This post was originally published at the FERSA blog.
By: Dr Cora Lingling Xu, PhD Cambridge, Keele University
Note: This blog entry is adapted from Cora’s presentation at the ‘BERA-BAICE Writing for Publication Workshop’ held on 2 March 2018 at King’s College London.
Among the many encouraging positive comments I received at the BERA-BAICE Writing for Publication Workshop, a persistent message conveyed by other early career researchers was this: it was important for them to learn about not only my successful publication experience, but also my vulnerability in the face of rejections. Given space constraints, in this post I will focus solely on how I dealt with rejections. For other sharing of my publication experiences, please refer to this post and my upcoming posts on the BERA blog and BERA Research Intelligence.
Over and above all, I want to demonstrate that, IT IS POSSIBLE TO PUBLISH, for somebody like me, who is not particularly gifted in writing, who does not know many grand English words, who does not speak English as a first language and whose article manuscripts kept getting rejected.
It is possible to publish, although one has to undergo quite a lot of hardships. The biggest one of which is probably rejections. In my own experience, during my PhD years (2012-2016), I had been rejected three times over two different articles. My articles were rejected by Sociology, The China Quarterly and The Journal of Contemporary China. During the first year of my post-PhD period (2016-2017), I was rejected once—this time it was a co-authored paper for which I am the lead author, by Race, Ethnicity and Education.
Despite these discouraging rejections, there is still consolation that it is possible to publish. During my PhD, I had three articles published, respectively in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, and European Educational Research Journal. During my first post-PhD year (2016-2017), I had one article published by The Sociological Review and one accepted for publication in the International Studies in Sociology of Education.
Working towards reviewers’ comments with a prospect of getting it accepted is a hard process, but at least it is hopeful and encouraging. How about when you get rejections? When my articles got rejected, I was of course very sad. After some recovery time (usually a week or two), I started to plan the way forward. Today I want to share with you two such examples of rejections and the subsequent publications.
The first is my article published in The Sociological Review. It was submitted to Sociology in July 2016 and rejected in October 2016. Despite the rejection, the reviewers’ feedback was extremely helpful. Then I did not have time to work on it until the following year as I was settling into my new lectureship job at Keele University. I did some follow up research between December 2016 and January 2017, and almost completely rewrote the paper and submitted it to The Sociological Review in May 2017. This time all the three reviewers were very positive about the article, so there were only some minor revisions and it was accepted on 22 August. The initial rejection was very disheartening. But I do appreciate the editor at Sociology’s encouraging words and the reviewers’ feedback. What I have learned from this process is that I should not take the rejection personally, but to benefit from the reviewers’ feedback and make it work for my next publication.
However, the next example I am going to share with you is somewhat different—in that no reviewers’ feedback was provided. This is my article that has been accepted for publication in International Studies in Sociology of Education, to be published in mid-2018. This one was initially submitted to The China Quarterly on 19 Aug 2016 and was rejected on 2 Sept 2016. It was a desk rejection. The editors explained that they had received a few articles on similar topics and were not interested in such articles any more. Although disheartened, I quickly revised the format and sent it to The Journal of Contemporary China on 17 September, which was then rejected on 29 September 2016. This time it was desk rejection again and no feedback was provided whatsoever. Because there was no reviewers’ feedback, there was little way to go about it. I then conducted a follow-up phase of the study and collected further data. Meanwhile, I sent the rejected article to another critical friend who came back with a heap of helpful suggestions. Then I substantially revised the paper by drawing on new data and theoretical tools and submitted this to the International Studies in Sociology of Education.
This time there were three rounds of reviewers’ feedback and revisions. It took a lot of patience and one lesson that I learned was ‘Haste makes waste’. In the second round of revision, I hurried to provide a revision within three days, only to receive further revision requests that were mainly stemmed from my hasty changes made. This is also to do with the fact that English is not my first language. In the third round of revision, I took time to deliberate on my expressions and invited native English speakers to comment on my changes. The article was eventually accepted in December 2017. What I have learned in this process is that when there is no feedback it is quite important to be critical of your own work, but never give up or abandon your ideas altogether.
Non-native English writers
Throughout my publication trajectory thus far, I have been battling with the challenges of being a non-native English writer. Well, the good news is that academic English is nobody’s native tongue. It is a completely new set of convention and linguistic practices that everybody has to consciously acquire. Still, not being a native English speaker does not help. This is of course spoken with the knowledge that at university I was an English major student and I in fact taught English as a second language at secondary schools in Hong Kong. In other words, my English proficiency is not too bad to begin with. However, my social background means that I did not grow up in a household full of books and I had not read extensively. As a result, it has never been my strong suit to use big, intelligent and elegant words in my writing. Instead, I have found personally that clarity is key. Making my texts easily understandable not only allows the editors and reviewers to engage with my work, but it also forces me to confront with my ideas in a straightforward manner. If an idea cannot be expressed in plain and simple language, then perhaps it is not well formulated enough. Of course, striving for clarity is not easy. This is where peer feedback has been instrumental. For every manuscript that I send for peer reviews, I ensure that I get critical feedback from at least two or three peer authors. Over these years, I have cultivated a group of critical friends with whom I share my writing and get feedback from. Of course, I strive as much as possible to reciprocate such favours. As I am a second language speaker, I also always ensure that before I submit a manuscript, I get professional proofreading services. This seems to work quite well. Lastly, it always helps to believe that I can. I keep telling myself that ‘I can do it’ every day and every time I face a difficult task or a harsh remark.
As early career academics we are operating within an increasingly challenging environment. Performance indicators and managerial measurements can so readily creep in our everyday work and subconsciousness in harmful ways. Rejections, therefore, can be detrimental if not handled properly. The purpose of this post therefore, is to show that although rejections are BAD, if you adapt and persist, IT IS STILL POSSIBLE TO PUBLISH, even if English is not your native tongue!
Dr Cora Lingling Xu (PhD, Cambridge, FHEA) is Assistant Professor at Durham University, UK. She is an editorial board member of British Journal of Sociology of Education, Cambridge Journal of Education and International Studies in Sociology of Education. In 2017, Cora founded the Network for Research into Chinese Education Mobilities. Cora has published in international peer-reviewed journals, including British Journal of Sociology of Education, The Sociological Review, International Studies in Sociology of Education, Review of Education, European Educational Research Journal and Journal of Current Chinese Affairs. Her research interests include Bourdieu’s theory of practice, sociology of time, rural-urban inequalities, ethnicity, education mobilities and inequalities and China studies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and via Twitter @CoraLinglingXu. Download her publications here.