Book review: Writing for peer reviewed journals



I am on the precipice of submitting a journal article for consideration, and so it is timely that I should read Writing for Peer Review Journals: Strategies for Getting Published (2013) by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler, a fantastic text for the PhD student or early career researcher wanting to improve the success rate of journal manuscripts being accepted for publication and build confidence as a scholarly writer.

I am a bit nervous thinking about the prospect of sending off my manuscript. Actually, I am more than just a little worried. My entire body is filled with academic anxiety that I somehow have to alleviate every day in order to sit at the computer and write. What’s worse is that I actually enjoy academic research and the writing process. Developing an argument that makes you feel like you can change the world; that you are contributing to new knowledge. It is my passion, and when I write (what I hope is) a wonderfully juicy and critically engaging sentence or paragraph, I just want to high-five myself (is that weird?).

Academic writing can be such a fun and creative experience. It is at this point, just when I am about to say to myself: ‘Briony, you are a genius, this is your destiny – you go girl!’ that the self-doubt begins to creep in: ‘is my analysis strong enough? Is my argument valid? Do I know enough about this topic that I am researching; that everyone keeps telling me that I am ‘becoming the expert in’?’ All my endorphins riding the waves of my academic enthusiasm dissipate and I am left with that gut-wrenching feeling that prevents me from pressing ‘send’ on my journal article submission, and forces me to close that folder in which a first, second, third…tenth draft sits, never to be proof-read again.

What Thomson and Kamler succinctly articulate in Writing for Peer Review Journals is that this is the catch-22 of publishing. Researchers feel that they need confidence in order to feel ready to publish, but in order to develop confidence they need to experience having their work published, and herein lies the conceptual trap: scholarly writers need that confidence, which they internalise and claim they do not have, in order to get their work published in the first place. As Thomson and Kamler state: ‘the key to the journal article is not only having an argument, but also the stance to assert its significance’.

As most readers may already be aware, academics are working in what has been aptly phrased as a ‘publish or perish’ higher education environment. Publications are now the measure of quality of research in academia both in Australia and overseas. Combine the underfunded expansion of Australian universities with a reduction in permanent or continuing academic positions, and the precariousness of the academic enterprise becomes all too real. Researchers’ anxieties over publishing are not unwarranted. Thomson describes her recent experience ranking of applications for a three year post doctorate award at her institution. The highest scoring candidate was:

… five years out of the PhD and already had five books and numerous journal articles. The sheer quantity of this output was almost impossible for any other applicant to come near.

I was shocked! Indeed, how could I possibly compete with a curriculum vitae like that? However, Thomson and Kamler qualify

… this emergent cut-throat academic world is not one we wish to support and we are not writing this book simply to service these kinds of audit and competitive regimes’.

Thomson resides at the University of Nottingham, England, and Kamler at Deakin University in Australia. The British and Australian higher education contexts are not dissimilar and as such observations and experiences of the neoliberal corporatised university in operation and the motivations behind academic publishing described in Writing for Peer Review Journals can be applied in Australia, as well as across the United Kingdom and much of Europe. This is not just a ‘how-to’ book. Instead, Thomson and Kamler are fantastic at weaving together the theories and practices of academic writing with the complexities and contradictions that come packaged with scholarly writing in performative times.

Writing for Peer Review Journals offers a step-by-step approach. Pitched at all levels of academia (because don’t we all know a professor whose academic writing and structure could do with some improvement). The language and style of writing in the text is inclusive and articulate and does not undermine the experience and abilities of its reader. Thomson and Kamler cite that the text’s point of difference is in its focus on ‘the production, nature and sustainability of scholarship’. They approach academic writing strategies with a new conceptual framework; one that connects the writer, and text, with disciplinary, and national and international contexts.

For Thomson and Kamler: ‘learning is a process of becoming’ and this makes Writing for Peer Review Journals profoundly pedagogical. The text is filled with experiential and practical advice as well as qualitative interviews with academic writers, journal editors, and peer reviewers. Writing is not a straight forward linear process and the chapters are structured in a way that reflects this. However, it is easy text to navigate, and depending on where you are in your writing journey, you may wish to jump straight to particular areas of the text that you find relevant to your needs.

Although this text is such an enjoyable read, you may find yourself flicking back and forth to read all sections because every chapter has something to offer regardless of what stage you are at in the writing process. I found chapter one, “The Writer” to be particularly affecting. Thomson and Kamler’s words encouraged and emboldened me as they revealed the depth of their knowledge, experience and understanding of the issues that surround academic writing. Writing a journal article for publication is as much about the text as it is about the formation of one’s academic identity: ‘it creates the scholar who, at the end of writing, will be different to the writer who began’. The focus is on targeting the reader that you want your writing to engage with, rather than on the writing itself.

Writing for Peer Review Journals certainly dishes out the truth-bombs of publishing and I found this to be refreshing. The quantification of academic research via measurements of research quality and output has somewhat shifted the intentions of academic publishing and as a consequence scholars are either intentionally forgetting or perhaps unaware of the etiquettes that should be applied in the process of submitting a journal article for consideration. Now, I’m not talking about some old-fashioned propriety. It is about getting your journal editors and peer reviewers on-side. It is about creating a culture of collegiality, collaboration, and respect, which in the hyper-competitive neoliberal academy seems to be very much lacking.

So, respect your peer-reviewers, okay! Put in your best effort. Don’t expect your reviewers to offer feedback on work that is not ready. Although, please don’t feel anxious about this. Maybe these are also the first steps towards creating a culture of feedback where we rarely ever read snooty or contemptuous reviewer comments. Similarly, it is okay to not submit your articles to the top-ranked journals in your field. It is, as Thomson and Kamler point out, about making a contribution; one that clearly articulates why your research is important and why your intended readership should care about your research not just about point scoring.

While most high achieving PhD students and early career researchers should already be familiar with the discourses of the journals they wish to publish in and how to target their papers toward the specific audiences of those desired journals, this book nevertheless deserves a read because its content goes beyond what you can learn on the ‘instructions for authors’ page on the Taylor and Francis or Sage websites and tells you more than the vague 150 word ‘aims and scope’ description on the journal’s homepage. Even experienced writers may find something useful in Writing for Peer Review Journals

This book offers practical tips such as organising and structuring your writing sessions, and developing a timetable for research and publication to maximise your time and achieve your goals. Then there is the ever important chapter on “Engaging with Reviewers and Editors”, which demystifies what happens to your journal article in the peer review process and how to respond. I found this to be a particularly useful chapter as it was the part of the whole publishing process that I knew least about. Thomson and Kamler even provide a chapter on “Writing with Others” which I strongly encourage all to read, but this may be of most interest to humanities and early career researchers. Collaborative writing is integral to building your writing portfolio and it demonstrates to interview panels and promotion committees your ability to work in a team.

If you want to take your journal article submissions to the next level, I thoroughly recommend you read this book. Writing for Peer Review Journals will reinvigorate your writing purpose and make you want to open up that old Word document you have been avoiding and take another look at it. It is time for me to reassess my approach to writing for publication and submit that journal article. Wish me luck!

Author Bio: Briony Lipton is a PhD candidate in Gender Studies in the School of Sociology. Her research explores the relationship between academic women, feminism and university leadership in Australian Higher Education. you can find Briony on Twitter as @briony_lipton