in six steps. But one of the questions I’ve left a little unanswered is what one should publish early in an academic career. I’ve previously suggested that the primary consideration here is the job market, and that it’s useful to think strategically about what kinds of jobs you’ll be applying for and what kinds of journals exist that would make evident your expertise in those jobs. For example, in cultural anthropology, jobs tend to be posted that call for expertise in particular geographic regions and topical subfield. If you do research in Latin America, there’s the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology and if your work is about medicine, then there’s Medical Anthropology, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, etc. In other disciplines, period can also come into play. But identifying journals isn’t enough — there’s also the question of what, exactly, you should work on publishing, and why.
So, here are two ways to think this through:
The Nagging Anecdote Method
By ‘nagging anecdote’ I mean any kind of case, data, or event that you’ve turned up that continues to be something you think about — maybe without any real resolution. It might be something that you talk with people about when you discuss your research, or just something that sticks out from your research. Probably the reason why the case sticks out for you is because it shows something about your research that’s novel in relation to your field.
The challenge with this method — and probably the reason why the anecdote is nagging at you in the first place — is that you have to figure out what the anecdote actually shows and whether it has any legs. Sometimes an anecdote can be just that: a quirky case, data burp, or event that other people will find kind of compelling to think about. But if it doesn’t actually show much, it’s not worth hitching an article to — it might best to relegate it to a conversational hook. If it does have legs, it’ll be because it helps to show something in relation to existing literature, which is either theoretical or topical.
The next step is to put the nagging anecdote alongside some other, less nagging evidence. So, answer this question: if this nagging case is the exception, what does the rule look like? You might have two or three more normative cases that help the naive reader to understand what the nagging case is of deeper interest. These other, more normative cases might not only be yours — they might be drawn from existing scholarly literature, which might lay the basis for a literature review. If the data is coming from your own research, you might be establishing the broad outline of the evidence that will be the heart of the paper.
The challenge at this point is figuring out what kind of contribution you’re making to your field. It can be modest — your set of data can confirm how widespread a particular set of circumstances are or how common certain outcomes might be. It can also be a much more profound contribution, if the cases you have are really exceptional. In either case, this kind of article really depends on knowing the topical literature well and making an argument that’s based on a shared understanding within your audience of what’s normative in a particular research context.
The Medium-Sized Debate Method
In any field, there are theories that people use to think through their research material. In subfields and area studies, the theories that people are using aren’t usually as macroscopic as they are in the flagship journals in any field. So, for example, in the social study of medicine, ‘medicalization’ is a theory that is widely used, whereas in the discipline of anthropology more generally you have bigger debates around ideas like ‘globalization,’ ‘culture,’ ‘neoliberalism,’ ‘ontology,’ etc. Anyone who has successfully completed their qualifying exams should be able to identify these smaller, subdisciplinary or area-focused debates — it might take a little time, and you might have to go back to your reading lists, but the knowledge is there (and the debates haven’t changed much since you did your exams). It might be worth writing down a list of relevant debates in your areas of study, and then figuring out which ones you have something to say about.
Having something to add to a debate can be really straightforward: you can really focus an article around providing further proof of a concept in a different context than its initial elaboration. You can also argue against a concept by its inability to fit in a particular context. And you can do something in-between, simultaneously accepting a concept and showing how it might need revisions based on a particular set of circumstances (which are the basis of your research). So, to go back to ‘medicalization,’ you can provide an set of examples of it working along the lines that Peter Conrad has elaborated the idea; you can show how it’s not the logic underlying a particular set of circumstances (which is what I try to do in ‘Natural Hegemonies‘); or you can work to extend the concept based on its insufficiency in a particular context (e.g. Adele Clarke et al.’s Biomedicalization).
Once you have a list of potential debates to contribute to, the challenging part is figuring out the right data to match up with those debates, and what this data might show. Probably the safest place to start from is the assumption that your work will confirm whatever theory you’re working with, and you might set about figuring out how it does so. You might get to one of the other positions (let’s call them ‘contradiction’ and ‘complementarity’), but in the beginning, assume that you’re working to confirm the theory.
Break the theory down into its constituent elements. So, to continue the medicalization example, the basic idea is that what was once accepted as natural human experiences are now treated as medical disorders and in need of medical attention. In the case of my research on sleep, sleeping in more than one period was once considered normal, but is now often thought of as insomnia — or, in some cases, narcolepsy. With the categories of insomnia and narcolepsy, particular medications are identified as being helpful, which necessarily involves medical professionals. With treatments being prescribed for individual patients, the medicalization process is complete — although when you take the perspectives of patients into account, the process gets a little upset. This is the basis for an article of mine that could be useful to look at. But, basically, you need to tease apart the theory and then find evidence of yours that matches up with the component parts. This might sound a little schematic, but if you’re really working with a particular theory, this is a good way to demonstrate to your peer reviewers that you know what you’re talking about. It will also help you see whether or not you’re complementing the theory, contradicting it, or confirming it, since a variation in your evidence from any of the theory’s components will be pointing you down either the contradicting or complementing roads…
Finding a journal to send an article like this to should be pretty straightforward: since it’s a theory that emerges from or is particularly relevant to a subdiscipline or area-studies interest, you should be able to identify a journal that fits under one of those rubrics. Before you have the whole manuscript written — but after you have a sense of what it’s going to be about — make sure you take a look at the journal’s submission requirements and to take the time to analyze a model article from the journal you’re planning on sending the article to for review. Taken together, the submission requirements (like word count) and the model article should give you a clear sense of what an article should look like for the journal you’ve identified and how to put it together.
I’m more of a Medium-Sized debate writer than a Nagging Anecdote one; but some Nagging Anecdotes have appeared in my work over the years. More often, I feel like what I write about are pretty modest topics that gently expand theoretical perspectives. But I know a lot of people who are definitely in the Nagging Anecdote camp, and that works just as well.
Whichever route you pursue, forethought is critical: what you don’t want is an article manuscript that has a hard time finding a place to fit. If that’s what you end up with, you’ll need to go back to the manuscript to get it into the right shape for the journal you end up identifying as your first target for peer-review. The more you know about a journal and what its editors are looking for, the better the odds of your work being accepted for publication there. A little upfront research will save you lots of time rewriting to meet the editorial and audience expectations of any journal.
If your article doesn’t make it through peer-review at your first pick journal, don’t get discouraged. Take the peer-reviews into account, do some rewriting, and send it out for review again. Journal articles can take years to find the right editors, peer reviewers, and audience — so, again, knowing the right journals to send things to is critical.