Friday, May 23, 2008

On the route to publishing in academia, when do you celebrate your achievements?

The Chronicle of Higher Education "Careers"
column this week features the question of how the partners of academics may have trouble understanding what constitutes academic work. The author describes how the girlfriend of an academic jokingly asks him when he comes home from work, "Did you publish today?"

This got me thinking about a related question: How does an academic decide what type of publication-related accomplishment is worth celebrating? Is publication itself the main thing to celebrate? The Chronicle article made me realize that I've have been explicit about institutionalizing a process for myself and my co-authors. The moment to celebrate is submitting a manuscript to a journal. This is the day when you raise a toast, celebrate, send all the collaborators an email, "The paper is now submitted!!!" They should write back their congratulations and praise. I suggest awed statements like: "that response to reviewers' comments was masterful!" or "this paper kicks ass!" or "after this, people will either have to cite us or stop doing research on X completely!" This is the day where you benefit from rewarding yourself with emotional satisfaction at a job well done and exclaim to spouse, "I submitted a paper today!"

Even just a decade ago, the actual submission process took some hours to do because of printing and xeroxing. Today final submission may still take the good part of a morning because journals use websites like, which have pages of forms to fill out and documents to upload. I used to celebrated when the manuscript was sitting in outgoing mail. Today, when I press the last "submit" button and receive the automated email of acknowledgment, I celebrate.

Now, why celebrate on submission, and not, say, when one receives the acceptance letter form the editor? The emailed proof from publisher? The journal in print?

Celebrate on your submit-button press because this is the culmination of the prior weeks and months of effort. You've been motivated by this moment -- by the desire to get this paper out of your life so you can make progress on your backlog of other manuscripts and so you can earn the gratitude of the co-authors who wondered when it would be done.

After hitting "submit" you won't hear reviewers' reactions to your work for 3 to 6 months. Even if the answer is "outright accept" (a rare event, as I explain below), it is hard to celebrate completion of project a you haven't worked on since that submit-button was pressed 6 months previously.

In the sciences (and I include the behavioral sciences; psychology is indeed a very "hard" science), out-right acceptance letters are rare. The first reviews may have as many pages as your article, and while they will generally be helpful, the reviewers point out myriad required improvements, new experiments to run, and even criticisms so devastating that at least that reviewer thinks the project should be junked. (Sample comment: "Now that you know how to do the experiments correctly, go and do them.") During the years of trying to publish academic journal articles, we learn that the editorial decision of "encouraged to resubmit if reviewers' objections can be met" is a positive move forward, even a victory. Emotionally, this is difficult to celebrate because of the mountain of effort ahead. Unless only minor revisions are required, I put aside the reviews and may not take them up for months given that by this time I've already been immersed in other projects.

A few resubmissions and possibly even a couple years later, you might get the final acceptance. Yes, celebrate, do. Raise a glass and/or breathe a sigh of relief. But there's been a lot of pain during the revisions, and you've probably been mostly involved in writing other papers, since revisions may not require the full-time effort in the manner of an initial submission.

The initial submission is the act that culminates our effort and is the one that we have direct control over. An acceptance hinges on editors and reviewers and we can't predict when it will occur or how arrdurous any revision requirements might be. Still, our nonacademic partners may not understand why we want to celebrate a manuscript submission rather than publication itself. Give them this essay!

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