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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 15

Getting a handle on academic writing

Academic librarians required to publish for tenure or promotion tend to write for somewhat different reasons and to publish in somewhat different venues than those working in other environments. Most academic writing is peer reviewed, or evaluated by a member(s) of a journal's editorial board or an outside expert prior to publication. Reviewers can recommend that a manuscript be accepted, that it be rejected, or that the author make certain revisions and resubmit the work for consideration; often this review is "double-blind", in that neither the reviewer nor the writer know each other's identity in an effort to preserve objectivity.

As with more general writing, the best way to prepare yourself for publication in the academic environment is to keep up with your reading in this environment. Reading peer-reviewed journals gives you an idea of the hot topics (and those that are overdone!), shows you examples of how to do methodologically-correct research and how to write up your results, and lets you get a sense of the journals that are most often cited in the literature. Articles in academic journals also often contain authors' suggestions as to further research that might be done on their topic; let these spark your own ideas and interest.

Still in school?

Take a research methods class. Even if it's not required. Even if it meets at 6:00 am on a Saturday. Even if you think you are unlikely to end up in academic librarianship. Even if it looks hard. Even if you are scared of numbers or statistics. I didn't take one myself, and I'm sorry now! We never know where we will end up, and an understanding of how to interpret the literature will be useful, no matter what environment you eventually work in.

When you are writing research papers for class, keep copies of your research and your notes. You never know what may later be publishable, or when you may be able to use the work you do now to support a later project. Further, never dismiss the possibility of publication while still in school. Any evidence of research and publication will be useful when seeking your first academic position – you will have already proven you can do it.

Talk to your professors about their own publication efforts, and ask for their advice as you think about your own. You have an amazing opportunity: you are on campus, surrounded by people with experience publishing in the academic environment. Why not pick their brains?

New at this?

Find someone to help! Communication and collaboration is what we as librarians are all about, but sometimes we are reluctant to take advantage of our peers. Your colleagues can be helpful in various ways as you begin your academic writing career, including:

  • Serving as co-authors. While your first peer-reviewed piece, in particular, can be intimidating, it is much less overwhelming when you tackle the project with someone else. Having someone to bounce ideas off and to share the challenge of writing up your results can be invaluable.
  • Reading your drafts. Find a colleague, or a circle of colleagues, to look at your work before it ever gets to an editor. Someone who has been through the process herself can be especially helpful in pointing out places to shore up your arguments, where clarification is needed, or where your research may be shaky. If no one in your institution is willing or able to help, look outside its walls.
  • Explaining the tenure and promotion process. Beyond the expectations outlined in your official tenure or promotion document, committees often have unwritten yet understood expectations or biases. More experienced colleagues, for example, can let you know how your institution tends to view electronic publication, or what journals are looked on most favourably by tenure or promotion committees, or how much weight is given to alternative activities such as conference presentations or campus service.

Beyond getting help with the process, start as small as possible. Even peer-reviewed publications often seek survey articles, literature reviews, or reports on successful projects; these can be easier to complete than full-blown research studies.

Take some time to think about where writing fits in with the rest of your professional development activities. Take advantage of any support your institution offers; this may range from release time for writing, to research grants, to travel support, to awards. Some support, such as sabbaticals, may only be available to those who have worked at the library for a number of years, but investigate what may be available to you.

Your own priorities

The very idea of peer-reviewed publication and tenure requirements is distasteful to a number of librarians, who feel that requiring so many people to publish dilutes the quality of the literature and that long-term editorial boards tend to favour articles that match their own viewpoints rather than the new, controversial, or interesting. No matter your views on the matter, though, if your position requires you to write for academic journals, your responsibility to the profession and to the literature requires you to put forth your best efforts.

Rather than looking on publication as a duty foisted on you by your institution, think of it as an opportunity to share your research and your opinions with your peers, and to stretch yourself as a professional. Research and publication can also help librarians gain or retain status in the academic environment, letting them relate to non-library faculty with similar requirements (although librarians working 35-40 hour weeks might rightly grumble about the fairness of having similar requirements to those with less-stringent schedules).

Another concern involves writing for publishers whose policies are less than friendly to libraries (those who charge outrageous subscription fees, for example, or bundle unneeded products in with more useful journals) or for those who retain all rights to authors' work. Again, here, you will need to balance the calls of your conscience with the career building potential of publishing in the big name journals put out by some of these companies.

While you have much to think about as you begin your academic publishing career, this is your chance to contribute to the ongoing professional conversation that comprises our literature. Grab it and run with it!