This workshop hosted by Newcastle University’s International Centre for Cultural & Heritage Studies focused on publishing and peer-reviewing for early career researchers. I presented on publishing strategies – how you can make best use of your time to get the most out of your research in the hectic post-PhD years. My slides from the event are here and below are my notes from the session.
“From publish or perish, to publish and thrive”: developing a publication strategy as an ECR
This talk aims to you thinking about how you create a publishing strategy in the later and post-PhD stages in order to make the most of your time, get the best out of your publications, and make yourself employable as you do so.
“Publish or perish” is an oft-cited phrase in academia; you need to publish to get ahead. But there’s a sense of negativity implicit in this phrase, and talk of publishing often imbues a sense of anxiety. So I want to reframe this as “publish and thrive” and suggest that by creating a publishing strategy you can put yourself in control of your publications and, to some extent, your developing career more broadly.
The 3 core things to keep in mind with publication strategy is the balance of:
Quality; quantity; and timing
Framing this is the wider context of academia that you are working within, and particularly the REF: the REF provides both a temporal cycle for publication patterns, and influences how we think about issues of quality and quantity. Related to this, you will also need to be thinking about the end-goal of your PhD/ECR years, which for this talk I’m assuming is a permanent, research & teaching academic job (not, of course, the only option but for the purposes of simplicity this is my focus here). In what follows I start with a brief outline of the REF; then think in more detail about quality, quantity, timing; and finish by outlining how you draw this into a publication strategy – what this looks like and why it’s going to be useful to you.
A brief introduction to the REF
What is the REF?
The REF – Research Excellence Framework – is the system for assessing the quality of research in Higher Education institutions in the UK. It’s used to determine funding distribution to universities from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).
The last round was carried out in 2014, for which the deadline for submissions was the end of November 2013. The assessment evaluated: research outputs (65%); impact (20%); and research environment (15%). “Research outputs” are of most relevance here: these are the pieces of research that every full-time research/R&T academic submits – typically books and journal articles.
A submission for a full-time R/R&T lecturer = 4 outputs; there are discounts for ECRs depending upon number of years in post, and also discounts for factors e.g. maternity leave (see here for more detail on ECR discounts). At this stage the details of the next REF remain uncertain: it is anticipated that it will be in 2020/2021, but issues of who is included, what discounts will be applied, etc remain unspecified at the moment.
What we can fairly safely assume at this stage is that all lecturers in FT, permanent R&T academic post will be expected to be submitted, and therefore hiring committees for these jobs will be looking for candidates who can make a strong submission. It’s therefore important as you start on the job-hunt that you have a broad contextual understanding of the REF, and keep up-to-date with the ongoing developments and discussions as they unfold.
However, because there is so much uncertainty in the HE landscape, the best advice you can take at this moment is not to get too caught up in worrying about the specifics of the next REF determining what you do. The best strategy that you can adopt is:
- to focus on producing the best research that you can in the time available to you;
- aim for fewer, high-quality publications;
Keeping this key message at the core of your publication strategy will serve you well whatever happens in coming years. The issues of quality, quantity and timing outlined below give you a guide for putting this approach into practice.
Quality of research
What counts as a “good” publication? Different types of publication have different merits and uses within your overall publication strategy.
- Monograph – a single-author, substantial (80-100k words) piece of original research; in some arts subjects they considered are the gold standard to aim for irrespective of the REF, whereas in others will be less important. In the REF, monographs were double-weighted to count as 2 outputs in some institutions to account for the relative length of the work, but this was not always the case in some institutions (n.b. as career mobility is likely in the post-PhD years, you need to keep in mind that institutions can have different approaches to the REF submission guidelines).
- Peer-reviewed article – typically 8-10,000 words, an article in a peer-reviewed, well-established journal in your field, also represent a strong core submission.
- Chapter in an edited collection – these are often shorter than an article (typically 5-7000 words) and still peer-reviewed, although this may not be as rigorous a process (often not blind reviewed), and the reach of an edited collection is not always as strong. Opinions on edited collections vary across fields but the length in particular means that they aren’t always the strongest REF submission and shouldn’t be the core focus of your publication profile.
- Book Review – a book review would typically not be long enough (1-2000 words standard) or represent original research to count in the REF; the only exception may be a review essay of c.8000 words in which you review several books and integrate this with original research to make a case for the state of the field, but this is less reliably sound than an article. By all means do book reviews as they are useful in other ways but don’t consider these as significant publications in their own right.
- Edited book – editing a book is not in itself original research unless it is accompanied by a substantial original introductory essay and/or chapter by you, so does not carry the same weight as a monograph for the REF. Editing can have many other advantages but it is a lot of work for the added value to your CV, so think carefully about taking these on and prioritise other forms.
As you create a publishing strategy you will want to think about how you balance publications. The key here is that it’s ok to include different types of publication and publish things that aren’t REFable, but for a strong portfolio your focus should primarily be on articles/monographs and take on other commitments only if you have time.
Quality is also determined/indicated to some extent by where you publish.
Journals: what is “high impact” is not straightforward. Quality can be linked to journal ranking and impact factor; however, the message from REF panellists at recent events I’ve attended is that in the REF peer-review process, the quality of research was fundamental and this did not always correlate with journal ranking. Wherever you publish, peer review is essential. Talk to your supervisor and colleagues about where represents the best fit for your work. <remember also that there are new guidelines on Open Access publication which will factor into journal choice>
Books: with monographs, the key is a respected publisher that represents a good fit for your work. There various University presses (Cambridge, Edinburgh, Oxford) as well as respected commercial academic presses (Palgrave Macmillan, Routledge), and various advantages/disadvantages of each – it is worth talking to colleagues about their experiences of publishing with various presses. Peer review is essential and may vary hugely in terms of timescale; the level of editorial input will differ across presses. In terms of good fit, one way into determining this is to look at your bibliography for the books you refer to most regularly and use this as a basis for exploring different publishers. (see here for my experience of choosing a publisher for my book).
There is no golden rule on “how many” publications you need.
When applying for jobs you will find that typically there is an expectation of “a publication record commensurate with experience”; i.e., if you’ve just finished your PhD it would not be expected that you have 4 top-quality articles in print. At the same time, you can expect that for very competitive posts the number and quality of publications may – although not always – impact upon hiring decisions and, despite the ECR discount for the REF, this may not factor in.
Again, as a general strategy think quality not quantity and aim for fewer, high-quality publications; intellectual rigor provides a sound basis for your career development, quantity comes with time.
Timing and scheduling publications
In terms of timing and pacing your publications, there are a couple of ways in which you can potentially benefit from being strategic to work with and around the REF cycle. In the survey of ECRs and the REF that I did in 2014, a key message to emerge was that many ECRs were thinking strategically about timing in order to maximise the use-value or their portfolio.
The first way to do this is to “rush out” publications to get as many as possible into the REF cycle. Here, you need to keep in mind that this means getting everything published in time, and particularly factor in the long lead-in time to publication.
- Journal articles: from when you send off the first version through to publication can take anything from 6 months to 2 years (it’s worth noting that special issues can be much quicker)
- Monographs: also vary substantially, the peer review and revisions process can be longer but final production relatively quick (in my experience with Palgrave Macmillan, c. 6 months).
This links back to where you decide to publish and you may want to go with presses/journals that have a reputation for quicker publication. Again, talk to others in your field about their experiences (one department I know have a shared word document where colleagues input their experiences of various journals).
When you come to making a publishing plan, you’ll need to keep in mind 2 deadlines: yours for finishing the work, plus the lead-in time to the piece getting published.
While rushing out lots of publications is one strategy, as the REF deadline approaches you may also want to consider holding back work for the next cycle. This was my strategy with my monograph: in my last institution I wasn’t in a REF-submitted post/department, and therefore my pre-2014 publications wouldn’t have REF value. Having realised this, I took longer than I might have done to complete my monograph as I wanted it to be published within the current, post-2014 REF cycle. This needs to be weighed up with the importance of a monograph in getting an academic job, but can work out beneficial in the long-run. For my next project, I am aiming for monograph publication post-2020 so that the book will fall into the next REF cycle.
Writing a publication strategy
All of these factors can then go into informing how you create a publication strategy, i.e. a plan of the what – where – when of your future publications. Some key things to keep in mind:
- Be specific – what you will write, where you will target it (journal/ presses), when you will do it (be realistic!);
- Look at the overall balance of types of publication to weigh up quality and quantity;
- Keep in mind external factors that may impact upon your plans e.g. will you need funding to complete a piece of research;
- Check requirements of journal/presses, especially for length of submissions;
- Remember that the final send-off isn’t final – work can come back requiring reasonable input for revisions, it’s difficult to anticipate when this will be but you can at least allow some space around the edges of your plans;
- Check back in to review and revise your plans regularly: there will be uncertainties in your career impacting especially upon how much time you will have available for research, and short-term posts make it difficult to plan far in advance. Review and adapt, but don’t abandon the plan altogether (see here for my notes on balancing teaching and research).
Given that there are so many uncertainties in your career/HE more broadly, why plan? I think there are a number of clear benefits:
- Allows you to prioritise and make best use of the time that you do have available to really focus your energies in the best areas;
- Ensures that you remain attentive to balancing issues of quality and quantity;
- Deadlines help to give structure and focus to your post-PhD time; they may have to change, but having clear research goals can help with the uncertainty of post-PhD life and keeps you focused on the longer-term;
- Gives you a basis from which to get feedback and advice from supervisors/ colleagues about your publication plans;
- Having a plan means that you can track your progress and gain a better sense of how long some tasks take you, and how you can adjust future plans accordingly.
- Finally, it will help when you go to job interviews: hiring committees not only want to see what you’ve published to date but will also be looking for a defined publication strategy going forward, and to see that you understand the current HE context and how your plans fit into this. Having a publication strategy underway means that you’ve already done some of the work towards this and will be able to articulate clearly, concisely and with specific details what your future plans for publication look like.