It has now been almost 3 years since Mike Bird and I launched the Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters (Eisenbrauns). It has been a busy and arduous, but rewarding experience. I thought I would pass along 10 ten lessons I have learned (or continue to learn) about publishing articles. Being on the “other side” of the process has been illuminating and I hope the following advice will improve your research and also give you a healthier perspective on the process.
[Disclaimer: These tips are personal ones, and I am not “representing” the views or expectations of the journal officially or Eisenbrauns either!]
1. Rejection is extremely common and happens to everyone regardless of stature. We have gotten articles from well-known scholars and we have received submissions from grad students. Because the process is peer-reviewed blindly (anonymously), preference is not given to the “big names.” As an editor, sometimes I cringe when I see that a reputable scholar has to be sent a rejection email. But – that is part of academia. A rejection is not a reflection on your qualifications as a teacher or even a scholar. It is just that your one article, on this occasion, did not meet the standards for this journal by the two or three reviewers that we sent it to. Nobody likes rejection, but please do your best not to take it personally. In this world, you will hear “no” a lot more than you will “yes.”
2. Send an article that is representative of your best work and professional identity. An article that is full of misspellings and grammatical errors is not professional. If your first language isn’t English, you cannot be blamed for making English spelling mistakes, but you are expected to take the time to have a friend, colleague, or mentor help you out and proofread your article before you send it off. Also, sometimes students send us a term paper that looks like a term paper. Please take the time to re-work and even re-write it into an academic article. When you send an article to an editor, you are sending a part of your public, professional self. Just because you send it over email, doesn’t mean you have permission to send off something sloppy. Editors, while not the primary reviewers (who are “blind”), still have an importantly advisory and even executive role to play in finally accepting articles. I have worked with some sympathetic editors who accepted my work in spite of some of my own sloppiness and irresponsibility (arising mostly out of lack of experience and understanding at that point). I am deeply thankful for them, but I am embarrassed that they know me as a sloppy writer. Learn from my mistakes. As an editor, I see what it looks like from the other side, and it can be annoying and burdensome to have to deal with lazy writers.
3. Creativity and originality are extremely important. Our reviewers (like most other good journals) have been around for a while and they have read hundreds of articles (either for personal research or for journal assessment). Many of them read grad essays on a regular basis. So, it takes quite a lot to impress them and show them something that is publishable.
4. Clarity and simplicity are undervalued authorial virtues. Sometimes when I read an article (for JSPL or otherwise), I am embarrassed that I cannot follow it or I don’t understand what the author is talking about. But, then I think – if I can’t understand it, and I have a PhD, who CAN understand it? What kind of audience is the author writing for, if someone like ME cannot follow it? Often, but not always, a convoluted and complex essay is inscrutable, not because it is “learned,” but because the author just didn’t invest enough in writing clearly. Some of the best articles I have reviewed or read are ones that are elegantly simple and clear. I have noticed that Jimmy Dunn has a knack for this.
5. Comprehensive footnotes are not as important as they used to be. A half-century ago, academic articles were expected to interact comprehensively with a topic (especially before there were online search tools and multiple bibliographic indices). Nowadays, because there are so many journals, and so many ways to get at the same information, you really do not need to cite every article, essay, monograph, and commentary related to every point you make. You definitely need good evidence from sources to back-up your thesis, but aim for the most eminent, cogent, and reliable sources. Again, your goal is to convince the reader of your argument, not demonstrate how much you have read. My supervisor once confronted me with a tough question – do you write such long footnotes because, in the end, you are not as confident in your argumentation that you have to hide behind mountains of citations?
6. Stay focused. Most articles could lose about 10-30% of excess baggage by just sticking to the main concerns. After you have drafted your article, go through and ask yourself –do I really need all the sections and paragraphs I have here? Can my case be made with a shorter paper? Why all the extra words? Are there unnecessary rabbit trails?
7. Interact internationally (and beyond English-language literature only). Not only should you interact with the most important German literature, but also think internationally in terms of English-language secondary literature. Some journals out of places like South Africa and Australia, for example, are excellent. There are also some outstanding books and articles being produced in Scandinavia – what do you do if it’s in Swedish (and you don’t know Swedish)? I would run it through a rough online translator to get a gist for its content and, if it is relevant to your research, make a Swedish friend and ask for help (perhaps even involving $$$).
8. Be patient in the review process. The reviewers are not paid. Let me say that again – the editorial readers see $0.00 per article. They are doing this work, not for their reputation or quick cash, but because they care about the field in which they work. I tell those who submit articles to expect 3-4 months, so after that time you can inquire regarding an update. Actually, on one occasion, one reviewer took an extra long time because he became seriously ill for an extended period of time. On another occasion, we had to locate an expert to give counsel on a very specific subject. Many times an assessment is delayed due to unforeseen circumstances and it would do you well to consider that.
9. Do not expect your article to be accepted “as is.” This used to be very hard for me personally as an author, because I felt that by wanting to change my article, they were infringing upon the integrity of my piece of art. But this isn’t a painting, it is an academic article. These experts can teach you (whomever you may be) something and it behooves you to listen and show respect. This is how growing-as-a-professional works. You can certainly try and negotiate some of the changes, but please understand that shaping up an article for final publication is a team effort. Why fight what could be a better final product?
10. Celebrate every article you publish. Sometimes we are tempted to quickly move on and get another article or essay or review under our belt. But, truth be told, rejection could be just around the corner. Take a few weeks off, have a beer or soda with a friend, and be thankful you made it through the process, even once. Many researchers struggle to get published. It is a challenging thing – it is meant to be difficult, or else top-journals could not maintain their elite status (or issues would be thousands of pages long!). Give yourself time to take a breather before heading back out into the publishing trenches!
If you have an article that you might be interested in publishing on Paul, please do think of us, as we are on the lookout for good contributions.