Writing a journal article

You might have noticed by now (and if not, then I really need to up my self-promotional game), that I recently had a peer-reviewed journal article published by the Journal of Radical Librarianship (you can find it here if you fancy a read). Now it’s been out there for a little while, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the process a little bit and share some thoughts (please note: the following is not a kind of “hey folks, this is how you should approach writing a journal article!” type thing, they are merely my reflections on the process).

Getting started…

I’d been mulling over writing a journal article for some time, but I had no ideas on what to write about and how I would go about it. My primary interest has always been the digital divide/digital inclusion, but I could come up with no angles for an article that would involve minimal first-hand research. With a child and a toddler at home, committing time to any kind of extensive research would be a non-starter. Whatever I settled on, it would be something that involved reading, contemplating and then idea forming. Anything else just simply wasn’t practical. But I needed a topic, and I simply couldn’t come up with one…

Then it hit me…I’d been following the work of Alison Macrina with interest over the past couple of years and I saw that the need for her work not only underlined the extent of the issue of mass surveillance, but also that there was perhaps an element of digital divide at play here that seemed to me to be rarely commented on. We often talk of the digital divide in terms of skills and access, but it seemed to me that we rarely talked about it in terms of intellectual privacy. An idea was forming, so I got to work on reading as much as I can…

The reading…oh, the reading…

Once the idea was in my head, I started hoovering up journal articles and resources all over the place. I knew that there were three key aspects I wanted to focus on: the digital divide, online privacy tools and surveillance. So I started hunting around for articles on these topics wherever I could find them. Law journals, LIS journals, the ONS, the European Court of Human Rights…if it related to surveillance or ICT then I downloaded it, read it and highlighted passages from it. I lost count of the amount of papers I read — and I have no idea how I would have managed reading so many if it wasn’t for the daily commute. And yes, I did print out the articles. I am still very much of the old skool dead tree brigade when it comes to reading and annotating.

Once I had read all the articles I had compiled, I started pulling out the pertinent bits and adding them to a large table in a Word document, with bibliographic data, the quote itself and, once I had entered all the extracts, index terms so that I could relatively easily find the relevant quote and source I needed. Of course, these were all colour-coded…because, why not?

I was conscious when I was reading through the materials there was a lot of stuff I would have very little real knowledge of. I have no legal background, I do not (or did not) have familiarity with some of the tools that were discussed in the papers I was reading (and some of the ICT papers were really heavy on technical jargon that I had to work really hard to understand). Although it was tricky, I felt that I had learnt a lot through the process, and certainly felt I had a much greater depth in understanding of surveillance and how it operates, as well as issues around privacy.

The writing…round 1

Then it came to putting the whole thing together. I drew up a very rough structure to help guide me through the process. I had a feeling (even at an early stage) that it was probably going to be a lengthy beast (and so it proved to be), so I felt that I really needed a good structure in place that could get me off on the right footing. It didn’t need to be set in stone, but I needed something to help me organise my thoughts.

Then I started writing…

Of course, I used citation software (one that was good, but in hindsight I’d prefer to use an Open Source variant)…however, this was not something I had used before (I did it all manually on the MSc). So I kinda had to learn that too. And, well, I certainly wouldn’t have managed without it as it turned out. To the extent that I think I was foolish not to use such tools in the past…

The writing took a long time. I tend to write “off the top of my head” (as I am doing here…I’m sure it shows) and get things all down on the page, then go back and revise, chisel away at it and get it into some sort of readable form (debatable whether I ever really achieve that!). I try very hard to resist going over and over the same paragraph before moving onto the next one. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes not. Often when following this process whatever I have written becomes repetitive or overly long, but at least it gives me something to work with and chop around. Unfortunately, I had about 13,000 words to work with when I finished…far too many and it became hard to identify what to leave in and what to exclude.

The peer review process

Then came the time of submission. This was probably the worst part of the process in terms of anxiety. By this stage I had spent about 4–5 months researching and writing. If it ended up being shit after that amount of time, I was going to be in a very bad place. But off it went, to the editor, who then sent it out to two peer reviewers. Then I had to learn to put my ego away in a cupboard under the stairs…

It was hard opening myself up to an open peer review process, but it was very worthwhile. I’d be lying if I said I read all the comments and accepted them without question straight away. It took me a little while to revisit the article and see that, you know what, the article would be improved if I changed that bit there and shifted the focus here. It can be hard to accept that maybe your article isn’t perfect but, well, no article is perfect. When it comes to peer review you have to accept that the peer reviewers are not there to stick the knife in and ruin your work. They are there to help. And I certainly found the comments helped me with my focus and, I think, helped me produce a better article.

The writing…round 2

So, I set to work on the comments from peer review, looked to re-edit a bit more, change a few things and get the article in a good shape for publication. This process wasn’t easy. I soon realised that what I was trying to do with the article was find ways to make it impossible to argue against it. To cover almost every single aspect in detail so that any criticisms about things being overlooked couldn’t be laid at my door. But this was not helpful. You can’t cover everything in an article. That’s what books are for.

Eventually I came to realise this, and tried to cut significant portions of the article down so that it wasn’t quite so all-encompassing. There was no use trying to protect myself from criticism by covering every angle possible. I had to accept that whatever I wrote would be flawed, that there would be holes, that there were angles and perspectives I’ve not covered and that’s fine. Criticism is good anyway, there’s no point being precious and building defences to pre-empt and prevent any criticism.

Final submission…at last!

Eventually, when I could faff around with it no more, I took a deep breath, attached my file to an email, and sent it off with all my fingers crossed that this thing I had spent several months on would not only be suitable for publication but that would also be, well, read by someone. It was bad enough worrying that what I wrote wasn’t actually that good, it was worse thinking that after all this effort it wouldn’t even be read.

Fortunately, I seemed to have made enough amendments to deal with the issues raised by the peer-reviewers and was deemed at a point where it could be published. Which was a relief on many levels, not least that I could put this thing to bed and not have to spend any more time editing and tweaking. It was done. Finished. Ready to be released to the world. My first published peer-reviewed article.

Publication

There were a few questions along the way as to why I chose to publish it in the Journal of Radical Librarianship. I guess there are several answers to that. None of which will satisfy those who argued it should be elsewhere, but still, answers nonetheless.

My first priority was to publish Open Access. As a signatory of the LIS Open Access Declaration, it would have been odd (nay, hypocritical) not to publish OA. So published OA came first. Second, I know processes at some journals can be quite time consuming, and this piece of work was very time sensitive. Indeed, I was continually updating it right through the drafting process. It turns out, writing something very current is also very difficult. The development of the surveillance society is continually shifting and changing. Even after peer-review I was making tweaks and edits here and there to keep it up-to-date (indeed, right up until publication I was adding and changing things). At a bigger journal that kind of scope to edit right the way up to publication simply wouldn’t have been possible. I needed the flexibility and control a small, new journal would provide.

The final reason, the most shit of the reasons perhaps, is that I am an editor on the journal. It seemed to me it would be not in the interests of a fledgling OA journal not to offer it up to submission. (I should add that I had no influence on the editorial process and it was all very professionally handled.)

Post-publication

Following publication I had a very clear strategy: get it out there to as many people in the field of surveillance as possible. In the process of doing my research I made a number of connections that I figured would be interested in the work I was putting together in terms of inequalities in online privacy protections. As soon as it was published I set to work on sending it far and wide to a variety of folks.

To a certain extent, this process is one that makes me want to die inside. I hate the very idea of contacting folks and saying “here, read this thing, you might be interested in it”. How fantastically egotistical to think they would be even remotely interested. But I knew I had to push it out there as it is published in a small journal and there was no point writing something just to have it hidden away. It needed exposing.

As well as sending it far and wide, I added the full text to our institutional repository, put it on my main website and added it my ORCiD profile page. Pleasingly, the article is currently the top result when searching for “intellectual privacy” on our library catalogue. So at least hopefully it will get picked up a little there.

Having sent it far and wide, I then started monitoring mentions of it. I have a number of saved searches for the article set up on Twitter. Including two of the journal URLs and the title of the article itself. That way I should pick up on any tweets that link to it. I’ve also set up a couple of Google search alerts to monitor when it gets picked up in blog posts etc (other search engines are available kids!).

Fortunately, I soon received a pay off from sending the article far and wide. Following a nod to Cory Doctorow, it soon appeared on Boing Boing and he was pretty complimentary. This was a big boost in terms of whether what I had written had been worth the effort. Doctorow’s blog post referencing my article was subsequently tweeted many, many times. Much to my surprise, fear and pleasure.

Following Doctorow’s reference to it, I have subsequently found it had been picked up by quite a well known figure in the Spanish digital community, Enrique Dans. Dans has previously advised the Spanish government on digital issues and, again, he was very complementary about my article. Again, as with Cory Doctorow, his blog post referencing it has been tweeted many many times, including by a Spanish government ministry for education. And his blog post has been followed by a further blog post by another Spanish blogger referencing both his post and my article. I’m not quite sure how it has received so much traction in Spain (my wife is Spanish, but has no tech connections amongst her family and friends), but to date it is certainly receiving far more attention than in the UK and the US. I plan on doing more in this area to talk about some of these issues, with a couple of ideas in my head that I plan to action in the coming weeks. Hopefully they will come to fruition…watch this space I guess.

This has all been really pleasing and rewarding. I was exceptionally nervous about the piece when I submitted it for publication, but the commentary I have seen so far has certainly made me feel that the effort I put into it has been somewhat justified. Although I have written many articles in the past that have been well received, a journal article is an altogether different proposition and one that made me feel far more vulnerable than I had in writing articles for that newspaper…

What have I learnt…

Hmm. Well, I learnt that the peer review process is very much one where you have to open yourself up, put your ego away and accept that the reviewers are there to help, not to stick the knife in. It can be an uncomfortable process, and you may not like what they have to say, but if nothing else, at least in my case, it helped greatly in sharpening my thinking.

I also need to be a bit more confident in myself. I tend to be overly harsh and unconfident in my writing. I have no real idea why. I have had many articles published now and no-one has ever refused something I have written and they have often come back to me to write more. So, I’m not a bad writer. Of course, I can keep telling myself that, but I know I will continue to believe that I am not very good.

I also realised that when writing a journal article it doesn’t have to be comprehensive. There is no need to try and predict every question that will be asked of your work and then try to ensure an answer is provided in the text. It’s simply not possible to be that comprehensive. Should I write another article, I’ll make sure that it is much tighter, and not try to cram every single thing into it.

Finally, I realised I can do it. I can actually focus and write a journal article of half-decent quality. That’s something I guess. Maybe I’ll write another one. Sometime. Not for a while though. And maybe on something that is a little less…changeable.

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