The ‘publish or perish peril’ is a struggle that all early-career researchers and academics (ECRs henceforth) face. There is bountiful literature and advice on how ECRs should strategize their publishing efforts, deal with critical peer reviews, improve on their writing style or to seek journals that are more suitable to publish in. These pieces of advice often place the agency of publishing (and publishing prolifically) on ECRs. What I hope to contribute here is perhaps a perspective that examines how the motivations to publish can sometimes be met with external pressures and resistance beyond the control of ECRs.
This blog post will discuss three external factors influencing early career academics’ publication practices and some of the struggles that we face when publishing. This is based on my personal experiences and my earlier research interviewing academics working in applied linguistics and related fields in British universities.
In my research interviews with other ECRs, I realised that many do struggle with what I term as disciplinary positioning—how to position one’s research and oneself in relation to the discipline. Very often, in seeking employment, this question invariably comes up: Is this ECR enough of a linguist or historian or sociologist…etc? This depends to some extent on the kinds of publications that they had on their CV. One of my interviewees was Alf (pseudonym), an ECR who recounted his rejected job application because that particular department had perceived him as “not enough of a linguist” (Hah, 2020). In Alf’s case, he had published prolifically not just in linguistics but in other fields as well, which he attributed as a reason for being perceived as not having a sufficiently “well-defined research programme” to be recognised as suitable by that particular department.
Sometimes getting published also depended on institutional evaluation or research evaluation exercises. Researchers- sometimes senior ones- have reported having to publish in certain journals over others because they needed to have research output that falls under one REF panel over another. They have shared that they needed to alter their styles of writing, and of course the larger questions they write about in order to fit in with a journal. To some extent, peer reviewers and journal editors act as gatekeepers on what constitutes the kind of ‘disciplinary positioning’ that are suited for the journal. In my earlier research, I had interviewed an ECR, Jodie (pseudonym), who candidly shared her reasons for shifting to a new field because she found it easier to get published in “theoretically less guarded” fields (Hah, 2019). Jodie’s struggle was not unique and several other academics have shared common sentiments. I suppose this has to do with different fields and disciplines have different understandings of what constitute better data and what are more valid ways of working with data.
While it may sound like an excuse or poor self-discipline, the immediacy of teaching and dealing with students often take precedence over doing research and writing up publications. Furthermore, it is often the case that those hired to teach are remunerated only for teaching. Yet, research and publishing output remains the bastion of academic productivity, and this is reinforced by institutional appraisal and hiring mechanisms. That is, ECRs need to exhibit research productivity in visible forms such as publications, talks and funding successes in order to be seen as research-active and for better employment prospects. Thus, the stakes for publishing are invariably high for ECRs.
In his book about writing in the social sciences, Becker reminded readers that it is not a personal defect if one is unsuccessful in publishing (Becker, 2008). Amidst the pressures and anxieties to publish, I suppose this is apt reminder for all ECRs.
Becker, H. S. (2008). Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article. University of Chicago Press.
Hah, S. (2019). Disciplinary positioning struggles: Perspectives from early career academics. Journal of Applied Linguistics & Professional Practice, 12(2), 144-165.
Hah, S. (2020). Valuation discourses and disciplinary positioning struggles of academic researchers—A case study of ‘maverick’ academics. Palgrave Communications, 6(1), 51. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-0427-2