Predatory publishers: avoid the ‘quick fix’

I received an email this morning from a student, sadly not my first (or last I suspect), asking me to help her work out if an offer she received from a publisher to publish her thesis was legit or not. As you may suspect, it was not. I receive these kinds of unsolicited emails all the time, to publish a paper I have written as a book, or to draw on my recent journal article in a keynote at a random conference about everything, or to turn a paper into a whole book. I delete them all. But, I have published enough (and have worked in academic publishing long enough) to smell a scam or predatory publisher/journal/conference when these emails arrive in my inbox.

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But what of less experienced authors? How are they supposed to know that they are potentially being conned into giving their hard work away to a publisher who has zero academic credibility, and may well charge them large amounts of money to publish their work? So many early career researchers are under huge amounts of pressure to publish, and this can make them feel a bit desperate. When I tell first-time authors they may have to wait up to a year to see their paper in print, they freak out a bit, especially because they don’t yet have a conveyor-belt of papers in various stages of development, or a position with status that gives them breathing room. When a seemingly legit email arrives then, promising peer review and publication within 4-6 weeks of receiving the manuscript, it can be mighty tempting to send the paper there instead.

In part, researchers fall into the traps presented by predatory publishers, then, because of this insane pressure to publish (or risk losing a postdoc position, or a chance at a teaching job, and so on). In part, though, I think they fall into the trap because they think that a year-long (or longer) wait between submission and publication is ridiculous. I have learned, from working with people who have yet to publish, or have not published very much, that few people really understand journal waiting times, and what goes into them. Thus, when they are offered a chance to publish really quickly, they may jump at it, believing that the process can actually happen, credibly and with due care, in 6 weeks.

Most credible journals will indicate that it takes a minimum of 16 weeks/4 months to receive a response if your paper has been sent out for peer review. If your paper is rejected, you should hear within 4-6 weeks of submission. Papers are generally reviewed/read by an initial editor or editors, who may then assign an associate editor, who is knowledgeable about the topic you are writing about, to manage your paper. This editor then has to choose peer reviewers, and find at least two people willing and able to review the paper within the stipulated time frame – anywhere from 30 to 60 days. Many reviewers submit reviews late, and this can slow the process. After peer review, the editor then has to look at the feedback and reach a decision on your paper, before sending it back to you with comments and a decision. If your paper is rejected, you will need to start again with a new journal, possibly having to make changes and revisions first. If the reviewers recommend revisions, these can take up to 3 months to effect. The paper may then only go back to the editors for re-review, or it may go back to one or more of the initial reviewers. This again takes a few weeks or more. Then the paper has to be copyedited, returned to you for author checking, and then typeset before it can be published, online or in print. Any journal that tells you it can do all of this in 6 weeks is lying to you, and is certainly predatory.

This journal, published by a large international publisher, gives you a one example of a typical publication process. Most journals of repute do work hard to process papers within 9-12 months of submission, but busier, higher profile journals do have higher rejection rates, and longer wait times because of the volume of research they have to process. Based on research into average wait times for peer review, revisions, possible rejection and resubmission to a different journal, and so on, Editage has useful advice for you on how to prepare your own publication schedule here. There will always be exceptions – sometimes you get lucky: the reviews are positive, the revisions are minor and there’s a gap in an upcoming issue, and you get published within 6 months of submission of your paper. But this is not, unfortunately, the norm.

To work in academia these days is to publish, and share your research with your community of peers and fellow researchers. It’s not just about climbing a totem pole at your university, or scoring the right kinds of ‘credits’ – although (for now anyway) this is part of the ‘game’. I prefer to think of publishing my work as taking advantage of opportunities to speak to my colleagues, here and further afield, about research I am interested in, and think is important. I write papers I would like to read, and papers I think will help or interest or even inspire the people I work with. This motivates me to write papers that credible, well-read, well-respected journals in my field will be interested in. If you are motivated to share your work with readers like you, you will look to the journals you read, find useful and enjoy as possible places to publish your work. And these won’t be predatory, low-impact, no credibility journals.

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Publishing in journals requires patience, fortitude, a thick skin, and a realistic plan.  When those seemingly too-good-to-be-true emails pop into your inbox, spend some time Googling the so-called journal before you jump at a ‘quick fix’. Publish your work where it will be seen, read, engage your readers, and make an impact on your field. The waiting will be worth it.

Paper writing V: answering the ‘so what?’ question

Writing papers for publication means making and supporting strong arguments. This is hard work: making a firm, well-crafted and persuasive argument takes time. But this time is worth taking because this is the most important aspect of your paper. Without a strong argument, you do not have a contribution to knowledge. And if you don’t have that, you don’t have a publishable paper.

Making arguments is not necessarily as simply as just saying ‘This paper will argue that’, and then making that argument. You also need to locate the argument within the field it is making a contribution to. You need to show your readers why your argument is relevant, or important, and worth their time and attention. This is what is often termed the ‘so what?’ question.

If you have ever tutored, lectured or coached other writers, where you have had to read and give feedback on drafts of their writing, you may have some experience of working with this tricky question, and its answers. You are reading a draft of a paper and you get to the end, and it has been full of interesting information, but you wonder ‘So what? Why have I read all of this? What’s the point?’

The first part of the answer to the ‘so what?’ question of this is the actual argument: ‘This paper is claiming that X is the case…’. It takes time to whittle down all the things you could write about to one tight, well-formed argument you can express in one or two clear sentences. But simply making your argument on its own is not enough. If all you do is make your argument, without considering why you are making it, you run the risk of locking your research into a potentially narrow context, and thus limiting your readership. You need to think about your readers, your audience: who are they? What do you need to consider in terms of making your (focused) argument relevant to them? What would they be able to learn, or gain in terms of their own potential research (or practice)?

In asking, and findings answers to, these questions about relevance you can find your way to answering the second part of the ‘so what?’ question: ‘Why am I making this argument? What is my contribution to my field?’ This is really important, and usually included firmly in the conclusion to your paper. It is important to make this clear, and argue for the relevance of your paper to the field, because this clarifies for the reader how you believe you are making a contribution to knowledge, and why you believe this contribution is relevant or necessary. You make this claim on the basis of your reading of the field, your identification of a gap that needs to be filled, and the research you have done to fill this gap.

Thus, there are two parts to the ‘so what?’ question and both need to be clearly answered in your paper. You need to state, and make your argument, and then you need to tell your readers why that argument needs to be made, and what your research is contributing to your field: a critique, an innovation in theory or methodology, an additional empirical case that explains a current problem in a new way, and so on. To answer both parts of this question in your own papers, then, make sure you ask yourself what am I arguing for (or against) in this paper, and why is this important to my field at this point? Answering both, clearly, will help you ensure that your contribution to your field is well made.