Academic writing: making (some) sense of a complex ‘practice of mystery’

This is a second post linked to my own insights about academic writing at postgraduate and postdoctoral level, gleaned from working with a range of student and early career writers over the last few years. This one tackles a tricky topic: the aspects of writing that can be knowable and teachable, and those that are more tacit and mysterious, and how we grapple with this as writers (and writing teachers).


Have you ever had the experience of reading a really well-written, tightly argued paper without one word out of place, and wondered: ‘how did the author do that?’ Writing like that seems like a fabulous piece of magic – a card trick that should be easy to do, but is actually much harder than it looks to replicate yourself. Why is academic writing so complex, and hard to do in sparkly, elegant, memorable papers and theses?

Theresa Lillis refers to academic essay writing in particular, which is sort of a base unit for all other forms of prose-style academic writing, as an institutional practice of mystery. It is difficult to decode the rules, and then re-enact them in your own writing, across different subjects, different disciplines, and different levels of study and career-practice. Each time you write, you have to learn something new – develop and hone your skills. If you are starting from a position of not being a mother-tongue speaker of the language you are writing in, or having had a relatively poor home and school literacy background, then this writing work is all the more challenging. This is why writing needs to be de-mystified through being made a visible, learnable-and-teachable part of the curriculum.

As a writing teacher, this is where the challenge starts: how do I facilitate the process of creating ‘magic’ through helping writers develop and hone their skills so that a paper can be written or a thesis constructed? What parts of this process can I really make overtly knowable and teachable, and what parts will remain somewhat ‘mysterious’? This is perhaps a small part of a bigger question about whether every aspect of higher education learning and teaching can indeed be made visible, overt, step-by-step and therefore more easily learnable by as many students as possible.

pulling ideas together

Some of the writing process is knowable and teachable in relatively overt ways: there are clear guidelines for creating a research design and outlining methodology and methods, and you can follow a process that can be broken down into steps. There is a basic process to follow that will take you from a broader research problem, through increasingly focused reading to a gap, and then to a research question you can answer. There are useful ‘rules’ to follow to create clear, coherent paragraphs that are written in your own authorial voice, using basic structures, guides and tools that have been tried and tested, and researched. Thus, as a writing teacher and coach, I can (and do) draw on all of the advice, tools, experience and insight at my disposal to make as much of the process of creating a paper or a research project visible, knowable and teachable. But…

You can follow all the advice, and play by all the ‘rules’ that can be made visible and be broken into steps or parts, and still end up with a paper or thesis that is missing something. It’s all there, but it’s not. Technically, it’s a paper or a thesis: it has all the required sections, it says something relatively novel, and it has been edited and polished. But examiners and reviewers are lukewarm – it meets all the visible standards, but it seems to miss some invisible mark that no one told you about or showed you.

question mark

What went wrong?

Trafford and Leshem, in this paper on doctoral writing, argue that the missing ‘x-factor’ is something they call ‘doctorateness’. This is more than displaying skill at writing or doing research, and it is more than having a good idea for a paper or a thesis. It is something slightly mysterious, and has aspects in common, I think, with Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. This can be defined as ‘the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences’ (Social Theory Re-Wired). Habitus, doctorateness, the writing x-factor – these are difficult and somewhat ambiguous concepts. The point of writing at this level is to persuade people of your arguments – to win them over to thinking about your subject in a novel, or challenging, or critical way. We write to make and convey meaning, and we need to structure, style and present our papers in the ways that best enables this.

The style of the writing needs to reflect the nature of the knowledge. If you are writing in the natural sciences, you would likely be writing in a starker, more pared down prose so that the ‘science’ shines and conveys the meaning you (and your readers) are interested in, whereas in English Literature, you would probably choose more creative phrasing, ‘flowery’ prose and imagery to construct and convey your meanings. We write within and in response to stylistic and meaning-oriented ‘structures’ that shape our writing, and are shifted and shaped by the writing that we do over time. So, there are two aspects here that writers need to be aware of, and work on continuously.

The first is the ‘rules’ or guidelines that I have already mentioned a little: how are meanings predominantly created and conveyed within your subject/discipline/field? What will your readers likely expect, and what will journal editors/examiners be looking for to mark your writing out as ‘belonging’ to this field, and making a contribution? This is important. If you break or bend too many of the rules, your readers may completely miss your meaning, and the paper will fall short of making your voice heard in relation to those you want to ‘converse’ with in your field. This aspect can be knowable and teachable: the genres, conventions, structures, forms and small and big ‘rules for writing’ can be elicited, make visible, and broken down into manageable advice, steps and so on.

The second aspect is where the ambiguity comes in – where part of the writer’s habitus/’doctorateness’ resides. This aspect involves making and conveying meanings within and perhaps slightly beyond the ‘rules for writing’ that shape your field, but with a certain flair, style and ‘je ne sais quois’ that makes your writing more engaging, interesting and readable than papers that may make similar kinds of arguments. This is harder to teach, and harder to enact in your own writing in ways that you can put into words or steps for others to follow. The truth may well be that some writers have more of a flair for writing than others. This flair may come from being an avid reader (and living in a home and going to a school that surrounded them with books and time to read). It may come from having had a wonderful English teacher at school who provided advice and encouragement. It may be something less easy to pin down – it may be a bit of a mystery in the end.


As a writing teacher and coach, I work hard to unpack, break down and make teachable as much of the writing-reading-thinking process as I can, using images, metaphors, examples and so on. For the most part, it enables people to make a start on a paper or chapter, and make progress over time. It is harder to tell writers what exactly it is about parts of their paper or thesis that don’t ‘work’ for me as a reader, but I think it is important to try. Why am I not convinced or persuaded here? Why is this point not making an impact? Why does this meaning come across as vague, or confusing? If more writers could be pointed – by critical friends/examiners/peer reviewers/editors – towards  a need to re-read, re-think and revise their meanings from the perspective of readers, perhaps more writers would be able to unravel the more mysterious parts of academic writing. It would certainly be an encouraging start to making the writing of publishable academic work less complex, and thus more achievable for more writers.


What does it mean to ‘sound academic’ in your writing?

I have been reading a lot of other people’s writing lately, which has kind of sapped my own creative energies. However, it really has got me thinking about a few issues related to helping other people to improve their writing, which I’ll share over a few posts. This one is about ‘sounding academic’, and what that may mean in academic writing.

The first thing I have noticed in the academic writing I have read, as an editor and a critical friend, is that writers often use overly complex sentences and (under-explained) terms to convey their ideas. Here is one example:

Despite the popularity of constructivist explanations, this perspective oversimplifies the otherwise complex ontology and epistemology of reality by suggesting that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, as well as tables, chairs and atoms are social constructions. Constructivists do not necessarily focus on an ontological reality they regard as unintelligible and unverifiable, but instead on constructed reality. Rather, constructivists discount claims to universalism, realism or objective truth, and admit that their position is merely a view, a more or less coherent way of understanding things that has thus far worked for them as a model of the world.

There is a lot going on in this sentence – it tries to establish that constructivism is popular, but flawed, and then also tries to show why it is flawed. But, for me, the sentence doesn’t quite pull this off. A few simpler, connected sentences may clarify and expand a little on what the author is trying to put across here.

Constructivism is a popular paradigm or explaining reality. Yet, its ontological and epistemological stance is overly relativist, as it conflates different categories of social construction in problematic ways. For example, a constructivist may argue that like tables, chairs and atoms, race, sexuality and gender and social constructions. A chair, and race, are clearly very different kinds of ‘social’ construction. We therefore need a different way of understanding ‘social constructions’ that allows for differences, and takes us beyond getting stuck in a battle between competing views of reality. 

This is one way of rewriting the passage above, of course; there may be others. But what I am trying to do is distill the essence of the point being made into simpler, shorter, clearer sentences. While the first example may, on the surface, look and sound ‘academic’ because of the large words, and complex phrasing, dig deeper and it becomes hard to understand what the author is really trying to say. The meaning gets a bit lost in the big words, and complicated ideas. To sound ‘academic’, therefore, we should rather focus on creating clear and accessible meanings, through shorter, more focused sentences connected together through relevant explanations and evidence.


This is another example:

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through “a pedagogy which makes explicit (or attempts to make explicit) the principles, procedures and texts to be acquired” (Bernstein, 1999:168), usually the natural and physical sciences, and tacitly where “showing or modelling precedes ‘doing’” (Bernstein, 1999:168), typified by the social sciences and the humanities. Horizontal knowledge structures can be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155); these grammars may be ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999:164).

Here, I want to focus on the amount of quoting going on. In this short passage there are three direct quotations, and a further reference to an external text in the second to last line. Many of the authors I work with, especially those who are new to academic writing in the form of a thesis or article for publication, overquote, believing that their inclusion of several quotes shows their reading, and their knowledge of the field. While using relevant, current sources to provide a foundation for your own research is important, the emphasis in any writing at doctoral and postdoctoral level must be on your own research.  This means paraphrasing more often than quoting directly, and using the work of others to inform and shape, rather than overshadow your own.

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through pedagogical approaches or processes that focus on making the principles or procedural learning accessible and clear to students, as well as the means by which to acquire it (Bernstein, 1999). This kind of learning is usually typified by the natural and physical sciences. These languages can also be modelled tacitly, as in the social sciences and humanities, where students are immersed in texts, language and learning over a longer period of time (Bernstein, 1999). Horizontal knowledge structures can further be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155), and as such  may be stronger or weaker relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999).

This is a minor edit, but transforming the direct quotations into paraphrased passages, and changing the sentence structure goes some way to making the author more visible, and more ‘in charge’ of the text’s construction. Thus, to sound academic, it is important to claim an authorial voice, and make your own research and its contribution to the field very clear through your paper  – in other words, as you weave your golden thread, make sure it doesn’t get crowded out or lost in long, complex sentences and over-quoting from the work of others.

pexels-photo-144633These are just two observations I have made in working with a range of writers across several disciplines in the last few years. Other things writers do, seemingly to sound more ‘academic’ is introduce and use smart-sounding transition words, often in the wring place, or extraneously; include 15 references in a bracketed space where only the 5 top references are needed); and over-use formatting tools, such as adding tabs, heading levels and so on. It’s like writers are trying to create a staircase to take their readers from one ‘place’ of knowledge to another; the question is whether you create a staircase that makes your readers dizzy on the way up, and wanting to stop halfway, or one that has a bit of interest and colour, but gets them to the new knowledge via an accessible and manageable route.

The general ‘rule’ to observe with writing, as I hope this post has shown, is to be as clear, direct, and detailed as possible in setting out, establishing and substantiating your argument. Shorter, simple sentences that convey your meaning clearly; the right references for the piece you are working on (not all the references); limited use of direct quotations and only where you really need these (quotations from literature used as data are a different kind of quotation to the one I refer to here); and all claims supported, and explained in context, so that your golden thread is clearly woven through the piece of writing. Verbose, under-explained, ‘fancy’ papers are alienating to readers, who have to work too hard to figure out what you mean. Simple, direct, clear prose that conveys your meaning and gets the point across well is so much more enjoyable to read, and is far more likely to be useful to other researchers too.

Writing a literature review in your own ‘voice’

Literature review sections of a paper or thesis are a tricky beast, to be sure. In my writing workshops, and face-to-face work with writers and their texts, this section, next to ‘theory and analysis’ presents the greatest challenge. This stems, in large part, from a struggle to marry what other authors are saying with what the writers want to say: to let your own ‘voice’ come through as you base and inform your argument on and with relevant reading and research.

writing giphy.gif

Firstly, to be clear, when I say ‘voice’ in academic writing, I mean argument. In a piece of academic text, such as a thesis, paper or book chapter, your ‘voice’ is the argument you are making, and that is driving the text forward. It is your contribution to knowledge in your field.

I have written here and here and here about literature reviews, and Pat Thomson and Inger Mewburn have some useful posts that you should check out too. In this post, I want to look at less conceptual and more ‘nuts and bolts’ issues in actually writing a literature review that makes your ‘voice’ audible, and builds one part of the argument of your paper or thesis. Essentially, this section must make an argument for what the GAP is that your research is addressing, and discuss the ways in which the gap HAS been addressed in other studies, yet point out clearly the shortcomings/blindspots/remaining questions that this research leaves open, which is where YOUR STUDY comes in.

I trialled an approach to thinking about this, and revising drafts of literature reviews in a recent writing workshop, and their feedback gave me the courage to try it here. I call it ‘concepts and claims over author names’. Other have written about literature review sections that are a citation dump, or a laundry list –  essentially as long list of which authors made which claims, and who contradicts who and how, and so on. This shows that you have read, but not that you necessarily understand how to use what you have read to build your own argument (in support of the need for your research or study). Thus, you need to move from the ‘who said what’ approach (author names) to which concepts, claims, findings etc are useful to tell the reader about so that they can position and understand the argument you want to make.

Look at this example, kindly lent from a student’s early draft of a proposal:

The goal of ODL is to widen participation and to overcome geographical, social and economic barriers (Kelly & Mills: 2007, p.149) to education. Learners experience isolation due to separation from their institution, lecturers and fellow students (Rumble: 2000, p.1). Although according to Daniel et al. (2009, p.24), ODL has been identified as an effective way of reaching out to large student numbers, Perraton (2000) observes that ODL institutions have high dropout and low pass rates. While there are many factors that contribute to attrition in distance education programmes, at the top of the list according to Stacy, Ludwig, Hardman and Dunlap (2003) is level of interaction and support. Successful distance learners are driven by intrinsic motivation, and quality personalised and affective learning support (Holmberg, 2003). However McKenna (2004) disagrees with this assertion by saying that student success in higher education environment is not a function of motivation but rather of student investment in his/her studies which agrees with Tinto’s (1975, 1993, 1997) assertion that student success is a function of stunt’s commitment to his/her personal goals and that of the institution.   He further says that this investment is both material and psychological. The greater the input to the provision of student support services, the greater the success rate (Sewart, 1993).

There are three main observations I make that I’d like to highlight here:

The first is the positioning of the references (in green) – throughout, they placed after claims (as indeed they should be) but in such a way as to make the effect of the whole paragraph more a list of these claims, than using the ideas advanced by these authors in support of the student’s own claim. So, this is a little ‘laundry list’-like right now. The second, then, is the student’s own claim: what is it? It could be about the goal of ODL institutions, or challenges they face, or student attrition. It is not yet clear. Each paragraph you write needs to have a claim YOU advance, and that selected claims and evidence from reading can be organised around, before you connect this back to the golden thread you are spinning – what is this information helping the reader to understand about YOUR STUDY? The final observation is this, precisely: the connection between this selected information from the readings with the student’s own project. I have attempted a re-write:

Online and Distance Learning (ODL) faces several key, student-related challenges in addressing its central goal. The goal of ODL is to widen participation and to overcome geographical, social and economic barriers to education (Kelly & Mills, 2007). Yet, many learners experience isolation due to separation from their institution, lecturers and fellow students (Rumble, 2000). This sense of isolation may then result in lower levels of persistence, resulting in ODL institutions having high dropout and low pass rates (Daniel et al., 2009; Perraton, 2000). While there are many factors that contribute to attrition in distance education programmes, at the top of the list is students’ level of interaction and support (Stacy, Ludwig, Hardman and Dunlap, 2003). Holmberg (2003), for example, argues that successful distance learners are driven by intrinsic motivation, and personalized, affective learning support. However McKenna (2004) disagrees, saying that student success in a higher education environment is not primarily a function of motivation per se, but rather of a student’s investment in her studies, both material and psychological and the systems created to enable this. Tinto (1975, 1993, 1997) echoes a call for a more systemic, rather than individualised approach to student support, which should be applied in ODL contexts. What all of this means for ODL institutions, is that increasing student retention and success is a complex challenge with numerous variables. These authors, however, seem to be pointing to a need to begin with addressing student support, to decrease alienation and increase students’ ability and willingness to invest in their education more meaningfully.

What I have tried to do here is address my three concerns. In orange, a point, and an explanation of how this information is all pointing back towards the larger study, which is about creating relevant ODL student support structures to increase student success. It may sound mechanical, but try to be conscious of beginning paragraphs with a claim of your creation – based on your reading, but in your own words, and that advances or builds your argument or voice. Not every paragraph will end with an explanatory note, but you should be conscious of drawing the connections between the research you have done and your own argument: as Pat Thomson points out, all reading you include in your thesis must have relevance to, or be positioned in relation to, your argument.

In pink, I have highlighted connecting phrases that position the authors’ claims in relation to one another, yet enable the voice of the writer to come through more clearly, as you get a sense of the writer choosing where to place the claims and what claims to use in making this small part of the argument. Yet, however, while, although – these kinds of ‘transitional’ words are incredible useful in writing, not just to create more readable text, but chiefly to indicate the position of claims made by other writers in relation to one another, and in relation to the argument you want to make.

loads of reading.jpegPerhaps approaching any ‘review’ of the literature from this kind of starting point – concepts and claims over author names (and lists of their points) – will re-orientate you away from ‘reviewing’ the literature, towards using selected literature to make an argument. The point is not to show your readers everything you have read, and what everyone else thinks about your research; the point is to tell us what you think is relevant, and why, using established research to shore up and solidify the credibility and significance of your claims.



Paper writing VI: Choosing the right journal for your paper

This should actually be one of the first posts in the series on paper writing, because my advice to writers is always to choose the journal before they write the paper. I received this advice several years ago, and it is really good advice. You may wonder why – surely you have to know what you have written about before you find a place to send it? I am arguing otherwise, and here is why.

In every piece of writing we do, we should be thinking about 3 things: audience, purpose and context. In other words: who am I writing to? Why am I writing this paper? And what is the debate/conversation/context my paper is part of, or that informs my paper? These questions need to be answered before you really get into paper writing, because if you don’t know the answers, you may end up writing a paper for yourself – a ‘writerly’ paper – rather than a paper meant to be read by your peers, so that they can engage with your argument, within your community or practice or research – a ‘readerly’ paper. The more reader-oriented your paper, the more likely you are to receive encouraging feedback from journals.


Once you have clarified these three issues for yourself, you now need to think carefully about where to publish your work. Where are these readers? Where are these conversations and debates happening? Where is similar research featuring? Initial broader issues to consider in choosing a journal may include: national or international journal? Closed or open access? Can you afford to pay page fees (will your university cover these for you)? Deciding, for example, to publish your paper in an open access, national journal, with or without page fees, will enable you to do quite a purposeful search. There are thousands of reputable journals, so having focused search parameters will save you time.

Now you need to hone in on specifics, once you have a list of relevant journals within your initially set parameters. Start with the focus and scope: what kinds of research does the journal publish? Here’s an example from Studies in Higher Education:

Aims and scope
Studies in Higher Education is a leading international journal publishing research-based articles dealing with higher education issues from either a disciplinary or multi-disciplinary perspective. Empirical, theoretical and conceptual articles of significant originality will be considered. The Journal welcomes contributions that seek to enhance understanding of higher education policy, institutional management and performance, teaching and learning, and the contribution of higher education to society and the economy. Comparative studies and analysis of inter-system and cross-national issues are also welcomed, as are those addressing global and international themes. The Journal will publish annually two special issues on topics of international significance to higher education.

If you can see from this that your paper might fit within this scope, go a step further and check out a few of the recent tables of contents, and abstracts (or even skim a few full papers of you can access them). If you are not sure, this extra step should help you.

Then look at the Notes for authors/contributors. Here you will find specific instructions about how articles need to be laid out, the preferred referencing style, the word limit and so on. Under this section you will also find information about submission fees and/or page charges (also called Article Processing Charges or APCs). If this is a reputable journal, this information will be readily available (see here for information about predatory journals). Note for yourself, especially, how long the article needs to be (including or excluding references/bibliographic information), and any other specifics you should consider while writing, like the referencing style and format of the paper. Getting all of this right as your start can save you a lot of time and fiddling at the end, trying to reformat a whole paper.

Other issues to consider are:

  • How many issues are published annually? The more issues they publish, the less time you may have to wait to see your paper in print. If the journal has a call for papers out for a special issue, see if your paper will be a fit – special issues are sometime easier to be considered for because they receive smaller numbers of submissions than general issues.
  • Their peer review policy. Who do they send your paper to, how many reviews should you get, what is the wait time, etc? The more transparent the journal is about this, the better for you.
  • Print and online, or online only? Or print only? Journals with an online option will often be able to publish your work as it is approved for publication, even if it is not yet in an issue. It will have a DOI, and be counted as published. It will then later be assigned to an issue as well. In effect, this means good things for you in terms of visibility, because your paper actually ‘comes out’ twice :).
  • Who are the editors? Do you know any of them by reputation or by their research? Do they have areas of specialism that connect with what your paper is about? Remember, the editors will be choosing peer reviewers, and also reading the reviews to make a decision about your paper. If you are writing about theory, methodology, or case studies that have no obvious tie-in to any of the work the editors are interested in, or are doing themselves, perhaps reconsider. Try and find a journal where at least one editor has knowledge of the work you are doing.
  • Submission via email only, or an online platform? Email only is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that if the journal is slow and not great at communication (sadly happens too often), email is the only means of finding out about the progress of your paper through the peer review system. A friend of mine had to wait over a year for a response to her polite email requests for updates! Online submission systems enable you to check on the progress of your paper yourself, as they are updated at each stage of the process.
  • Wait times for publication. What is the average review period for the journal (how long do they think it will take them to respond with reviewer or editors feedback)? How long, on average, does it take them to publish papers from date of submission? Most journals should be able to indicate this. It’s a useful piece of information, because you need to know how long you can expect to wait. TIP: only ever write to editors and politely ask for updates AFTER the longest time they state has passed. I.e., if they say a maximum of 6 months, only write after 6 months.

journal books.jpeg

General advice to end with is to choose at least 3 relevant journals, that have similar word limits and submission guidelines. You may not be successful with journal 1, so having at least 2 back-up journals you have researched and know about makes the whole process less daunting, and less time-consuming.

You can write a paper and then ‘shop’ for a journal, but I think a more focused, purposeful and efficient way to go about this is to choose your journals (essentially your readers and context) first, and then be readerly in your approach to the paper. In my experience, as a writer and an editor, this leads in most cases to a more encouraging – and oftentimes successful – peer review process.

Predatory publishers: what to look out for

I posted last week about predatory publishers, and avoiding the ‘quick fix’ that many of them seem to offer researchers. In this post, I want to look in more detail at how to spot a scam, so that you can avoid falling into the trap. I know a few bright scholars who have been caught by these publishers – not all of them are true scams, and many of them are becoming better at creating websites and emails that look and sound real.

First things first, what is a ‘predatory’ publisher? Essentially, this is a publisher that may a) troll and Google Scholar, find recently published papers, and then track down the author. Or, b) set up a website, with many of the right pieces in place, and spam people in academia with more general ‘Calls for Papers’-type emails. In the first instance, authors receive a flattering email, telling them that their paper {insert title here} is exactly the kind of thing the journal/publishing house/conference is looking for, and inviting them to send anything they may be working on to that journal, or develop the paper into a book, or use it as a basis for a keynote lecture. Some of these emails are pretty obvious, but these publishers are getting cleverer all the time, and there are different ways in which they create predatory journals in particular.

One way is through hacking a real journal, and then creating a bogus site, setting up an email account and sending out spam emails. This is usually pretty easy to track down – just type the ISSN, or journal title, into Google and spend a few minutes looking around carefully. If it’s a scam, it should come up fairly quickly. You can also look at this archived copy of Jeffrey Beall’s well-known list of predatory publishers and journals.

But, in some cases things do look legit, even after the Googling. This is an example I received recently:

Impact Factor (0.351)

Call for Papers

Publication and peer-review process: All manuscripts are reviewed by the Editorial Board and qualified reviewers. Decisions will be made as rapidly as possible, and the journal strives to return reviewers’ comments to authors within 4 weeks.

The editorial board will re-review manuscripts that are accepted pending revision. All accepted articles will be published online immediately after proof reading and formatting process.

ACADEMIA JOURNAL OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH journal welcomes the submission of manuscripts in:

  Agricultural Sciences
  Applied Biology
  Biological Sciences
  Cell Biology
  Chemical Engineering
  Chemical Engineering
  Civil Engineering
  Civil Engineering
  Communication & IT
  Computer Science
  Developmental Biology
  Engineering, All Fields
  Food & Food Technology
  Infectious Diseases
  Marine Sciences
  Marine Technology
  Medical Technology
  Nuclear Engineering
  Nutrition and Food Science
  Petroleum & Gas
  Plant Biology
  Population Biology
  Signal Transduction
  Solid State Technology
  Space Science
  Veterinary Science
Indexing Body and Partners:

Impact Factor (0.351), Covered by CABI, Google Scholar, Open J-Gate, Journal Seek,  DOAJ, Union Catalogue, University of California Library, National Library of Sweden, Scholars Portal, University Library, Saskatchewan, The University of Georgia Library, Chemical Abstracts (USA), University of Oregon Library, University of Groningen Library, State Library of New South Wales, Colorado State University Library, Ghent University, Belgium, WZB Library, Germany, Periodicos, Scotland Knowledge Network, Covered by SLUB

We invite you to submit your manuscript(s) to for publication. Our objective is to inform authors of the decision on their manuscript(s) within four weeks of submission. Following acceptance, a paper will normally be published in the next issue. Instruction for authors and other details are available on our website.

Best regards,
Prof. Lewis
Academia Publishing
ISSN 2315-7712

I typed the ISSN into Google and found this:

Screenshot 2017-08-15 11.17.41.png

Now it looks like a real journal, right? But the email I received was not from the posted email address. A little more digging revealed several identical emails posted on sites alerting internet users to scams, with different ‘editor’ names at the end. I was still not completely convinced that even the seemingly ‘real’ journal was real, so I Googled some more. I now think that this is a predatory publisher, and that probably all of its journals are predatory as well. Why? There are a few red flags and I’ll list them here:

  1. The LONG list of topics they ‘specialise’ in. Credible journals with scholarly reputations tend to specialise in more focused areas of their field, for example ‘Mediterranean Politics; Teaching in Higher Education; British Journal for Educational Technology; Environmental Earth Sciences. If you look carefully at their ‘About this journal’ or ‘Aims and scope’ pages, you won’t see a list of everything about education, politics or environmental sciences listed there. If a journal says it will publish anything you want to write about, beware!
  2. The typos on the home page. A credible journal that has a website with typos is a red flag for me. Proofreading is not that hard. If they are not paying attention to their brand image, what are they doing with your paper?
  3. The vague talk about article processing charges. I have published with journals that charge article processing fees. Many international journals do this now, especially for gold open access. BUT, these are only payable when your article has been peer reviews, for free, copyedited and typeset for free, and accepted for publication. Also, you are told exactly how much you will be asked to pay BEFORE you send in your paper, on the website. Many predatory publishers are known for asking for fees to be paid but it is not always possible to find out what these charges are upfront, as these are typically not declared online. If this seems like the deal with publishers you are looking into, don’t go there. Close your browser window and move on.
  4. The dodgy list of ‘indexes’. Good journals are well-indexed. This essentially means that they have been vetted as being of good standing by a group of peers, and they have coverage in terms of appearing on databases in library holdings, such as EBSCOHost and Ingenta, and in Google Scholar searches. Well-known indexes are the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), SCOPUS, ISI (Web of Science), the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS), the Norwegian List, SciELO (in South Africa), WorldCAT, Sherpa-Romeo. Google Scholar does not count as a database, and neither does a library. The DOAJ does count (the journal above lists this index), but if you search the DOAJ list this journal (above) is not on it.
  5. The Gmail email address: Not all gmail addresses for editors lead to bogus journals. In some cases, managing editors are independent, or journals are not housed at only one university, hence a gmail address, which offers no costs and good cloud storage. So, use this one with caution. Often, though, a gmail address, in conjunction with other warning signs, can be a sign that things are not what they may seem. Also, if there is no online submission platform, and only a gmail address, this should be a red flag.

Why should you be aware, and vigilant? There are a few reasons, but I will name just two of the most important ones: firstly, the peer review, and proceeding copyediting etc of your paper will typically be really shoddy at these kinds of journals. As I commented in the last post, good peer review, and editorial oversight, takes time, and cannot really be done well, consistently, in 4 weeks. So, you won’t get useful, thoughtful feedback, and you may end up with a paper you have put a lot of work into disappearing into the ether, or worse, being findable but embarrassing, as it won’t have benefitted from constructive critique, or professional editing. Secondly, because of the shoddy peer review, and a rushed publication process, these journals do not typically publish scholarship that advances knowledge and learning. We share our work with one another through journals, books, and so on to do just this, and we should all be concerned about the rise of fake, and predatory, publishers who are publishing scholarship with little value or credibility, or that may even be methodologically or factually unsound.

If you are worried at any point that you may be dealing with a predatory publisher, have a look here for excellent advice, especially with book publishers, and here, here and here for further advice on spotting predatory journal publishers. Take your time, ask Google, check with your peers, and proceed with caution. There are plenty of good, credible, well-managed open access journals out there for you to publish with.

I’ll post next week on finding a good journal for your paper, and some tips for creating a plan for publishing.