A Young Policy Professional’s Thoughts on Publishing
By Brent Gibbons, Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research
When I first started graduate school, one of the big initial shifts was having instructors who no longer used textbooks as their primary source material. Instead, they had syllabi filled with journal articles. The good part was I no longer had chronic shoulder pain from lugging textbooks; the bad part was I would soon need new glasses. In the world of academia, with its restricted-access journals, publication-filled CV’s so long that a printed copy might wipe out a small forest, and articles that would be impressive enough by themselves without mentioning the extra two pages of fine print references, the idea of publishing at the time was daunting.
Now, after moving through my public policy program, I’ve learned to savor a well-constructed study, carefully combing through some and jumping to the methods section or tables with others...as I was told I would eventually do. The publication process is no longer shrouded in mystery. Journal editors are real people who know the field and reviewers are experts in their respective areas of research who volunteer their time to ensure quality publications. It may not be a perfect system, but it does serve the end of distributing our work and moving the collective research forward. And let’s not forget that although at times it seems our policymakers disregard the evidence, our publications do have an impact in the policy world.
So I don’t pretend to have a lot of wisdom on this subject. If you look me up on Google scholar, you won’t find any publications to my name...yet. I just took a postdoctoral fellowship and part of the position is to publish from my dissertation, so I’m working on producing publications now. But what I can share is my experience so far in trying to get some articles out the door. I hope this is helpful for others in graduate school or who are thinking about publishing some of their own work for the first time.
First, I should point out that I have an excellent mentor and this makes the process much easier. Our degrees are less a stamp of proficiency in our field than an induction into the learning that takes place in our careers. And finding mentors is a necessary step to ask questions about how to present material, what might be a good journal to choose, and other publishing strategies. I would also recommend seeking out opportunities to be part of projects that will lead to publications, even if you will not be an author. I don’t mean to suggest that publications are the only reason to do research, but being part of the publication process is valuable experience for your own future research, whether published or not. It forces you to carefully think about just how you want to communicate your work to the larger research community.
Second, publications take a lot of time and if you’ve procrastinated at any point before in your life, you’re going to procrastinate in this area. It’s easy to see day-to-day work take priority and your publications fall to the side. Someone once said to me, that often we prioritize our time based on two factors: the importance of our work, and its immediacy. That is very true. Work that is important but is not immediate often gets pushed aside which is unfortunate because instead we end up spending too much time on work that is not important but does have immediacy.
Publishing is too important to push aside and we have to find the systems that enable us to carve out the time we need.
Third, push yourself to get critical feedback in whatever ways possible. An obvious source of feedback is from presentations, which can range from informal brown bag talks to big conferences with poster sessions or individual talks. Presenting is rewarding in itself and helps you connect with other researchers, but it also forces you to think carefully about your message and exposes you to the kind of critical feedback that you’ll get when submitting a paper. For me, presentations are a great motivator, giving me a hard deadline that I never thought I’d be so grateful to have. Working in teams on publications is another way to generate feedback, which naturally occurs through collaboration. Colleagues can also be invaluable in this way, particularly those from whom you can expect honest, critical responses.
Finally, I want to reiterate that so far, I don’t see any magic in the process of publishing. Sure, there are strategies, so-called “tricks of the trade,” about which we might just have to learn by making some mistakes. And there’s no way around the fact that publishing takes a lot of hard work. But with good mentors, persistence, and commitment to our work, we will get published. Not only will we get published but as we do it more, it will get easier. In doing so, we will share our knowledge—which is and should remain the real goal, moving the collective research forward.