The insecure scholar: career-making journal articles will have to wait

What with the pull of book-writing and the need to earn a living, there’s no time to achieve ‘high-impact’ status

October 20, 2009

I know “publish or perish” is an academic cliché, but it’s no less true for that. In the managerialist UK university system, you are judged on “output” – and that means publications. Not just any publications, but refereed journal articles and now increasingly not just any refereed journal articles but ones in “high-impact” journals. I don’t need to point out the problems with the system – any number of Times Higher Education articles can do that better than I can. But I can say that the one thing worse than being an academic pressured into writing more and more journal articles is not having the job security to write them in the first place.

As I’ve explained in previous blogs, I have never held a permanent academic post. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been “research active” and haven’t published – quite the reverse. I’ve even got a couple of journal articles, although nowhere near the amount I should have had given my post-PhD experience.

So what am I complaining about? Well, because of my insecure employment situation, working on fixed-term contracts or as a freelance consultant, my “publication strategy” has been forced to prioritise other kinds of publication.

I’ve produced quite a few reports for community organisations. I am mostly proud of them, but the freelance contracts only pay me to produce the report itself and nothing else. This leaves very little time to do literature reviews. Most funders want clear, actionable findings and aren’t very interested in the intricacies of academic debates on the issues. I am often poorly versed in the background literature necessary for an article to be accepted in a refereed journal.

I could, of course, do this work in my own time. There are problems here, though. Leaving aside the embarrassment of those times when I have not had an institutional affiliation to put by my name, and leaving aside the problems of working for free, there have been good reasons for me to prioritise other publications rather than journal articles.

The problem with journals is that while they may be good for the CV, publishing in journals is not necessarily the best way to build up a reputation. Only a minority of journals are widely read, and those that are can be incredibly difficult to get a paper accepted in.

Books are a much better way of getting known. Despite the lunacy that has led the research assessment exercise not to value them proportionally as highly as journal articles and the many anecdotal stories of young academics being pressured to “salami slice” their publications rather than produce a single tome, people actually read books and take notice of their authors. In my insecure position, I have always felt that the publication strategy that will ultimately get me a permanent post will be one that gets me known. So I’ve edited a couple of books and published a sole-authored one. I’ve never regretted it. None of them is a big seller, but they’ve brought me more attention and kudos in my field than publishing a stream of journal articles would have done. Most of all, they have made me feel proud, made me feel that wherever my career goes, I have made a contribution to scholarship.

The other kind of publications I’ve produced that have prevented me from submitting more journal articles have a more mercenary motivation. Over the past few years, I’ve written quite a few articles and comment pieces for newspapers and magazines. They are good for my ego and my profile but, frankly, their main attraction is that I get paid (albeit not a great deal). In my position where it is never clear if anyone will employ me in a year’s time, I need to explore any other source of cash I can find.

So I’m heading into an odd kind of situation. I’m developing a growing reputation as a scholar and a writer, but my career is still an insecure one. My current fixed-term contract hasn’t helped matters that much. The “output” at the end is another report, which will probably get a fair amount of publicity, but will not fill the gaping journal article-shaped hole on my CV.

On a fixed-term contract, I’m paid to do only what I am contracted to do, and this means that any journal articles will have to be produced in my own time, which is in short supply right now.

Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I should have shunned the siren calls of books and paid writing in favour of unpaid labour at the journal-publishing coalface. What I do know, though, is that if I did have a “proper” academic job, the dilemmas would be a little easier. The pressure that permanent academics feel to publish in journals and the lack of respect for other forms of publication is crazy. But at least in a permanent post, writing for journals is part of the job, rather than something to fit or not fit into one’s “free” time.

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