Mentoring and Publication

As part of my series on why I’m no longer in academia: mentoring is important. It turns out people aren’t just born with an innate store of arcane knowledge about academic publishing.

My undergraduate department expected upper division students to write publishable quality papers. The papers weren’t themselves publishable because we weren’t doing research. But we were expected to synthesize information, come up with novel ideas,  write in the style of the field, use the citation practices of the field, and so on. In short, we were expected to write in a way such that if we’d actually been doing original research, those papers could’ve gone to a journal. I left my undergraduate program with the sense of what an LPU is and the quality of research that would be considered publishable. That was some good mentoring.

As a graduate student, I expected to learn about publishing in my field: Which journals are good? Which journals are bad? Which journals give good quick feedback if you think your paper is missing something but you aren’t sure what to fix? Are there some journals that are so bad that it’s better to have no publication than to have a publication in them? Or publishing them will set you up for a job at a teaching college but having publications in them will put you out of the running at a research university? I know different fields have different answers to these questions. I know enough to ask these questions because these issues were discussed in my undergraduate department. I just don’t know the answers in music technology because my graduate department assiduously avoided any appearance of mentoring.

The way different disciplines view publication varies. Some fields consider a peer reviewed published conference proceedings to be the same as a journal. Some think journals are better. Some think you can take something from a published proceedings and put it straight in a journal because only the journal counts. Some think it all counts so you need at least one more LPU to spin a conference proceedings into a paper. Some fields think posters are amazing because they’re short and fast and represent the cutting edge. Some fields think posters are laughable substitutes for Real Research(™). I knew a guy who got denied tenure over that last one. This is a real risk of interdisciplinary fields: tenureless guy was from a posters-only discipline and entered a posters-suck discipline without thinking to ask if the rules had changed. I have no clue what the publication standards are in music technology. I have peer reviewed conference proceedings and no job interviews so I have to assume I was steered in the wrong direction.

As far as publishing goes, I have a sense of the lay of the land for my undergraduate field (Cognitive Science). If I’d gone to graduate school in the same field, I probably could’ve swung publishing without any mentoring from Wesley. Heck, I knew enough of it to mentor some of Percy’s students through the process. But my graduate program didn’t teach this stuff to its undergraduate students either. This was not simply a case of thinking that learning to publish is something they thought ought to be learned by undergraduates and was therefore not their problem with graduate students. Despite frequent explicit requests on my part, faculty in my graduate program failed to provide mentoring. I got no advice about publishing and even less advice about having music performed outside of academia.

At the encouragement from Percy, I submitted something to a journal on my own. He’s working in a slightly different area so he couldn’t really advise me about the oral tradition of journals in my area. I had to wait for the right call because lots of journals seem to always have special issues instead of letting you submit anything whenever. So I waited a couple of years and then when the right special issue for my research came out, I submitted a paper and was rejected.

I got an email while traveling demanding to know why I hadn’t resubmitted my paper. I’d expected them to say “revise and resubmit” rather than “reject” if they wanted me to change something and send it back. That’s how things work in fields I know about. This is where a mentor would have been handy.

As it was, the notice that I could actually revise and resubmit came far too late–months after the initial rejection and after a resubmission deadline I hadn’t been informed of. I was snowed in on a train that wasn’t going anywhere for quite a long time. That there happened to be working free wireless at a station in the middle nowhere when nothing else was actually working was some kind of fluke. I was two days from a library without the blizzard that closed the tracks. So I had to write an apologetic email and give up the publication.

Since the paper had been rejected, I’d already resigned myself to not getting the paper published and moved on with my life. I’d already waited a couple of years for an appropriately themed journal and I figure it would be a long while before something appropriate came up again. And by then the research would be seriously aged. I suppose I could have submitted it to a journal that didn’t stick to themed issues, but I’ve been told that it’s better not to publish in bad journals. I couldn’t think of any journal that I respected that didn’t do themed issues. Maybe it would have been better to publish in a journal with spotty quality than just to have conference proceedings; maybe it wouldn’t. This is someplace where some mentoring would have been helpful.

Really, this is something that should have happened in graduate school. Wesley shouldn’t have sent me out into the world with only conference proceedings under my belt. Even if conference proceedings are indeed the only thing that matter in the field, it would have been good for him to mentor me through just one journal article to familiarize me with the process.

I hear my partner’s half of these conversations on the phone all the time. I hear him say things like, “Most journals will send your resubmission back to the same referees, so you should throw in some footnotes to address their concerns even though they seem a bit off topic. But journal XYZ often sends papers to different referees, so if you think the first referees were off-base, just send it back and see if you get someone without a pet axe to grind the next time around.” Or he’ll say, “You should make the changes suggested by the first referee, but the second referee is from space. Just write the editor explaining why referee two is completely wrong and see if they accept that in lieu of changes that make no sense.” I think I’ve even heard him say, “Journal ABC often says ‘revise and resubmit’ but I’ve never heard of them actually accepting a revision. Revise your paper and send it to journal JKL instead.”

Wesley should’ve mentored me through the process of publishing. He should have told me when he thought I had something publishable. He should’ve told me the best place to send it. When it was rejected, he should have said something like, “Oh, journal QRS will probably still print your article. They always say ‘reject’ when they really mean ‘revise and resubmit,’ so revise your article and send it right back.” Or he could have said something like, “Oh, journal LMN always says they have themes for their issues, but they’ll take other topics as well. Just fix up the article and send it to LMN now instead of waiting for someone to come up with an appropriate special issue.” Not having publications probably hurts me on the job market. Had Wesley done his job, I would have had a publication outside of conference proceedings before getting my PhD. As it was, Wesley just encouraged students to submit to ICMC which involved less work on his part and taught us nothing about the lay of the land with regards to journals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *