One from the archives

15/04/2013 § 4 Comments

Publishing academic articles is complicated. You have an idea, you do the research, you turn it into a paper. Then what?

Well, unpublished papers represent your resources, which you have to turn into products/commodities. It’s a bit like exporting. You could ship off raw logs to whomever will take them — there’s always some obscure journal that will take your paper. Or, you can fashion the logs into high-end furniture and try to find a market. Those markets are more difficult. There are fashions to follow and a certain amount of protectionism from established interests, but the returns are much greater if you are successful.

It comes down to four rules:

  • chunking — some people advocate figuring out the least publishable unit so you create the greatest number of products from your raw resources. I must admit that I don’t worry about this, because time is more a limiting factor than ideas. Getting time to turn ideas into polished papers is much more of a problem, so having more than the minimum in each paper is a better strategy for me
  • aim high — a good piece of research, once published, has been sold. The higher the price you get for that research, the better your return on the investment. You want to get it into the most exclusive journal you can, given the quality of the research and the time you have for working through the publishing process. That’s why I tend to aim just above where I think a paper could be published, and then settle for whomever finally accepts it
  • diversify — research, even your amazing research, is of variable quality. Journals, too, have great diversity in the speed of review and publishing. I’ve always advocated a portfolio approach to publishing: try to have one or two winners, some middling articles for profile, and some pieces in lower-ranked journals to keep the numbers up
  • know your limits — my limiting factor is always time. There is never enough time to write up results, submit, resubmit, chase stuff up, etc. I’m better off shoveling stuff out the door and getting it through the process with minimum fuss. But that’s me. You’ll be different — different objective function, different constraints. Figure out what your limiting factor is and work around it or relax it — that’s the key to shifting your production possibility frontier

Going through some files on the weekend, I came across an old paper. I rather like this paper — I think it’s one of my better ones. Unfortunately, my publishing strategies rather failed with this one. I aimed high and started through a painful revise and resubmit process, then ran out of time, and then the topic was stale and I gave up. The lesson? Well, I’m not sure there is one. In a diversified portfolio, some projects/investments/papers will fail. It’s the value of the portfolio that counts, and focusing only on a specific failure may lead to the wrong conclusions.

This paper also failed because it hit a specific confluence of difficulties. It is a paper on choice modelling of genetically modified food. Both the method and subject matter were controversial, and putting the two together was just too much:

  • on the choice modelling side, I was dinged because I used the wrong equations. Not, the reviewer noted, that the equations were wrong, just that they belonged to That Tribe Over There*, whereas This Tribe Here had better notation
  • the reviewer cried for ‘more maths!’ I have come to realise that this is the economics equivalent of ‘more cowbell!
  • GM articles in the ag and food literature can be divided into ‘pro’ and ‘other’. My experience was that the burden of proof for ‘other’ submissions was greater than that for many published ‘pro’ articles.

Since this raw log has just been sitting in the yard for years, I’m posting it here. Not much of a publishing strategy, I admit, but it’s the best I can do with limited resources.

Kaye-Blake 2007 Mixed logit as data torture

*who eat taboo food and have sex with their relatives.

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§ 4 Responses to One from the archives

  • james hogan says:

    I love reading your work Bill – you have a fantastic turn of phrase.

    And only through blogs and face to face discussion would a conversation as blunt as “eat taboo food and have sex with their relatives” occur. Love it! 🙂

    • Bill says:

      Thanks, James — glad to have a visitor. That particular line is stolen (see link), but it seemed so apt.

  • Sinner says:

    As a grad student groping towards the finish line and starting to wring my hands over the need to have some publications on my CV before I hit the market, this was great. Thanks!

    • Bill says:

      Glad it could help. Love the tag line for your blog! Good luck with finishing — you only have to do it once.

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