Desperate Soliciting from Academic Journals

begging and pleadingWhen you’ve published an academic journal article or two, you start getting emails which, at first sight, seem very flattering. They praise your previous work, or your expertise, or both, then invite you to write an article for their journal, or to edit a special issue, or produce an e-book. But when you look more closely, these emails start to look a bit odd. Some ask me to write for journals in medicine, life sciences, or STEM disciplines, all areas in which I have little knowledge and no expertise. Others want me to take on onerous editing responsibilities, sourcing articles from prestigious scholars in return for one whole free electronic journal issue or e-book. And some are verging on the surreal. Here is an example I did not make up:

“Dear Dr. H Helen,

Tranquil greets from [name of] Journal… We would be truly fortunate if you could assist us to successfully release the issues by your active and enthusiastic submission of manuscript which will be processed & published under [name of] Journal for upcoming glorious year…. It would be grateful if you would submit your manuscript by [date in three weeks’ time]… It would be our honor to be associated with such an intent, expeditious personality like you for future endeavours.”

Maybe it’s my intent and expeditious personality that causes me to be somewhat suspicious of these emails – particularly as they always seem to want me to produce an article in three weeks or thereabouts. Now I’m a fairly swift reader, thinker, and writer, but producing a journal article in three weeks from a standing start is a request I would find virtually impossible to grant. So it’s just as well I have more sense than to try.

Interestingly, these are not predatory journals. None of them ask me to pay for publication, and they don’t appear on Beall’s List. They seem to be desperate journals. One emailed me on 17 February, giving me a most generous deadline of 15 March, and finishing, ‘If it is not feasible for you to submit paper in the month of February, then kindly let us know your feasible time of contribution. Anticipating your quick response.’ They didn’t get any response, let alone a quick one. So the cheeky blighters emailed again on 16 March, giving me a revised deadline of 31 March.

When I check out the journals online, they appear to be for real. So why are they so desperate? “I wonder if you could submit Research article, Mini review, Case reports, short commentary, letter to the editor, book review for publication in our upcoming issue, to spread the essence of your eminent efforts throughout the world.” Despite the strange language they use, many are based in the US – or at least that’s what their websites say.

And who responds to these poorly targeted requests? I write on research methods in the social sciences, and there is some overlap with health services. So, at a stretch, you could excuse journals focusing on medicine from thinking I might like to write for them, particularly as I’ve published articles in journals such as the Journal of Public Mental Health and Perspectives in Public Health. But life sciences? STEM disciplines? No chance.

I’m on the editorial board of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology which has never been short of submissions. If we weren’t getting enough submissions, I’d suggest we should stop publishing the journal – and I’m sure the publisher would be there before me. Or we could try soliciting submissions, if we thought it was a temporary blip, but I’d want to be targeting people much more carefully than these almost random emails.

I once responded to a request to submit a journal article. I was at the inaugural meeting of the Arts and Sciences Research Forum, at CRASSH, University of Cambridge. In a plenary session, for reasons I can’t remember, I was banging on about the need to do participatory research properly if you’re going to do it at all (must blog about that one of these days). At the break, a man came up and introduced himself to me as Woody Caan. He said he edited a journal, and was very interested in what I’d been saying about involving service users in research, and would I like to consider maybe writing something about this for his journal? He thought it would interest his readers, and perhaps I could think about it and we could discuss it more by email in the coming days and weeks.

When I checked out Woody Caan online, this self-effacing and charming man turned out to be an eminent Professor. We did discuss options by email and I ended up writing the article. He was completely relaxed about the fact that it took me several months.

That, in my view, is a good way to solicit an article for an academic journal. But mostly I decide what I want to write, for which journal. Then they can decide whether they want to publish it. That works for me.

First Peer Review – And Pizza

I’ve just done my first ever proper grown-up peer review of an article which had been submitted to a research methods journal. It was an interesting intellectual and emotional experience.

The article’s title was enticing and promised new insight into an aspect of research methods. I looked bad pizzaforward to reading it and learning about a point I hadn’t previously considered. And the content did deliver new insight – but it delivered it really, really badly. It was such a disappointment, like getting the pizza you ordered an hour late, cold, and with your favourite ingredient missing.

I felt such empathy for the author. He or she had obviously put in a fair amount of effort, and was going to be bitterly disappointed by my review. I could feel that pain. But it wasn’t a borderline decision; the article needed a lot more work. Key references had been left out – imagine an article on psychoanalysis that doesn’t cite Freud or Jung, and you’ll get the picture. Also, the argument made was woefully under-theorised, and with very little interpretive analytic work either.

I had prepared carefully, reading the journal’s guidelines for reviewers, the COPE guidelines for reviewers, and Pat Thomson’s posts on reviewing journal articles, while reflecting on my own experience of receiving reviews. So I wrote as constructively as I could, giving praise where I thought it was merited, specific references to help the author build the context, and suggesting some questions they might consider at the interpretive stage. I was quite relieved to find I was up to the job. But I still felt bad for the poor author.

I also felt bad for the entire research profession, because the argument being made was a really important one which needed to be heard. So much so that I thought I might have difficulty keeping it confidential. It was one of those points which, once stated, seemed blindingly obvious. And we all read so much. I was determined to maintain my professional standards and protect the author’s intellectual property – yet I could imagine, a few months on, absent-mindedly saying, ‘Oh yes, I read something somewhere, can’t quite remember where, but it made this really good point…’ I wonder how often that happens.

Then I had an idea. I hopped onto the web and did a quick search – and lo and behold, an article was published just a couple of months ago, making the same point. Whoopee! I could talk about it after all! But oh no… my poor, poor author…

Actually, it’s not a disaster, because there is more than enough room for two articles making this point in smiley pizzadifferent journals. So I added that reference, too, to my review, and ended with some words of encouragement. I truly think this is an important article in the making, and with a little more work, the author could deliver his or her argument in an article which is more like a warm, fragrant, appetising pizza, made from good ingredients in the right proportions.

When To Stop Reading

I wrote a post, a while ago, about the difficulties I experienced in letting go of a piece of writing. I can also find it difficult to let go pile of booksof reading.

One of the things I’ve been doing for #AcWriMo this year is working on an article for an academic journal, about the role carers can play in mental health research. The role service users can play is fairly well established now (which is not the same as it all being plain sailing) but there is clear evidence that service users’ participation will benefit the research itself and everyone involved. There is no such evidence for carers, who are often ignored or sidelined by service providers, researchers, and others, yet I believe that carers also have a unique and valuable role to play in mental health research.

According to the literature, so do a few others. I’ve found some articles which are directly relevant, primarily from the Australian region of Victoria, and some others which are peripherally relevant, from various places. I’ve probably found enough. But there’s a niggling anxiety that maybe, just maybe, there’s a crucial, seminal article somewhere which I just haven’t found yet.

When I did my PhD, I read from two bodies of literature: work on emotion (huge, over more than a century, no chance whatsoever I could read it all) and partnership (comparatively small, over a decade or two, I could definitely read most of it). That was an interesting experience. I read as much of the partnership literature as I could lay hands on, and a more targeted selection of the emotion literature. One key emotion text was published during my doctoral studies, and I didn’t find out about it until I was close to the end. I read it swiftly, and banged in a few references, but my examiners turned out to be dastardly clever and very much on the ball. They pulled me up for not having considered the writer’s arguments with sufficient care, and made me go back and read and cite her work again.

This has left me with a dread of reading inadequately and being found out. And there is so much out there to read! Journal articles, grey literature, chapters, whole books, and more being publbig pile of booksished every day. I can end up spending hours devising new search terms that might just uncover one more relevant piece of text. For a journal article it’s not possible to review all the literature, as you might for a doctoral thesis. But reviewers and editors will expect a writer to have a good understanding of the literature in the field, and to be as familiar with recent developments as with the seminal pieces of work.

And that’s my guideline. Do I have a good understanding of the literature, which includes recent developments as well as key texts from longer ago? If the answer is ‘yes, I think so’, then I can stop reading. While I may still have missed something relevant, it’s over to the reviewers, then, to point that out. And after all, if I carry on reading for ever, I’ll never get any writing done, and what use would that be?