Failing at Publication Part 1 – finding the right journal in the humanities

[What follows is a somewhat lengthy narrative of the trials and tribulations that lead me to finding a suitable journal. If you are only interested in the bare facts of what I have learned about finding a suitable journal, go here]

Since my first attempt at getting published was succesful, I have decided to give it another go. Now, one might think that since I have done it before, it would be easy. One would be wrong.

It is mind-frackingly difficult. I fear that I had beginners’ luck last time and now the real work begins. Last time, I had a short, snappy paper, already edited to quite high standards because I used it as a written work sample to get into Oxford. I also had the  good fortune of having written about Dickens. Now, if you write about Dickens, all you need to do to find a suitable journal is to type in “Dickens” in the academic journal search engine of your choice – I use MLA Directory – tick the peer review button and a plethora of Dickens-specific journals pop up. Easy peasy. Since the biggest challenge in getting accepted is finding a journal which publishes the kind of stuff you are trying to publish, Dickens is easy.

The paper I am trying to get published next is an examination of Carol Ann Duffy’s work, specifically “The World’s Wife”, read against the feminist frame that the paratext – editors, Duffy in interviews, blurbs on the back of the books – sets up. Going from previous experience, I thought that all I needed to do to was go to the MLA, type in Duffy, tick peer-reviewed and chose one of the journals that criticism of Duffy has previously been published in. Fool. For one thing, having written the paper, I should have recalled that most Duffy-criticism is to be found in collections not journals. Also, I should have remembered that the tiny bit published in journals wasn’t published in the kinds of journals one wants to be published in (journal snob much?). Also, in my naiveté, I had believed that there would have been significant critical action since I wrote my essay in 2011. After all, I started working on Duffy in 2010 – one year after she became Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. One would think that the laureateship would have made her more interesting to critics (the laureateship and the way she used this official position was the reason I became interested in her). Again one would be wrong.

It soon became clear that unless I wanted to publish in the Portuguese journal of English studies (nothing wrong with that, mind you), I would have to find another route. Since Duffy is branded a “feminist” and I was essentially doing a feminist critique of her work, I should be looking for a feminist journal. After some googling and brain-wracking, I decided to try the “Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature”. I had read the journal before, knew it was a Greer-creation of solid editing and – if they took my paper, which I was not convinced of – it would be a great place to be published. So I looked at their instructions to contributors and began formatting footnotes. I was into the second page of editing, when one of their rules seemed unclear to me and I decided to have a look at the last issue, to make sure I was doing it right. Only then did I discover that there had not been an issue since 2011. I was editing for an abandoned journal. Go me!

At this point I had already done a solid day’s work and was no iota closer to sending my paper out for publication, let alone actually having it published. Naturally, I began to seriously question the mission. Surely, there must be a better way to do this and if I did not know that better way, I wasn’t ready to try. Thankfully, I remembered that, indeed, I was not ready and that getting ready was part of the exercise. This is a learning process and you learn by doing and by reading about doing.

Neil Gaiman has said that the way he gets himself writing is to think of what he is writing as “zero-draft”, to create the illusion that what he is doing isn’t really writing a book but merely meaningless scribbling. This is how I push myself over the mountain of doubt. I am not trying to get “my paper” published. For one thing, I don’t see the Duffy thing as “my paper” – I think it is a good and interesting paper but it is old enough to be viewed with professional distance and it has nothing to do with the topic of my doctoral thesis. I am merely using a dummy to test drive publication. Sometimes I get struck by the sensation that my paper will be rejected. Thankfully, at that moment, a voice inside me reminds me that I want to get rejected. Of course, this is only half-true. I want to publish. But I don’t necessarily, desperately want to publish this (though I was surprised by the fact that I still think it’s a good paper). I am learning the ropes, calmed by the fact that if this paper is rejected it might scratch my ego but it won’t break my heart.

After my short stint in the valley of doubt, I returned to the original mission. Since my googlings led me to the Journal Citation Report, which ranks both natural and social science journals according to impact, I was – and still am – convinced that such a thing should exist for the humanities, specifically literary criticism. Another couple of hours of googling revealed that either I am a fool or such a thing does not exist (yet! Go make one, somebody. If it does exist, do tell me).

Again desperation reared its ugly head but our heroine pressed onwards on the road to victory (at this point in the “learning to publish process,” I began viewing publication as a mythical quest. Also I stopped showering and started talking to myself. Also I considered buying a medium-sized glaring of cats). Next, a friend recommended googling scholars I admired (in related fields) and finding out where they published. While this still appears an excellent bit of advice, it lead me to realise that most of my profs publish mostly monographs and essays in anthologies and collections. If they do publish in journals at all, they mostly stick to one or two journals, quite frequently the journals they publish in is edited by themselves (I am not making this sh*t up. Apparently the best way to publish in literary criticism is to edit your own journal). For my career stage this route delivered no valuable results.

Hearing of my misfortune, said friend recommended that rather than beginning at the published paper, or the publishing professor, I should begin at the publishing house. Think of a publisher you would like to associate yourself with, then look at what journals they publish and take a pick (obviously a pick that seems appropriate to your paper). This route has the disadvantage that you still aren’t aware of the impact of the journals, but, if you pick the right publishing houses, you can be quite certain that the journals are respectable. Also, most big publishers have beautifully organized homepages. This means you can find a couple of possible journals with relative ease and then check them for suitability.

So, off to the homepage of the Oxford University Press I went (they have colours! And in an effort of concerted gendering, humanities are pink). Quickly, I found a few eligible contenders and content-wise narrowed it down to the Cambridge Quarterly (yes, published by the OUP. The irony!) and Contemporary Women’s Writing. The Cambridge Quarterly appealed to me because of its mission statement and because, having read a few sample essays, I liked the stuff they published. We would have been an ideal fit if only the Cambridge Quarterly was peer-reviewed – it might well be, but it didn’t say so. This is one of the big problems in my field. While natural sciency journals have the decency to say “peer-reviewed” in the first sentence of their mission statement (often with big flashing signs pointing at that all important fact), humanities journals appear embarrassed that they would sacrifice their sacred scriptures to such a profane process. Contemporary Women’s Writing, on the other hand, after some serious googling, revealed itself to be peer-reviewed. Unfortunately, contrary to the Cambridge Quarterly it is not listed in the MLA directory.

While being a good fit content-wise, Contemporary Women’s Writing, does not have quite the impact I would one day like to have. At the same time, I have now spent three days doing nothing but journal searching. Of course, I have learned a lot. I now know a couple of journals I would really like to publish in (NarrativePartial Answers, Philosophy and Literature) but I would like to see some actual results, right about now. Being peer-reviewed and a great content fit, Contemporary Women’s Writing appears to be an excellent place to take my dummy for a spin. It is time to move on to the next step… editing. But before I do, here’s a short list of what I have learned about finding a journal in the humanities so far:

1) In a journal bibliography database (MLA or LION come to mind) search for keywords that describe your paper (author, method, subject). Make sure you are searching for peer-reviewed journals only. There is a good chance that journals that published papers that are similar to yours are interested in your paper.

2) BEWARE not all journals that the MLA lists as peer-reviewed are actually peer-reviewed. This might not be relevant to you but it’s something to bear in mind.

3) Google Scholar lists the top 20 journals (by average citation in 5 years) in different fields. It’s a good idea to check whether your paper might be a good fit. Do keep in mind that you are less likely to get published in these journals and that it will take significantly longer to go through peer-review. It might take more than a year until you find out that they are not taking your paper. So you might only want to try this if you have a good fit.

4) Check out your academic role models, especially those that have published on something that is similar to what you are trying to publish. Perhaps you get lucky and one of the journals they published in is a great fit for you.

5) Get yourself to a publisher’s homepage. OUP, CUP, John Hopkins, etc. All of them have lovely homepages. None of them dare publish trash. That does not necessarily mean that they won’t publish non-peer reviewed stuff or things that are a bad fit but at least it’s a start.

6) Write with a journal in mind. What I am doing at the moment is finding a journal for a paper that is already written, which means I have to be quite specific in my search. Transforming an assigned essay into a paper is an honourable and clever process but unless you are willing to do really major editing it mostly limits venues for publication. If you are, like me, really early in your career, editing an assigned paper is a clever thing to do (here’s some useful advice) but, once you have left pesky assignment writing behind you, it is a much better idea to find a journal that is a good fit to the thought of  a paper in your head and then, when you start writing, tailor your essay to that paper. This will improve your chances of getting published in the most important journals in your field. Of course, even if you are still doing assignment writing, having a journal in mind is a really good idea, as it will make publishing easier and, since assigned writing is supposed to be modelled on publishable papers, very likely to improve your result.

Having acquired wisdom and experience, our heroine moves forward on her mythical quest for journal publication… but before she does, she moves to Italy for a workation right about here:

Me on the rocks.

Me on the rocks.


About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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9 Responses to Failing at Publication Part 1 – finding the right journal in the humanities

  1. writtenbyafloridian says:

    I see you as Jane Eyre with more than a little Dorothea Brooke but so much prettier lol.

    Also, I can see you are quite busy and, in truth, so am I–my life is just more math and philosophy than novels and literary criticism. Perhaps, we should hold off on our little colloquy until you are less engaged with serious academic work. At the very least, I feel we should limit responses to once a week, if you still want to continue with the endeavor, that is.

    Although, as I was about to hit ‘post comment’ I had an idea–dangerous, I know. We could have a skype discussion. I think it would be refreshing. If you agree, you set the terms of the tete a tete.

    Oh, and you find the most beautiful places to work. I don’t think I would get anything done. I have to be in a cloistered setting. What did they say about monastic life? ”He was inclined more to the cloister than the sword.”



    • oxforddphile says:

      Dorothea Brooke is the best compliment but I never cared much for Jane Eyre… (though, if I may say so, you have a fair bit of Dorothea yourself, inclined to the cloister, as you certainly are)

      I see your point and I am busy (always have been, always will be… it is a personality trait more than an occupation) but don’t feel the need to limit myself. That is, I feel like my replies need to develop. My mind is engaged in a thinking process. I am, for example, currently developing an answer to your point about ontological superiority. It is a lengthy point so it keeps me occupied. I will reply once the answer is ready.

      As far as a tete a tete is concerned, I have no objections in principle but would prefer this conversation to remain written. While I am sure we will one day talk (meet, perhaps, since I am planning a conference tour in the US), what I like about this conversation is the lack of speed.

      I have talked about the existence of God so often that I have certain standard replies, which shout out, often in a tone others deem aggressive, without actually engaging my brain. I fear that in spoken conversation we are often so afraid to embarrass ourselves, so concerned with speed and ease and making our next point that we forget to listen. Writing forces me to order my thoughts and to really read and think about what YOU are saying (rather than thinking about what I will say next).

      If I could choose, I would like to continue this conversation like the chess game between Belly and Walter (if you have not watched Fringe, yet, you really should). Reply, whenever you feel you have a reply. Give it time, really think. Is that acceptable to you?


      • writtenbyafloridian says:

        Strangely, I have always liked Jane Eyre. I think it is because I read that novel at such a young age. That also might explain my fondness for Dickens because I don’t even really like him or at least I don’t want to like him.

        If you are comfortable with the speed of the discussion, then I am comfortable with the speed of the discussion. I just didn’t and don’t want to distract you from more important work.

        I have no issue with the current arrangement. It is perfectly acceptable to me. As I previously said, I just don’t want to be a hindrance. (I’ll give Fringe a shot, btw.)

        I talk about God a great deal as well. So, I understand your point exactly. In fact, God is almost entirely an intellectual subject for me now. I never pray. I smoke, drink, fuck, curse, etc. And I don’t feel the least guilty about engaging in these things. In fact, like any sane person, I enjoy them immensely. Oddly, my life of belief is not that different from my extended period of atheism.

        Of course, I do believe in God but only because I believe theism is more probably true than any other worldview. I couldn’t make myself believe in something that I thought was false, contrary to what Pascal and James thought. Beliefs are propositional; true or false. I am just attempting to be intellectually honest, I suppose.

        It is strange,though, isn’t it? That you want to believe in God but can’t and I don’t want to believe in God but do. In my moments of greatest doubt, I find I am thinking of Hardy’s Jude and Sue arriving back in their apartment to find their children dead. The two baby girls were murdered by the oldest son who then commits suicide after leaving a note that reads: Done we are too many. The family was struggling to find work and shelter and food and the oldest son( from Jude’s first wife) thought he and his sisters were a burden to their parents. I think of how utterly horrible it would be to find your children as Jude and Sue did. How utterly horrible it would be to murder your sisters for the survival of the family, even though the boy was wrong he must have thought he was doing it for his parents’ happiness and survival. I find that I can’t think of it without becoming emotional. I try to put myself in their shoes. I ask myself: Could I believe in God after that? If I am honest, I don’t think that I could but it would be for emotional reasons not for rational reasons.

        In your first reply to me, you asked if I thought the little girl being ravaged by HIV deserved her death? My answer is an unequivocal NO, but it does keep me up at nights. When I hear someone speak of the beauty of a snowflake as evidence for God, I, like you, want to take them to the children’s cancer ward and ask them if there is any beauty here that can speak to the existence of God. Maybe there is, maybe I can’t see it. I find it very difficult to reconcile children’s cancer with a loving God. In fact, I don’t think I will ever fully reconcile it. Not as long as we live in a world as harsh as this one.



      • writtenbyafloridian says:

        Also, how ill-mannered of me. I certainly hope we one day talk and meet.

        When and where is your conference tour?



  2. writtenbyafloridian says:

    Hi Nel,

    I am taking a break from blogging for a couple of weeks. I have several books I want to read and some math stuff I want to focus on for an upcoming national exam. So, just let me know when your response is posted and I’ll respond once I am back in the blogosphere..



    • oxforddphile says:

      good luck with the maths stuff… sorry I have been so unresponsive lately… italy has been claiming my attention.


      • writtenbyafloridian says:

        Thank you. It’s not until September 21st, so I have some time yet. No worries on responding. Italy can be quite prepossessing.

        Btw, you were right about Fringe. It is very enthralling.



  3. writtenbyafloridian says:

    I am back in the blog world now. I need a little distraction leading up to my exam.

    Btw, I think I am going to post my next piece of the puzzle, if you will, probably Monday or Tuesday of next week, so be on the look out. Hope all is well.



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