Kevin J Edwards

An introductory quiz for budding postgraduate authors

Why do you want to publish? Which of the following most applies? Scores in the next section.

(1) A few extra lines on the c.v.

(2) A wish to have your name perpetuated.

(3) A desire to communicate.

(4) A need to be noticed.

(5) To make money.


The first point to make is that all may be valid - though (5) is an unlikely outcome! The views of this mid-career academic are:

(1) Three points if you feel that a few extra lines on the c.v. justify the effort to produce publishable material. These points are awarded more in recognition of the demands of the job market than anything else.

(2) One point if a wish to have your name perpetuated is a primary goal. A footnote in genealogical history seems laudable enough and may well make your parents proud; this aim may be thwarted if publishing in an electronic journal.

(3) Four points if a desire to communicate a new finding or novel idea is driving you.

(4) A need to be noticed is allocated two points here; however, self-confidence may increase if you manage to publish a few items.

(5) Most journals pay nothing for articles, but a royalty may accrue from a book chapter (or, more likely, you will simply receive a free copy of the book). In any case, no points for avarice - you are, after all, in this game for the love of it, aren't you?

What to publish

Ignoring value judgements, it is probable that you wish to publish in the belief that this will make you more attractive in the academic market. It may do. Selection committees, however, are unlikely to be impressed by a list of insubstantial items in less than respectable outlets - though that is infinitely preferable to a list of in cerebro fictions under an 'In preparation' heading.

If you accept that your principal goal must be the completion of your doctorate, then any publication which takes up so much time that your PhD is put on ice is probably not worth it. What rules might be suggested in deciding what to publish? Any item should probably be a new finding and/or a novel idea, and for which a delay in publication will carry the danger of being pipped at the post. Any substantial, somewhat replicative (albeit worthy) empirical findings can wait until after completion of your degree, unless it forms, say, a chapter of your thesis which you are happy to off-load, without much change, to an acceptable outlet. It may well be preferable to submit a smaller sample of your work in order to flag your presence, or an original idea which you anticipate will change the way in which people might view parts of the discipline.

Critical comments on the published work of others may be a snappy (and rapid) way of getting published, but try to be constructive and avoid presenting yourself as a know-all with no conception of the effort that went into publishing the piece under 'attack' - and be sure of your ground if you do not wish to invite an acerbic (or even genteel) put-down. Consider it a victory if the offending author exclaims supinely 'you win, it's a fair cop guv', though an acquiescent response is far more likely to take the form of a failure to address the points you raise.

Budding authors are strongly advised to get anything they write read by supervisors or other staff within or without their institution. There is nothing more annoying for a referee than to receive a paper which is characterized by faulty logic, unwarranted claims and ignorance, let alone non sequiturs, grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. At this point (better late than never!) you may like to consider whether you should be publishing alone - is your supervisor (or some other individual) the originator of the idea that you desire to communicate? There is often a tension between the supervisor and the student, and students often feel proprietorial about their work. Reflect carefully though - are you sure that you are not infringing someone else's intellectual 'copyright', or that you are paying due regard to the efforts made by your supervisor to think of a project, to obtain the funds, and to have the good sense to appoint you to nurture their 'baby'?

Students (and lecturers) can also get hung-up about the order of names in jointly-authored productions. There is an increasing tendency for selection boards to comment favourably upon first authorship, especially if the publication has many authors, as is frequently the case in the archaeological sciences or in multidisciplinary efforts. Some boards are as impressed by co-authorship with well-known figures in the discipline; others recognize the fact that alphabetical authorship may carry no connotations. If these matters concern you, then try to sort them at an early stage in the writing process.

Where to publish

If you are going to publish then a profusion of outlets is available.

Books and monographs

I'll not spend much time on this one - most postgraduates are not in the business of producing books before their thesis is finished. There are books and books. Some are simply PhD theses published with little change (a frequent event in archaeology) - and these usually bear the hallmarks of PhDs, i.e. parochiality, a limited canvass, ideas yet to reach full maturity, and prolixity. Their appearance may come very close to vanity publishing in that some outlets exist simply to make money from publishing, with little concern for content and quality. A book which has grown out of a doctorate is likely to be a rather different matter and a more valued endeavour.

Edited books

A growing number of research students, as a result of their involvement in conferences, have found themselves in the position of editor. The easiest part of editing a book is finding a publisher and setting up a series of contributing authors - though many publishers will be wary of trusting the editorial task completely to unknown postgraduates. The glory palls and worry sets in as authors fail to meet deadlines, submit sub-standard material which does not adequately address the topic of the book and then the publisher starts to pile on the pressure. Editing a book is extremely hard work - and when the reviews appear and the criticism starts (very few edited books are faultless) - you may well wonder why you started the process at all and you will probably rue the year you have lost on your research (or that's the way it feels).

Book chapters

In effect, these may only be as good as the editing allows the book to be and readers can never be sure that a full peer-review has taken place. Nevertheless, they are especially common in archaeology and publication of a good paper in a focused compendium can be a good way of being noticed.


Articles in peer-reviewed, preferably international journals, are, for this writer, what really makes a strong impression on a c.v. This is certainly the case for the scientific areas of the discipline - and even social archaeologists on appointments panels have been known to wax lyrical about humanities-based articles in prestigious journals. The quality of the journal carries its own imprimatur in a way that a chapter in an edited book is unlikely to do with quite the same degree of conviction. Papers in journals also have a greater chance of being noticed and cited, and this is only likely to be matched by a chapter in an exceptionally well-received, edited book. Speed and reliability of publication in a recognized outlet are other pluses for the journal route.

Conference proceedings

These may be of the same status as a chapter in an edited book - which is what they often become. If published as a semi-finished, possibly cheap production, they may vanish without trace and can sometimes be placed in the same category as working papers/departmental journals (q.v.). Be wary.

Specialist reports

It may be necessary to publish these because you have carried out the expert scientific work which arose from an excavation and you may be very grateful to the excavator or director who permitted (begged?) you to do this. This is fine. Remember, however, that work buried in an appendix is buried - even if it is in the hallowed ground of a prestigious journal. You may be 'lucky' enough to have your name recorded as part of that great, sometimes patronised, multitude represented by '.....with contributions from' (the collective term which includes those for whom many months in the laboratory is down-graded to a service function and who do not even gain recognition as an 'et al.'). If you come within this category, you will have been wise to extract the prior agreement of the excavator/director that you also be free to publish your work in a suitable form in a specialist outlet.

Working papers/departmental journals

These represent difficult outlets to judge. Many people regard them as in-house ephemera. They are tempting to write for because publication is usually hassle-free and editing light or non-existent [though not always! - ed.]. They can also be useful vehicles on which to cut your publishing teeth. There is a school of thought, however, that maintains that if a paper is worth publishing then it should be submitted to a 'proper' outlet where it will be judged in the academic market-place. Oh dear!

Electronic journals

Publishing in an electronic journal may be a recipe for oblivion unless such media are stored and curated in an easily accessible fashion, and are publicized adequately. They may become the standard forum of the future - but the jury is still out on this one. Doubly oh dear!

Revision or rejection?

A request from an editor to revise a paper prior to its final acceptance should be accepted with alacrity - what choice do you have anyway? Unless the referees or editor have misconstrued something badly (highly unlikely unless your prose is riddled with ambiguities), then the referees' reports will almost certainly help you to improve your paper.

Rejection of a paper (usually for a journal) should not be viewed as something akin to humiliation. Remember that you are embarked upon an apprenticeship and try to look upon referees' reports as constructive documents which are likely to provide valuable tuition in both the assessment of ideas and in writing skills. Show the rejection report to those whose opinion you respect. If they consider that you have been hard done by, then take account of the criticisms offered by referees, revise the text and submit it to another journal (be aware of the possibility, however, that the paper may be sent out to the same referees - check the membership of the editorial board in the first instance!). If you feel that a major error of judgement has been perpetrated, then write a letter to the editor outlining your grievance - editors are not ogres and they may offer to have a paper re-refereed or to send all documents to an arbitrator.

The confidence of many would-be authors is such, however, that the rejection letter is taken to be a sign of editorial incompetence or the imbecility of referees. Authors may need to learn the hard way by resubmitting their production to another journal, only to have it rejected again. Most referees are chosen because of their expertise and few of them are sadistic. They have usually taken a great deal of time over your manuscript. On the assumption that you have chosen an appropriate outlet in the first place, then be receptive to the possibility that the referees' reports are valid.

Good luck!


I would like to thank Jenny Moore and Graeme Whittington for sharing their reactions to an earlier draft of this paper.

About the author

Kevin Edwards is Professor of Palaeoecology in the Department of Archaeology and Prehistory, University of Sheffield. He published his first four papers while a research student and subsequently regrets that one of them saw the light of day. He spent 10 years as co-editor of Journal of Archaeological Science and remains on the editorial board of that journal and of the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. He has published over 100 papers and book chapters, and has edited 2 books. He still has the odd paper rejected (usually justifiably) and he is gradually learning to be grateful to referees.

Kevin J. Edwards 1996

For a different perspective on electronic publications, see ed.


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