WRITING A REVIEW OF AN ACADEMIC BOOK: A FEW TIPS

I find book reviews a very hard genre to write. This is why I marvel every time I come across great reviews in GoodReads that cover plenty of ground in just a few paragraphs, written apparently by readers who simply enjoy sharing their opinions. It has come to a point in my own reading when I hardly take up a book without first checking what the GoodRead members have to say—or in which, lazily, I check their opinions when I sense something is off with a book but cannot be bothered to think for myself. I do have a GoodReads account but I have never posted a review precisely because I need plenty of motivation to write them. My reviews, besides, would simply amount to ‘Yes, read the book’ or ‘Please, avoid’, with no further nuance. I would not get many likes for them.

I happen to believe, however, that all serious scholars have the duty to review academic books now and then. I started in 1997 and have reviewed since then 25 books, so about one volume a year. I have just handed in my 25th review, the reason behind my post today. I wrote my first review once I was already a doctor but there is no reason why doctoral students cannot write reviews, I think. It just happened that my supervisor(s) never spoke to me of that possibility. My dear colleague Felicity Hand, then editing an issue of our defunct Department journal Links & Letters, was the person who convinced me that I could and should write a review. To be honest, I was terrified because the book she gave was a collective volume edited by a person I happen to have much respect for, and I did not see how I was authorized at all to offer an opinion on her work. What if I didn’t like her book? This is indeed a difficulty when writing reviews early in your career: a negative review can make you enemies. I know of a doctoral student who had the great idea of reviewing in negative terms a collective volume in which most academics in his field participated, including some in his own research group. I can tell you he did not endear himself to any of the authors. So, even though what I am going to say will sound rather awful and hypocritical, as a general rule only review books that you enjoy and of which you can write positive reviews.

In that sense, I have got lucky because I have enjoyed all the books I have reviewed, even when I asked for them not knowing whether I would like them (with one exception, see below). Sorry, I have forgotten to clarify that you may send an unsolicited review directly to a journal (most journals have a review editor) or ask to review a book from their list. When a scholar publishes a book, s/he sends the publishers a list of journals where the volume could be reviewed. The publishers offer then review copies to the journals, which keep lists. In my area, Science Fiction Studies, the Science Fiction Review, Extrapolation and other journals regularly publish their lists of books for review, which I get through diverse mailing lists. If I see an attractive title, I ask for it. The Spanish journal Nexus, by the way, also keeps a list of books for review. If you want to review a book that you have already read, it would be a good idea in any case to contact the journal where you want to publish to ask whether they would be interested. Not all journals welcome unsolicited reviews.

It is not a very good idea to review books by persons you know, from best friends to mere acquaintances, unless you are sure a negative review might not be a problem. A negative review of a book by a senior scholar who might be important in your future career is not, as I have noted, the kind of review you want to write. But a bad review of a friend’s book can lose you a friend, remember that too. Do I mean that you should write positive reviews always whether you like a book or not? No! What I’m saying is that you should try to review only books which you value as good books, regardless of who the author is.

Look what happened to me. I wrote a review of a collective book edited by a person that, without being a close friend is someone I share time with if we meet at conferences. I had a good opinion of this person’s work and asked to review the new book. I soon saw that the book was quite a catastrophe but tried, anyway, to highlight in my review mostly the good points, trying to conceal the most glaring weaknesses. It seems this didn’t work well, for the book editor of the journal in question asked me to revise the text not once but twice, which is very unusual. Things went down so quickly that I ended up withdrawing my review, the only time I have done that. I simply saw no point in antagonizing my academic friend, and I preferred not to publish a bad review. Other scholars might think this is stupid of me, and that negative reviews are something we should accept. Possibly. I just happen to prefer being constructive, much more so in a world as small as ours in which not even great books get many reviews. Authors spend a long time, sometimes years, writing academic books, as I know myself, and I just feel bad saying publicly that they have not done well. On the other hand, one must be careful never to write a review which is ridiculously enthusiastic, for that is not criticism–that is publicity.

Reviews run usually from 1000 to 2000 words (but pay attention to what each journal expects). Each of my posts here is between 1500-2000 words, and very often I write here about books I have just read. This means that writing a book review should be easy for me, but whereas I write a post in about two hours, depending on inspiration, I spent about twelve hours writing my most recent review (1895 words). Why’s that? Because a book review is a formal exercise, with exact rules that I cannot break as I do in my posts. Here are some of these rules:

• you need to describe the book for prospective readers, but the review cannot simply be a synopsis
• you must be familiar with the precedents of the book in question (but remember that reviews do not usually include a bibliography of works cited) and be able to contextualize it
• you need to judge the book according to what its author claims it does (in the introduction), not according to what you would like the book to be
• you are required to comment on the structure of the book, if only briefly, and be able to pick up deficiencies, if any, but don’t overdo it
• a review must engage with the ideas expressed in the book (identify a thesis, the main arguments), which means that you assume the position not only of a reader but also of a fellow writer, as if you were able to write a similar book–this is for me the hardest part, for I always try to put myself in the author’s shoes and imagine what it must have taken to have written that book
• never be smug, never be patronizing and much less insulting but don’t overdo praise
• be formal, you can never say ‘this is a glorious volume’ (much less ‘this book is awful’)

In terms of structure, reviews should begin by presenting the volume, as noted. Then the precedents (i.e. similar books already published) must be mentioned and compared to the new volume; perhaps also other books by the author. Next comes the paragraph(s) about the book’s strong points, and then (hopefully) minor comments on what could be improved or is missing. Finally, the conclusion, ideally recommending the book for its good qualities. In my last review, I had to include information about whether the volume in question could be accessible to a wider, popular audience; this puzzled me a bit, as the instructions came from an academic journal and the book was also academic. There is a similar book with a simpler academic jargon and so I could add a comment about this matter, but I found the request a bit unusual. Only academics read academic books, and only academic read reviews of academic books. We do, don’t we?

In terms of an academic CV, writing a review is not of great value, though when I passed my state examination for tenure back in 2001, the half a dozen reviews I had published were noted as a positive contribution. I don’t know what the official accreditation agencies think of reviews, and I am not aware that they are ranked in the databases which index everything we publish. To be perfectly frank with you, in the last five years or so I have been reviewing books not thinking of my CV at all but because I could not afford the volumes in question. The last book I have reviewed costs 99 euros (hardback edition) and even though we are not paid for reviewing, I feel that in this case I have earned those 99 euros (and no need to pay for taxes!). So that’s another good incentive to review. I assume that the publishing houses know about this, which is why in many cases reviewers are only offered the .pdf of the text. I hate reading .pdf…

To sum up, if you’re a doctoral student reading this post and are in your second or third year it might be a good idea to think of publishing your first review. I don’t know whether the tips I have offered here will help, and whether my position—review only the books you truly enjoy—is orthodox but this is what I do myself. And if you are a career academic with other priorities, let me remind you that even though reviewing will not do much for your CV, one can always learn plenty from paying close attention to how our colleagues write. Besides, we can hardly expect others to review our work if we do not write reviews ourselves.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

GETTING PUBLISHED: SOME ADVICE FOR BEGINNERS (ON BOOKS)

This post in, once more, based on the seminar for the doctoral students in the PhD programme in English Studies of my Department to which I referred in my previous post. There I voiced my own ideas, here I borrow heavily from my colleague Eva Codó’s presentation on how to transform your PhD into a book (thanks Eva!), mixed with my own experience.

Writing a PhD dissertation takes from 3 to 5 years on average (this can be extended if you’re a part-time student, though it is not really advisable). During these years you should start publishing articles in indexed journals and chapters in collective academic books, as I explained in the previous post, beginning in the second year. I am well aware that combining the effort required to write a 300-page-long dissertation with the effort required to write at least a couple of 25-page-long articles is daunting, but this is why we advise you to use part of the dissertation for those publications (you can always include a version of your publications in your thesis, with due acknowledgements; this is not self-plagiarising).

Once your dissertation has been submitted and has passed the assessment of your tribunal, that’s it, you’re a doctor! Spanish universities have an official mandate to upload online all the dissertations they produce (see www.tdx.cat, the repository of the Catalan universities as an example of how this is done) and, therefore, you will be asked to submit your dissertation (minus the typos!) for that. I know that in other countries this is not done, precisely to prevent academic publishing houses from rejecting dissertations as possible books. However, here in Spain we take into account that a) not all doctors transform their dissertations into books, b) a book based on a dissertation needs to be substantially different from the dissertation itself. The English Literature section of the programme I work for recommends that PhD candidates produce dissertations as close as possible to publishable monographs (a monograph is a book-length essay by one author), but even so there is very little chance that a publisher will accept a PhD dissertation as it is, with all the extensive theoretical framework, the many notes and so on.

My own doctoral dissertation, submitted in 1996, is available online (my university produced, believe it or not, a scanned version of the printed text!) and you will see if you check it that it is long (450 pages, plus 150 pages for diverse appendixes). I did try to have it published but failed precisely because I was told by all publishers I contacted that it was too long; nobody offered to accept only part of it. In fact, one publisher did accept it whole but the person I asked for advice (an American Fulbright scholar visiting our Department) told me that this was considered a vanity press, that is, a low-prestige publisher without a solid academic criteria that accepts any text, sometimes charging for publication. And, so, I rejected their offer without further checking their credentials, which were not at all that bad. In hindsight, I think that was a serious mistake, for a book publication would have been better than none, but I just did not have anyone who could guide me better. I did publish a sort of popular version of my thesis in Spanish, for a general readership, but even though that was a good experience which gave me a name in fandom circles beyond academia, this is not a road I would advice you to take. We are currently focused on academic validity and this type of excursion outside academic publication is not welcome. I do not regret my own excursion, though, from which I have got in the long run plenty of academic benefit.

At the end of 3 or 5 years working on your dissertation you will probably feel exhausted and little inclined to work 2 or 3 more years on your monograph. Let me tell you, however, that you might never get the chance to publish a book again, not even if you become a successful scholar. The duties connected with teaching and the preference in official assessment for peer-reviewed journal articles make it very difficult to find time for book-length work. If you pay attention, you will see that most books these days are either collective volumes or publications derived from PhD dissertations. My impression is that only a handful of extremely committed, prolific authors manage to have a career which includes three books or more. I myself felt very unhappy with myself for not having a monograph in English, though I have edited collective volumes and have some books in Spanish. When I managed to publish Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort as recently as 2019, I felt much better. This volume closed the gap left by the non-publication of my dissertation. In fact, it comes from one of its chapters, so you see how long we can go on working on our doctoral research. Mine, I know, is not over yet.

So, having established that publishing your dissertation as a book is a very good idea, let me tell you how to proceed. Here’s the first tricky matter. As I explained in my previous post, the impact factor helps you to understand how each journal is rated, but for books this is not so clear. The database SPI (Scholarly Publishing Indicators) can help you to navigate the field and have a more or less clear idea of who the major publishers are. But be careful! Their section ‘Lingüística, Literatura y Filología’ mixes fields which are in fact too diverse. I would not send a proposal for a book on Literary Studies to De Gruyter or John Benjamins Publishing Company, which I connect with Linguistics, and I wonder that Palgrave Macmillan is number 12 in the list, as I think it is much higher by prestige. Anyway, your reading for the dissertation should give you a clear idea of which university presses publish the most relevant authors and titles. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking, for instance, that publishing in Duke University Press (39 in the SPI list) is not worth it, and you should only aim at publication at number one, Oxford University Press. As happens Duke UP is a great publishing house, like others lower in that list.

A key matter in that sense are collections. Academic publishing houses do publish stand-alone books, but they tend to organize their publications into series about a particular topic, which is what collections are (yes, they are also called series). Let me give you an example. If you are, as I am, into science fiction and want to publish a monograph, then the best series is the Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies by the University of Liverpool Press (which is actually run by Oxford University Press). This series is edited by two very well known scholars in the field, David Seed and Sheryl Vint, and has an editorial board of six other very well-known scholars. If you check the webpage, you will see that you are invited to contact them through a Commissioning Editor, that is to say, the person in charge of the series on behalf of the publishers, Liverpool UP. She will consider your proposal and pass it onto the editors, who have the last word about their admission for publication. If your proposal is accepted, then either Prof. Seed or Prof. Vint will supervise your text. But before we go to that, let me tell you about the proposal.

Once you have chosen the series (or collection) you future book might fit, you need to produce a proposal. All publishers offer guidance through a proposal submission form, which tells you which steps you should follow (see for instance for the series I have mentioned https://bit.ly/2YkhV8O). Filling in a proposal is a first exercise in the marketing of your book, for here is where you have to ‘sell’ it, explaining what it is about, and describing its main saleable features. The publisher you target will want to know who might be interested in your book, what competitors is has, and so on. Writing an attractive description is, therefore, very important; this goes beyond simply writing an abstract, which tends to be a text addressed to other scholars, not to a publisher. When you write a proposal you need to ask yourself ‘why would this publisher want to issue my book at all?’ and you need to persuade them (but always use formal language!). Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that in the case of books, you can indeed send your proposal to several publishers, though perhaps it is more elegant to wait for a (possible) rejection before you try another one. And, of course, you need to accompany your proposal with a sample text, ideally one chapter.

Your proposal will be assessed by the series’ editor(s), and perhaps by other anonymous reviewers. Make sure you understand their instructions and modify your text accordingly, because you don’t want to rewrite substantially and then be told that you need to rewrite again. Your text will pass another review before publication and, of course, you will have to proofread it once it goes through the copy editor that checks errors (though not all publishers offer this service and some might demand that you pay for professional help). This varies with each publisher but make sure you negotiate a sufficiently generous deadline, so that you don’t find yourself awfully stressed. Please, note that depending on how much rewriting you need to do, and your work-related situation, this might take one or two years, during which you’re still expected to publish articles if you’re really committed to having an academic career. And, by the way, a tricky part of any book is the index –make sure you understand how to produce one, or be ready to employ paid help.

When your manuscript is ready, or almost ready, your publisher will ask you to supply back cover blurbs (usually one by you, a couple by prestige scholars in your field), and a list of journals where your book could be reviewed. Getting reviews is important, much more so if these reviews appear in A-listed journals but, don’t be, on the whole too optimistic about impact. Academic books are usually published as hardbacks costing between 100 and 200 euros, accompanied by a much cheaper e-book edition that, anyway, is expensive at around 35 euros. This means that an average academic book might sell 100 to 200 copies, bought mostly by university libraries, with royalties for the author of about 200 euros, if you’re lucky! Titles that sell reasonably well as hardbacks might be re-printed in one or two years as paperbacks, at a price between 25 and 35 euros, but, again, don’t think you’re going to make a lot of money out of that. My impression, however, is that in the Humanities no matter how many articles and book chapters you have published, what really makes you respected as a scholar are the books. I don’t think you get invitations, for instance. to be a plenary speaker at a conference without them.

When I started my own academic career, I imagined it as a process full of books, not of articles and book chapters. As a marvellous example of what I really wanted, please check the profile of my former student at UAB, Xavier Reyes Aldana, now a leading authority in Gothic Studies. Xavi’s many books as author and editor come, however, at a price. I really thought that academic careers were developed in a slow tempo, and that my books would come out regularly every three or four years. In fact, academic careers are now hectic, and if Xavi has produced so much this is not only because he is very talented but because he has submitted himself to the high pressure of British academia, which is very dangerous in terms of health (as he knows very well).

I’ll finish by explaining that in the Anglophone world, where researchers are expected to write books, they teach relatively short semesters. Here, our much longer semesters make writing books almost impossible. At the same time, this is now expected of us. CNEAI, the agency that assess our publications every six years (for the ‘sexenios’) regards books as just one of the five publications you need to present, even though a 100,000 word book is clearly much more work than a 5,000 word article. However, the current accreditations for tenure (=indefinite contracts) expect candidates to have already published a monograph. This can only be, given the time constrains, a book based on your dissertation.

I hope all this has been useful. Please, leave comments if there is any doubt. May you publish many books!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

GETTING PUBLISHED: SOME ADVICE FOR BEGINNERS (ON ARTICLES AND BOOK CHAPTERS)

This text is based on the seminar presentation I have prepared for the doctoral students in the PhD programme in English Studies of my Department. It is published here in case some other PhD student finds it useful.

‘Why publish and should I…?’, you may be wondering. Publication is an essential aspect of academic life: it is indeed the main method to present research results and new ideas (apart from teaching, attending conferences, giving talks…). Unlike what I was told when I was a PhD student myself (but never heeded), the sooner you start publishing, the better; remember that publications are, besides, a key component in accreditation processes in Spain. You may have heard, by the way, of ‘impostor syndrome’: you might feel that you lack the authority to publish, but this authority is only acquired by publishing, so this is what you need to do. Academic writing, of course, is learned by reading, reading, and reading academic work, and understanding its conventions. Pay attention! To publish you need good academic skills, acquired during you BA and MA studies, but also a thick skin to stand criticism (which can be very harsh) and rejection.

Publication takes a minimum of six months from handing in your text to seeing it published, one year on average, and in some cases two years (or more). Thus, if you want to have one or two publications by the time you hand in your PhD dissertation, the second year might be a good time to begin. You may transform part of your future dissertation into an article; if this is published before you finish your thesis you can still use the text in it (with permission); indeed, some dissertations consist of a collection of previously published articles, though this is not a model we recommend in our programme (precisely because publication in the Humanities is a rather slow process). Writing an article for publication in the second year is also a way of testing your academic skills. If it is rejected, that is an experience you can also learn from… Please, note that our programme requires that you submit (not necessarily publish) an article to an indexed journal (= one that is acknowledged as significant in its field).

‘Where should I start publishing?’, you may be thinking. Please, note that I am speaking here of a journal publication, but (at least in Literary Studies) you might also start publishing by contributing a chapter to a collective volume (though this is usually less valued than an article). If you’re working with a research group, you need to follow the research lines marked by the principal investigator (perhaps s/he is also your supervisor). In Spain, many of us in English Studies have started publishing in the online journal of the Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos (AEDEAN), Atlantis, which has quite a good reputation (it is what we call a B-list journal). Ask your supervisor for advice and use databases such as, for instance, MIAR (https://miar.ub.edu/) to learn which journals might be a good choice for you, and how they are ranked. Yes, journals are ranked by performance (they are indexed).

MIAR, for instance, uses the ICDS index (Secondary Composite Index Broadcasting) which refers to the “visibility of the journal in different scientific databases of international scope or in repertoires evaluation of periodicals”. MIAR awards points to each journal according to how visible it is in the Web of Science Core Collections and Web of Science classic (AHCI, SCIE, SSCI o ESCI), Scopus, and other abstract and indexing databases (specialized or multidisciplinary); international catalogues like Latindex or assessment lists (such as Catalan CARHUS Plus, European ERIHPlus or Spanish Sello de Calidad FECYT). Spanish database DIALNET is also taken into account and so is the “rate of survival of the journal, considering a maximum of 30 years in the calculation”. Until recently, it might happen that the journal where you published an article was rated A+ but by the time you passed assessment, or applied for a scholarship, etc, the journal was down to C or D, and so was your article. Fortunately, this has been corrected now. By the way, each subject category of journals is sub-divided into four quartiles: Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4. Q1 corresponds to the top 25% journals; Q2 to the 25 to 50% group; Q3, 50 to 75% group; and Q4 to the bottom 75%-100% group. Logically, everybody wants to publish in the A+/Q1, journals but, unless you really are exceptionally talented, this is not really where you should begin; aspiring to publication in a B/Q2 journal is more advisable. Apart from MIAR, see our library’s databases website here (and do ask your supervisor).

How a journal rates is called its ‘impact factor’ (IF) or ‘journal impact factor’ (JIF). Just for you to really understand the academic world we live in, Wikipedia explains that IF and JIF refer to “a scientometric index calculated by Clarivate that reflects the yearly average number of citations of articles published in the last two years in a given journal”. Wikipedia further informs that Eugene Garfield, founder of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), invented the impact factor. This has been calculated yearly since 1975 “for journals listed in the Journal Citation Reports (JCR)”. So what is Clarivate? Well, because of a series of financial operations, JCR is now the property of private corporation Clarivate, established by the Onex Corporation and the Baring Private Equity Asia. Check https://clarivate.com/webofsciencegroup and infer whatever you need to infer from this. It is assumed, in any case, that the higher the ranking, the better positioned the journal is and the more authors it attracts, being able to select the very best. However, many scholars dispute that the highest ranking journals are really the best in their field (and what happens when their field is very small, like Medieval Catalan Literature?). Perhaps all this is talk for another seminar.

‘But… how do I really start publishing?’, you may be wondering. There are, I think, three main ways. A) You write an article on your own initiative and send it to a journal. B) You attend a conference and the paper you present is further developed into an article which either you send to a journal or is included in a publication derived from the conference (monographic journal issue, proceedings, collective book). C) You respond to a call for papers (cfp) sent by an editor seeking contributors (to a monographic journal issue, or a collective volume). How do you get cfps? You join an association (such as AEDEAN), or a mailing list, or browse specialised websites (such as https://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/). This is important: you need to be very active in your search for journals and cfps, they will not simply come to you.

A few other notes, a bit randomly. Are you supposed to pay for publication? No, even though this is not uncommon in other fields, and not unheard of for books in ours. Will you be paid for publication? No, the only type of publication for which you might get royalties are books. What is Open Access? A European Union mandate indicates that academic publication should be ideally freely available online, this is what Open Access means. Online journals follow this mandate and I personally prefer open access because it gives more visibility to my work, though it must be noted that the highest ranking journals are usually only accessible through the very expensive databases to which universities subscribe. Some publishers sell Open Access, that is to say, they allow you to publish online work you have already published for them–for a fee. How about the digital repository at UAB? (Dipòsit Digital de Documentació, ddd.uab.cat). I do publish a lot at DDD, but this is considered self-publication and, therefore, useless for official validation or accreditation. You can use, however, DDD to publish work in progress, or other work usually not accepted directly for publication (such as conference presentations).

Once you have chosen the journal to which you want to submit your article, you need to edit it according to their guide for authors. Make sure you absolutely respect their preferred word count (articles and book chapters range from 4500 to 10000 words, though 7000-8000 is the more habitual length). Follow the journal’s (or book editor’s) instructions to submit: in some cases this just involves sending an email, in others you need to use a specific online application. You need to send your article anonymised (with no indication of who you are); the abstract and keywords are habitually sent in a separate document, usually with your name in it and contact information. Make sure you receive an acknowledgement of receipt; if you don’t, contact the journal/book editor within the week following your submission. A very important rule is that you cannot send your article simultaneously to several journals; you need to wait for a journal’s negative decision to try another journal. I am not 100% sure why this is the case, since it slows down very much the process of publication, but apparently this is to avoid having many peer reviewers assessing the same text (or the same reviewer assessing it for two journals).

Once you submit your article (or book chapter) the editor will send it to the reviewers, who will review it anonymously. This is the process known as blind peer reviewing. The number of reviewers used to be three, but is now down to two, and in some cases one. The journal (or book editor) should contact you in a reasonable period of time (ideally, a few weeks, usually a few months) and email you the reviews. Of course, the higher ranking journals take longer to review articles as they get many submissions. Some reviewers write some notes, others long reports (I usually also send the text submitted with corrections and notes). Three things may happen: a) your article is accepted with no further revision (very rare…); b) your article is accepted but you’re asked to revise it before re-submitting; c) your article is rejected (in that case, you are free to send it elsewhere). Rejection is common, and reviewers’ reports can be very harsh. Be ready for that! Do not reply to rejection emails with negative, rude comments. Just say thanks, move on and send the article elsewhere. If you have been asked to revise your article, this usually means that the journal is interested, though it might well be that your second (or third, or fourth) revision is finally rejected. It happens to all of us! Be patient and stay calm!!! The reviewers may ask you to simply rewrite some passages, or add certain quotations and sources, but in some cases revision might be extensive and require substantial rewriting. This is part of the process. Always keep the different versions of the text revised, just in case you need to go back to any of them (number or date them). If you do not agree with certain aspects of the peer reviewing, you may discuss them with the editor but be ready to accept his/her opinion, and do as you’re told.

Once your article (or book chapter) is accepted, the editor will contact you next to proof-read it (= to check that the text sent for publication has no errors). At this stage, you may not change your article/book chapter substantially; you can only correct spelling or punctuation mistakes, some occasional vocabulary and grammar errors. Once your text is published, you should get the .pdf (article) and ideally a hard copy of the book (for a chapter), and of course add it to your CV. Published authors track their citation impact index through Web of Science, Scopus, or Google Scholar. The more you publish, and the more you’re quoted, the higher your citation index will be. Of course, I always wonder whether the trick is to publish something controversial but rather foolish so that everyone cites you to explain how wrong you are. That also increases your citation index!

There are no hard and fast rules about how much a doctoral student should publish. I would recommend two publications (at least accepted) before submitting your PhD (two publications in three to five years is feasible). Publishing in books of proceedings derived from a conference is not well valued today, not even when the editors stress there has been a peer-reviewed assessment of the texts. And, yes, journal articles are valued above book chapters because supposedly, peer reviewing is more ‘serious’ in articles (I don’t agree with this). Co-authorship, by the way, is common in the sciences (including Linguistics) but not in Literary Studies (in which usually collaboration is limited to two authors, very rarely more). If you’re planning to get an accreditation as a Lector in the Catalan system or Profesor Contratado Doctor in the Spanish system, check the publication requirements now, so that you can plan your career in advance. And don’t forget to open an account at Research Gate or Academia.edu, to follow what other researchers in your field are doing.

Now, some notes on my personal experience. I have been publishing since 1994 (my first publication was a paper I wrote for a course in my doctoral programme) and it never gets any easier. I have never had a straightforward acceptance with no revisions, no matter how minor, though I must say that I have published everything I have written in close to 100 articles and book chapters (and some books). I am used to having my articles rejected, sometimes in very harsh ways: my article on Sirius in Harry Potter, got six furious rejections (it is now a chapter in one of my books). I have had two ‘desk rejections’ recently (meaning that my article did not go past the editor, who refused to send it to peer reviewers, in one case with no explanation at all). Most of my reviewers have been very kind persons who have helped me very much to improve my work; some, believe me, were haters who should never have reviewed any papers. I consider peer reviewing very necessary but I am against its anonymity, precisely because it gives room to too harsh comments. When I peer-review an article that I don’t like, I write the report as if I had to meet the author in person. I have peer-reviewed some articles that were simply terrible, usually coming from inexperienced authors (one can guess that) so please, ask your supervisor and other experienced researchers to read your work before you send it, at least at the beginning of your career.

You may find it frustrating (as I do, to be honest) to follow the conventions of academic prose, but this is absolutely necessary, otherwise you will never get published. I myself keep this blog to write on academic themes in a free style, and without supervision from reviewers. I recommend that you do that, too. Writing a blog is NOT hard work, but fun!! You should enjoy writing about what you are learning for your PhD dissertation, even if nobody else is interested.

Good luck, may your citation index grows to be very high!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

RECALLING TIMES PAST: ACADEMIC LIFE 1980-2020

As someone wrote recently, it makes sense to think of the 1970s as 40 years ago but how can 1980 be 40 years ago? This has come to my mind in relation to a question asked by one of my Master’s students. He wanted to know whether, on the whole and considering our current access to countless sources of information, academic writing has improved in the Humanities. This question started my recollection of the times when I didn’t have access to the Internet, much less to a computer. Having been born in the mid- 1960s, I’m old enough to have seen a dramatic change in academic work in my own lifetime. As this student told me, there will be far less difference between the academic life of people born in the 1990s and in the 2020s than there is between the academic life of the people born like myself in the 1960s and that of those born in the 1990s. I can only say that he’s totally right.
So let me go back to 1980, the year when I started secondary school. The first papers I handed in were handwritten, a situation which continued for at least three more years until my fourth and last course, what used to be called Curso de Orientación Universitaria (College Orientation Course). If you think that what comes next is the arrival of a PC to my working-class home you are in an alternate universe. What I got then, when I was 17, was my grand-father’s second-hand typewriter, a rather basic, heavy Olivetti. I recall in one particular instance a long Literature paper which I wrote by hand and my mom typed late into a Sunday evening; she had been an admin clerk before marrying, and still had the typing skills that I have never acquired. The typewriter in question, however, had a few glitches, one of which was that the Spanish orthographic stress key was broken. This means that the accents in my paper, which was in Spanish, were all open, in Catalan style. My teacher forgave me because she knew from what kind of home I came from.
This state of matters continued for a while. I enrolled as a university student in 1984, that Orwellian year. I continued using a typewriter, though I seem to recall a lighter new Olivetti made of plastic, with some suspicion that it was not mine but, again, someone else’s. I continued writing handwritten and typed papers based, of course, on school library resources until 1987. I spent the year 1986-87 in England as an au-pair girl and all my communication with my family and friends was through handwritten letters and the occasional phone call from a phone booth. Only when I returned from England did I finally have access to a computer, that of my boyfriend at the time, a nerdish type who grasped how important PCs would be before this was generally understood. All this time, please notice, I was still using library resources: those of my own university, the Autònoma, and the resources of the British Institute in Barcelona, which were in many cases better than what I found at UAB.
After completing the five-year Licenciatura, I started in 1991 my doctoral studies. Doctoral programmes consisted of two years of taking courses with a third year for writing your first dissertation, or tesina. I still wrote mine using bibliography on paper from libraries because although the Internet had already been born it only existed in very limited military and scientific circles. I recall purchasing dozens of articles, very expensively photocopied, from the British Library. I started work on my doctoral dissertation in 1993, spending one year in Scotland (1994-95), still with no internet access, not even e-mail. Like back in 1986-87, all communication with family and friends was done though snail mail and phone calls (no cell phones yet!). I submitted my doctoral dissertation in 1996 still without an Internet connection, though the novelty then was the introduction of email in our communications. This means that if you wanted to publish an article you would snail-mail the hard copies of the article accompanied by a cover letter and then whether the article was accepted or not would be communicated to you in the same way, by letter.
The first academic websites were started then, in the mid-1990s, and some look as they did originally. I was going through the Victorian website the other day and I realised that the layout and most of the texts that you can find there possibly come from that time. The same goes for many other websites built in the 1990s on a voluntary basis that need a revamp but will be lost for lack of volunteers. My post-doc life begins in 1996, when home Internet access also became generally available, but without a flat rate, which means that any prolonged consultation with any website could potentially cost a lot of money. In 1998 I became a consultant at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, the first online university in Spain, and that was an interesting position because the job included free Internet access. Telefónica eventually offered, around 2000, a flat rate, which was really the moment when the Internet took off in Spain (and so did illegal downloading of music, films, books…).
From 2000 onward, then, we academics started having access to many online sources, which means that composing a bibliography became quite easy. Months of research could suddenly be done in one afternoon sitting before your computer, accessing catalogues anywhere in the world. However, what truly made the difference was database access. A catalogue tells you what is available and where, but the database usually contains part of what is available as downloadable texts and that makes an enormous difference. You might have a bibliography which is 200 entries long but if none of those sources is really accessible there is not much point in its bulk. The wonder of research in the last 15 years, then, is not only that any list can be quickly compiled but also that you can download onto your computer in just a few hours many sources, particularly articles in journals. Books remain a grey area of research because not so many are accessible from college libraries as e-books. Universities subscribe to article databases but there are not equivalent book databases, which is the reason why everyone is using Google Books but keeping quiet about it. The price of academic books has gone through the roof so that few researchers and even few libraries can actually purchase books, which may easily cost 100 euros or more (a non-illustrated hardback). So, thanks Google!, you know what for.
The abundance of sources does not necessarily mean, however, that we are producing better research or better academic writing. A typical article in the Humanities usually contains around thirty secondary sources. They take less time to be located but still take a long time to be read. In the past, before the 1990s, when theory exploded, researchers in the Humanities could get away with using a maximum of ten sources for each article. This is a luxury that we can no longer afford. The proliferation of bibliography might seem to be a benefit and in many senses it is. Yet, at the same time, it has resulted in a style of writing that is very constrictive. Most articles I read these days consist of a long barrage of quotations taking the introduction and usually two thirds of the article itself, leaving just a little corner, usually less than one third of the article, for the actual discussion of the text supposedly analysed in it. Before so much bibliography was available and used, literary criticism was literary criticism, that is to say, it was an exercise in reading focused on what the primary source did say. The voice of the scholar had to be strong because it had to sustain the whole analysis, and so you got classics of literary criticism such as Leslie Fiedler, Tony Tanner, John Hillis Miller, Marianne Thormählen, Catherine Belsey, Elaine Showalter and so on.
Now there is very little room for one’s own voice among so many secondary sources, and to be honest this is one of the reasons why I started writing this blog: I was losing my voice in my own academic production. Since the need to publish has grown enormously, this means that you have less time for each of the articles or chapters you write; many sources need to be read diagonally, looking for that quotation which will contribute to your own article. Articles are more frequently quoted than books because a) they are more easily found in databases, b) can be read more quickly. Nobody uses bibliographies in which most items are books that must be read from beginning to end, for a quotation ends up costing too many working hours. That’s our reality. All this constant flow of bibliography, then, is coming when we have least time to benefit from it: to sit down and absorb whatever may be new and exciting. In my worst days I think that literary criticism is dead and we are just endlessly circulating the secondary sources without really paying much attention to what the literary authors themselves are saying. Post-1990s academic rhetoric, in short, has eaten up academic creativity in Literary Studies, and even in the apparently less conventional Cultural Studies.
This can be very daunting for a beginner in the field but, like all rhetoric, academic writing has a playful side. You need to look at academic research as a complex game, with rules that need to be mastered. I do not mean that scholarship is trivial or banal. I just mean that in order to get published you need to learn how to play the game, and this includes understanding which sources you need to check and how valuable they are for you. Having said that and although I’m not going to praise those times when literary criticism was written by hand and based on what your university library housed, we have certainly lost an indefinite something. The Internet has brought the world to our fingertips, but our brain still needs time to process information and deliver solid discourse. Yet time is what we most lack now, in our frantic effort to excel when more people than ever are in academia.
In a sense, then, the cyberpunk dream of the 1980s–if only we could access all the academic riches computers contain–has become if not a nightmare, certainly a source of anxiety, for those who rule academic life have decided that we need to use that flood of information to generate a flood of academic work and so increase the deluge until nobody can really follow it. The solution is to work on one’s own little corner, and play the game as best one can.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/