Scientific Publishing for Humanities Scholars

First of all, apologies that this post has been a long time coming. This gap has been caused by the busy schedule that now forms the material for this latest blog post. I’ve recently had an article published in Brain journal on the medieval ‘Tremulous Hand of Worcester’, written with Jane Alty. See here. As corresponding author, I have been shocked by the short production lead-time: just a few weeks from acceptance to online publication! It occurred to me that I had previously been quite unprepared for publishing in the sciences. I have learned a lot over the past few months, so I thought I’d share some tips:

1) Find the right collaborators in the sciences.

My collaborator, a consultant neurologist, has considerable expertise in the medical subject of the article. In addition, she has finely-tuned abilities in writing for the relevant audience and crafting a nuanced scientific argument. Collaborating outside of my own discipline has been a great learning experience; I have learned how to create a succinct, effective, argument that speaks to an audience in the sciences. Collaboration in general is reassuring, also – two sets of brains to write, two pairs of eyes to check the proof, someone to celebrate success with.

Collaboration is key! Three clerics singing, BL, Arundel 83 f. 63v (Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts)

Collaboration is key! Three clerics singing, BL, Arundel 83 f. 63v (Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts)

2) Consider how to write like a, and for a, scientist (without abandoning your roots!).

Firstly, many scientific journals have rigid formats for original articles, requiring you to organise it under specific headings and sub-headings. It’s worth looking out for journals, like Brain, that have designated sections for topics outside of the usual remit. These sections may offer more flexibility for the tone and content of your article. You may find it useful to approach the editor in advance in order to ascertain whether your article is likely to be welcomed, but this is a personal choice.

Consider your audience. It may be necessary to explain the meaning of specialist terms from the humanities, as they may not be common knowledge for scientists. I don’t think it’s fair to expect your readers to navigate away from the article for definitions, when the terminology is not integral to the argument. You don’t have to include expansive footnotes – a couple of words will do. Ensure that the article makes important contributions in the humanities, though  – a work is not interdisciplinary if its moved too far into one discipline or another.

3) Be prepared to cut, cut, cut.

Up until now, the average length of my articles has been 6,000 – 8,000 words. The accepted version of this latest article is 2,000 words, though it was originally longer. I’ve become accustomed to slicing words from work before, but never to this extent. Crafting a short co-authored article with a meaty argument, and a good balance of both authors’ work, was a rewarding challenge. This is another point at which having a co-author is valuable – the article can be passed between you and re-drafted until it is short but powerful.

4) Think about image permissions in advance.

Our article makes reference to two images of medieval manuscripts. Gaining high-resolution images and permission to publish them involved multiple emails, form-filling, and payments. I was fortunate, as the curators and librarians that I’ve dealt with have been very understanding and accommodating.

There’s one way to avoid any bureaucracy and cost: to use only images that are free to reproduce (try the British Library’s Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, Wikimedia Commons, the Wellcome Images website [only some are free], the Digital Walters, for example). Also, some journals have existing deals with libraries that allow them to publish images for free/a reduced price. However, it is clearly not going to be always possible to avoid wrangling over images.

During the drafting process, I’d recommend saving the relevant librarians’ contact details and request forms on your computer. You might send an email prior to submission to ensure that, in principle, they’d be willing to grant permission to use the image. You can even draft the final formal requests: better to do it in advance than to write shoddy emails in a state of deadline-induced panic! Some publishers even have a template letter. The process of getting images and securing permissions can still be time consuming. At the very least, it is possible to be prepared.

5) Consider open access

Many funding bodies now insist upon open access publishing. Open access is clearly a good thing for unrestricted access to knowledge. It’s good for us researchers too: a study has found that open access publications are 47% more likely to be cited on Wikipedia. Most scientific journals offer the option of publishing through the ‘gold’ open access route (ie. it is freely available through the publisher’s website)– for a considerable fee. Most often, the funding body will pay this fee. In contrast, many humanities journals do not offer this option. In this case, you can use the ‘green’ route, i.e. publishing the article via a repository or personal website, often after an embargo period. Or, alternatively, you may be able to make a post-peer review, pre-publication, version available.

Open access publication can seem like a headache for those who use third-party images in their work  (i.e. humanities scholars especially). Many images are still not free to reproduce. As the Wellcome Trust states in their Q&A about open access, publishing third party material in open access publications is a new area for authors. Thus, it’s best to inform the libraries that the image will not only be published in e-journal form, but it will be open access. Usage rights for open access articles are often distributed through a Creative Commons licence. Depending on the exact nature of the licence, this may mean that people can reproduce it freely for commercial or non commercial purposes. Thus, it is wise to exempt the images by including a statement in your figure legends to indicate that permissions should be sought from the rights holder to reproduce the image.

6) Smile!

The process of drafting and re-drafting, editing, and preparing our article for publication in a scientific journal has been challenging. However, there is nothing quite like the satisfaction of being a humanities scholar published in a scientific journal. Enjoy!


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