How (not to) to write?

I’ve been an academic for longer than I care to remember. Over the years, much has changed and one of the more surprising changes has to do with publishing. And so, today I want to write about academic writing.  More specifically, I want to ask the question: “What does it take to publish?”.

To be (almost) completely honest, this post results from being (sort of) envious. Yes, I publish, sometimes more, sometimes less, yet, no matter what I do, there are people who publish so much I can only dream of the level of output they have. And my frustration reached the level at which I decided to look more closely at the differences between me and those who churn out one publication after another.

Before I tell you what publishing strategies I discovered, I want to say that I also found many who publish a lot, because they are very very smart, and, probably, organise their life/work better or haven’t got tired with time. Moreover, what I write below is based solely on my experience and I don’t claim any objectivity of analysis. I construct two hypothetical cases of publishing strategies. Both strategies appear to be highly successful in yielding paper after paper. Needless to say, I am constructing two ideal types, real life is much more complex, with publications fitting the categories sometimes better, sometimes worse.

The first strategy is to please everybody. Your research doesn’t challenge anything or anyone. You simply take the wonders of previous research and extend it. It is thanks to your article that  previous research will reach its full potential. There is not a shred of confrontation in such publication, while research seems to be done with the sole purpose of helping others out. Paper after paper, I read these articles-helping-hands and I marvel at the ability to see only the good in everything around.

The other strategy is one in which you cut your research results into (barely acceptable) smithereens. Your 15 articles can easily be published as a longish one, perhaps two, yet 15 are obviously much better from the institutional or research-assessment point of view. Every article is a skilful representation of a little part of a larger project, allowing the authors (it’s usually multiple authors in various configurations) to write about one project a number of times. The difference between me and them is so huge that I don’t even appear in the rear-view mirror.

The crucial point that I want to make is that these strategies, yielding more and more publications, have little to do with the quality of research, quality is separate, parallel. Rather, they are to do with advanced competences in writing articles. In other words, in order to publish you don’t have to have anything important or significant to say. This because it’s not so much what you say, but how you say it. Publishing here consists in skilful packaging whatever you have to say.

Now, I don’t want to make any ethical comment and I am not going to tell you what I think about such strategies, let alone whether, if I could/knew how I would myself engage in them. This is because I think that for the most part they are developed not because people using them actually want to get ahead in the race, but because they are forced to do. As the pressure to publish and get more grants increases more and more and more (do recall the tragic case of Prof. Stefan Grimm of Imperial College), academics need to respond with strategies allowing them to cope with it. And the strategies I described are ideal for that purpose. No, you can’t write an earth-shattering article every time, but you can write your article so well, it will be published.

A digression here. Over the last years, I have heard of universities asking researchers not to publish book chapters, recently I have heard of a general book ban. Researchers are supposed to publish articles not books – books take much longer to write and count for as much as an article. I actually started wondering whether the book which is with the publishers will be my last. End of digression.

I think that we are competing less and less on a market of ideas, but we are competing on a market of well-written pieces. This has further consequences and here are few of them:

  1. different skills are needed to publish;
  2. the gap between people able to write well-written articles and those not willing or capable of doing it will grow further and further;
  3. the information ocean is becoming information deluge;
  4. publication quality will continue to decrease, yet our CVs will continue to grow to the satisfaction, presumably, of our paymasters;
  5. everybody will need to learn to ‘write well’;
  6. eventually, it will lead to revisions of standards of publishing, both in terms of expectations of volume of publications, what constitutes an appropriate and good article and probably some other things (at which point I hope to be already retired).

Is there a solution? I don’t think so. The pressures in academic jobs will not suddenly subside, as we shall be getting better and better at writing, though not necessarily at doing research. So, on the whole this is a pessimistic post, noting that in the time I have been an academic, academic outputs have changed and are still changing considerably, and, on average, for the worse. And the idea of slow science, perhaps only slowing science down, becomes more urgent.


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