The Basics: Why Should You Seek to Publish?

by Anna Blanch on July 8, 2010

The Basics consists of general and introductory advice for research tasks and professional development, like using research libraries, reading and notetaking, submitting and presenting conference papers and journal articles. This post considers why you should seek to publish as a (Christian) scholar.

One of the fundamental tenets of education in the western world is helping students reach a level of independent thought. Originality is valued highly, so much so, that it is the basis on which higher degrees are granted – an original contribution to a field of study. I wrote about this in Is there anything new under the sun?: Originality in academic writing and publication.

What does it mean to be successful as an academic? Is publication a necessary evil or a good in itself? Why should you/me/we want to publish our work and writings in journals, monographs, or books?

The constant drip of “publish or perish” and similar mantras trigger ripples daily in the sea of the academy. It makes sense to be involved in the intellectual conversation – to engage with the latest research and much debated issues – but the pressure can feel almost overwhelming, especially in the early part of one’s career.

I referred in an earlier article, Measure for Measure: Academic Success and the Christian Scholar, to Dorothy Boorse’s model for thinking about academic publishing and “Asking the right questions”:

I do not look at scientific productivity as the only measure of success. Rather than asking, “Am I doing everything I thought I would do?” or “Am I doing as much in my field as other people?” I suggest we ask, “Am I contributing to the world?” and “Does my life work?” A Christian can ask, “Am I doing what I think God is calling me to do with my talents and abilities?”

So, why should you, as a Christian scholar, seek to publish your research and writing?

Michael Bird suggests a small number of excellent motivations for publishing:

  • To dis­sem­i­nate research
  • If you end up in an aca­d­e­mic career pub­li­ca­tion is linked to fund­ing. This is espe­cially the case in the UK where uni­ver­si­ties depend on world class, bril­liant, eru­dite pub­li­ca­tions for grants. Lots of insti­tu­tions expect their fac­ulty to be research active in their fields.
  • To con­tribute to schol­arly dis­cus­sions and aca­d­e­mic knowledge.
  • To con­tribute resources for the wider church, to be a bridge between the acad­emy and the church.

 and one very very bad one:

  • Fame and for­tune — most pub­lish­ers would only be expect­ing to sell 300 copies of PhD dis­ser­ta­tions. Most mono­graph series don’t pay royalties.

Though we could stop there, Ross McKenzie suggests three reasons why publication is important and I think it is worth taking some time to think about them:

  • The Church
  • Your College and Your Denomination
  • You 

Let’s flesh these motivating reasons out. I build upon what Ross McKenzie says (via St Eutychus) in explanation.

You should publish for the Church

  • We are called to serve the body of Christ. As Alvin Plantinga suggests in “Advice for Christian Philosophers” Christians in every discipline need to be less concerned with the lastest academic fads and more concerned with being prepared to give an answer for what they believe and in focusing their attention on the questions that matter to the body of Christ.
  • McKenzie: “His­tor­i­cally, evan­gel­i­cals have ceded the acad­emy to lib­er­als and atheists”. It is important to be working towards developing your voice as a Christian intellectual – that you might speak Truth into arising situations. You should seek excellence.
  • McKenzie says “Pub­li­ca­tion is the key to the intel­lec­tual world. It is the cur­rency of respectabil­ity in the acad­emy. You have to be pub­lished to be taken seriously.” But – don’t lose your soul doing it. there’s some really unfortunate (in terms of quality) material that has been published in books and journals. Keep perspective.
  • McKenzie argues: “Pub­lish­ing leads to engage­ment with the broader cul­ture. It is apolo­gia and kat­e­goria. If we want to be engag­ing in the cru­cible of ideas and knowl­edge you need to be get­ting published.” I think this is also why you should publish for yourself (see below).
  • The church seriously underutilises the scholars and teachers in its midst. The responsibility of molding young minds does not seem to warrant the kind of support, commissioning, or ongoing exhortation that one would expect. The university is a massive mission field – yet most academics would find little support within their own congregations or denominations (especially if they are not teaching theology).

You should publish for your Institution

  • McKenzie suggests that “It main­tains intel­lec­tual vitality” for the bible college and denomination. I would also argue this to be the case for the University department and tertiary institution
  • McKenzie: “It keeps teach­ing con­tent and research super­vi­sion abil­i­ties up to date.” While this is true when you are publishing in an area relevant to either pedagogy or teaching content, many of us don’t publish directly on what we are teaching day to day (our research areas being far more specialised than the content we teach) or even what we are supervising. This might be different in a theological or bible college.
  • I completely agree with McKenzie that “[publishing] raises the pro­file of a University department, Institution, or Bible College, and help in recruit­ing new staff and students.” It is also how you attract high quality research students. 
  • McKenzie extends this imperative to supporting and serving your denomination.
  • McKenzie: “The process reduces iso­la­tion­ism and forces fac­ulty to engage with other thinkers” This could be a reason in all three areas. This may particularly be helpful if you are in a small department or college and are in sore need or engaging with others who know your field.
  • Ross McKenzie via St Eutychus argues that publication is “becom­ing increas­ingly impor­tant for gov­ern­ment fund­ing and accred­i­ta­tion of the Aus­tralian Col­lege of Theology.” I suggest that this is also the case for Universities across Australia (and Canada and the United Kingdom). The funding situation is different in the USA, but publishing even on the part of Graduate students can give your department a strong case for additional funding from the Graduate School at your institution.

You should publish for You.

  • Vanity should not be the goal here. This is about sharing your ideas and being engaged in the academic conversation. The goal is to be other-centred. This is also why it is important to find the appropriate journal to submit to (or publisher in the case of monographs and books) that you might engage with the audience most likely to benefit from your research and writing.
  • McKenzie suggests that “It main­tains your own intellectual vitality.” It is much easier to write endlessly and to think hard about topics if you are also writing or teaching toward a particular audience. It also helps, I must admit, to be able to share this with family and friends who may not have any other way in to understanding your work as a researcher.
  • It exposes your ideas and research to critique and presents the possibility of engagement. This is also where the “other-centred” focus comes in. This is an attitude, a posture as it were.
  • McKenzie rightly points out “It [publishing] helps main­tain your employ­ment (if you’re an academic).” Publishing is therefore tactical. I agree with this one. It is important to know what your strengths are and why you are seeking to publish – how much does it matter for someone who wants to work in a particular area in your field at the kind of institution and in the kind of department you are in. I would recommend Things We Wish someone had Told us When We Started Graduate School – there’s some good advice on getting to know yourself and what kind of academic/scholar/teacher you are.

Final note:
I am well aware some do not believe graduate students should even attempt to publish prior to defending their doctoral dissertations. I don’t think that opinion diminishes anything I have said here as I hope this post is accessible and useful for scholars at any level. That is a topic for a different day.

Anna Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD candidate in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland. She is also a weekly contributor to Transpositions. You can read the rest of the posts in The Basics series here.

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    • Marc

      Thanks for a great post. I particularly liked your comments on why academic research/writing is good for the church. I try to be a little careful here in not making it sound like every single research project needs to have direct and obvious application to the everyday life of the church. But, I completely agree that the overall work of a Christian scholar needs to have this focus. And, I thought it was interesting how much of this also resonates with why many people blog.

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