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"Peer" Review
April 28, 2014 4:22 PM   Subscribe

I have a very strong amateur interest in a niche subject (the history of computational labor processes). I think have a somewhat novel idea for research that builds on ideas that seem to be gaining currency in journals like Technology and Culture. I'm not an academic, and have very little academic background. What should I know if I decide to prepare an article for submission to a peer reviewed journal for the first time?

The only reason I don't write up my thoughts in a blog post is that I'd like to be part of the academic debate, and get feedback from acknowledged authorities. At the same time, I don't want to waste anyone else's time.

Are there writing standards I should adhere to that may not be obvious from reading journals in the field? Any suggested guides?

Finally: would it be beyond the pale to email an academic whose work would be cited with a short (several hundred word) description of the project to ask whether it was worth pursuing?
posted by wobdev to Education (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You have nothing to lose by trying and sending a well written email.

But you will be scrutinized 10x more than anyone else for lack of credentials, so keep your writing tight and proper.
posted by jjmoney at 5:00 PM on April 28

I think your question isn't specific enough about what type of article you'd like to write, so it's difficult to give advice. Is it original research? Have you used an accepted research method to ask your questions and find your results? Peer-reviewed journals typically publish original research, and not ideas for research. It's unclear from your question whether or not you want to write up your ideas for research or whether you want to write an article that presents something interesting/important/novel about the history of computational labor processes.

If it is the latter, the main question that I always ask myself when writing scholarly articles is: Why does anyone else care? Why does the audience for this journal care about what I'm saying? That is the most important thing; it is the only thing. Who cares about what you're saying? It doesn't really matter who you are; what matters is that you follow scholarly convention and the conventions of your field. So, having knowledge about the publication to which you're submitting should help you know whether or not your article is totally off-base. Read a bunch of articles that were published in the journal of your choice to see if your article seems like it would fit there before proceeding.

I personally choose the journal before I start writing; that helps me write to their style, and helps me scope my article better because I know my audience better if I've chosen my first-pick journal for publication.

Use a reference manager like Zotero or Mendeley to keep track of references. That will make your life a lot easier when you're citing.

Peer review is sort of feedback but it's sort of not. It's usually blind so you won't know the identity of the "acknowledged authorities" who are providing feedback for your work. It might be two first-year graduate students with less of an understanding than you have of the area; it might be two senior faculty members who are experts on computational labor processes. You don't know going in who will provide feedback and you'll probably never learn their identities.

Editors review submissions before sending them to reviewers so if your article did happen to be just out of left field they would reject without burdening two reviewers. So I wouldn't worry too much about that.

If you want to be part of the academic debate actually a blog post is probably better than academic publishing. If you want to add to a field's understanding of something within the discipline, you should think about writing a journal article.

As an academic myself I'd be happy to review ideas from someone if I had time but time is really precious so you might not have a lot of luck with this. Try pinging graduate students in your area instead. They have more time. You should also seriously consider emailing the editor of the journal to which you plan to submit your article, before writing the article. That might be a much better gauge of whether or not your project is worth pursuing any further.

Good luck!
posted by sockermom at 5:07 PM on April 28

If there are conferences in this area that you could submit something to instead, I'd recommend that as a first step. First of all, conference submissions tend to be scrutinized far less than a journal publication, so you'll find it easier to get over the hurdle of getting people to listen to you. People are also far more forgiving about flaws in work at conferences, since it's usually understood as a "work in progress." (Which isn't to say it shouldn't be the absolute best you can make it, but that there is more grace for imperfections).

More importantly, going to a conference will give you access to what you crave: an audience of people who do this research and will be interested in the ideas. If you give a talk or a poster at this conference, you will almost certainly have the opportunity to talk to people about the ideas in the talk or poster. You'll get feedback then about if they are worth pursuing, what the weaknesses are, etc., making a journal paper (if one results) much stronger. You'll possibly even find someone interested in collaborating with you, which would be great from your perspective -- you'll almost certainly learn a lot from them, and having their academic credentials will easy your way enormously in terms of being taken seriously.

Conversely, if nobody at the conference seems interested or they point out serious flaws, that will also be very useful information and will stop you from spending a lot of time going down a blind alley.
posted by forza at 5:28 PM on April 28 [4 favorites]

I'm a member of a mailing list for a particular industry I have some involvement in, though not as an academic. I responded to a debate on said list and got personally invited to write a paper for a pper-reviewed journal associated with that industry.

Maybe there are similar mailing lists you can join to get the discussion going and make connections? At the very least it would be a good source for resources and feedback.
posted by divabat at 5:40 PM on April 28

The best thing you could do would be to team up with an established academic as co-authors. Whether that means co-PIs, first and last, whatever -- as long as you're both happy with it. A working academic will have the institutional knowledge, connections, and reputation that you will need access to in order to secure a grant and submit the paper for publication. Those are surprisingly hard things to get right -- there are just so many rules and expectations involved that it's really, really hard for an outsider to get it right. (This is arguably a flaw in the scientific process, but that's beside the point.)

Also, an experienced researcher will be invaluable to you in carrying out the research itself and analyzing the results. I'm sure you know quite a bit about your subject, but it takes more than having read a lot of journal articles to be able to actually do good science. A large part of a postgraduate fellowship involves learning exactly those skills, and believe me when I say that they don't come easily or quickly. Your overall idea may well be excellent, but a working researcher will be able to give you a lot of advice about the details.

Convincing one to work with you will not be easy, but if your idea is any good it's still probably your best bet. I would approach this as if I were looking for a prospective PhD advisor; that is to say, I would email a researcher who works on the kind of thing you are interested in (as in, they have recently published papers on the same or nearly the same subject, using methods similar to those you would like to employ) and in a respectful and professional tone I would would request a little bit of their time (10 minutes or so) in person, to talk about your idea with the idea that if they are interested they could work with you to develop and execute the research. I would describe your idea in very general terms (a few sentences) and mention how well you think it dovetails with their existing research (be specific -- this is one of the most important parts to get right). Use relevant technical terminology where appropriate to let them know that you have studied the topic seriously (pertinent references to the literature would be good) but don't get too longwinded or excited-sounding or you risk coming off as a crank.

It would still be an unusual arrangement, but it's not unheard-of. It's much more common to see academics publishing alongside interested laypersons than it is to see interested laypersons publishing on their own. If your idea is good and you are lucky, you may be able to pull it off. Unfortunately, despite the ostensibly meritocratic nature of the scientific process, the deck is still stacked against you.
posted by Scientist at 6:08 PM on April 28 [2 favorites]

(Somewhat randomly), here are the submission guidelines for Annals of the History of Computing, IEEE and here are the submission guidelines for the Journal of the Association for History and Computing. These are just random submission guidelines. I'm not suggesting these are the journals you should look at.

I would suggest, in the strongest possible terms, that you do literature searches on prior work on your subject. Not really knowing what I'm doing, I'd start with,but I'd also talk with a reference librarian at a local university and ask what the relevant journals are for what you're looking at, and also where the specific previous work on your stuff is. These are the questions reference librarians live for.

I do not think that google or google scholar is the end-all and be-all; there are special online services used to search journals. Here's Carleton University Library's, and your favorite university/public library has others, which are discoverable from their websites.

You'd want to look up the prior work to find submission guidelines, to find your community, and to be fair to yourself, to any collaborators, and to your readers.

And also so that your peer reviewers don't nuke you from orbit.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:24 PM on April 28

Some ideas from the perspective of someone with a fair amount of experience editing academic journals in the social sciences and history:

1. The biggest mistake that non-academics make is focusing on their data and insufficiently engaging the broader academic literature: sometimes in terms of their topic but especially in terms of academic "theory." For historians specifically, this means that you need to go beyond your little piece of history and connect that to broader historical trends and the ways that other historians have conceptualized those trends. "This is an interesting thing that happened" is good enough for Smithsonian Magazine, but it's not good enough for a peer-reviewed academic journal in history.

It's good that you note that you want to pick up on "ideas that seem to be gaining currency"
in the academic literature. That shows me that you're already thinking about your potential research in an academic context. You need to keep digging into these "ideas" and figure out who are the scholars proposing them. If they're truly gaining currency, there will be evidence not just from minor journals like Technology and Culture (which, for better or worse, has a really low "impact factor" score, which essentially means that few people are reading it and no-one is citing it) but from major journals and widely read academic books.

That said, a quick look at the articles in the sample issue of Technology and Culture indicates that the bar is not that high in terms of theoretical significance. The Hogan article, for example, is weak in terms of its engagement with the literature (interesting to note that it's by a PhD candidate and not faculty researcher) but at least it does offer its theory of "why this interesting thing happened" that may be of use to other academics and policymakers in his particular field. The article about Javanese Coca is a better illustration of engaging the literature: their case "serves as an exemplary case study of how the demands for standardization, rationalization, and efficacy dramatically affected the development, production, and distribution of plant-based medicines at the end of the nineteenth century and vice versa" and "can be understood in the wider historiography of nineteenth-century science and technology as a case study illustrating the transition from colonial botany and "green imperialism" to what we conceptualize as "colonial agro-industrialism."

2. Corollary: To publish in an academic history journal, you need both primary sources and secondary sources. Note how many secondary sources these authors are citing: 50-100 citations, and these are not super long articles even. That doesn't mean you won't be considered for publication if you don't hit 50 items in your references, but it does mean that if you've only got 5 or 10, you are not meeting the unspoken expectations about what academic research is all about. The tricky thing is that if you're not affiliated with an academic institution it can be hard to get easy access to the piles of niche books and journals that you need to be looking at.

3. Corollary 2: Getting the cites and engaging them properly is so much more important that formatting them properly. I have worked with very senior, frequently published academic scholars who can't properly format an in-text citation, footnote, or bibliographic reference. Since you've already got a strike against you I'm not saying you can just ignore citation styles and submission guidelines, but really that is the least of your worries. It's the content that's critical, especially at the peer review stage.

4. Contacting scholars with a rough outline of the research you're interested can't hurt. Academics are extremely busy, so don't expect a whole lot of detail back, but even just a "that sounds interesting, you should look at so-and-so" will help.

5. It's not completely unheard of, but you're unlikely to get an academic to partner with you in your research.

6. There is a method (or more accurately, there are methods) to doing primary research in history that goes beyond "read a bunch of stuff, take copious notes, and ponder". It's particularly hard to figure out what it consists of, however, because historians don't talk about methodology much in journal articles, if at all. It's a little different from the scientific method in that it's more a matter of interpretation and evidence, rather than truth and proof, but still, some interpretations are better than others, and some evidence is more convincing than others. There are textbooks on the historical method, as well as student-oriented textbooks on writing history, and those should be helpful as part of the really quite considerable amount of reading you'll need to engage in to get this project off the ground. There are also very dense theoretical/philosophical works on historiography that will probably not be helpful at this juncture. Sorry I can't recommend any specific title over another.
posted by drlith at 8:07 AM on April 29 [1 favorite]

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