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“Anxiety Laden” Rituals and Competitive Rites of Passage: Publishing at the Graduate Student Level in Anthropology

Travis Warren Cooper and Alifu Mierxiati

Description and Overview

Anthropological publishing is undergoing profound shifts. Disputing what some see as the commercialization of university presses and the declining quality of the peer review process, anthropologists are experimenting with different types of publication methods including novel forms of peer review and Open Access methodologies, with the goals of “promoting wider access and freer discussion” (Zeitlyn and Lyon 2012, 110; Harley et al. 2006: 4) along with fulfilling obligations as anthropologists to share information with “source communities” where the research is undertaken (Kelty et al. 2008: 582, 564). Most anthropologists recognize the importance of publishing to professionalization and academic success but acknowledge that the underlying goal of publication is to share information widely (Thompson 2009). Publishing in anthropology is also growing more interdisciplinary and less formal; one recent study found that 87% of anthropologists think that interdisciplinary publishing will advance anthropology as a field (McCarty and Jawitz 2013: 856), while other scholars are actively utilizing the blog format as a site of dialogical scholarship (Price 2010). Even amongst these significant changes, however, standard print journals continue to serve as authoritative sites of scholarly communication (Silverstein 2012).

What role, however, do graduate students play in these changes, and how are the students reacting to them? In this examination of the field of graduate student publishing in anthropology, we sought to document and analyze 1) the amount of graduate student publishing accomplishment, and 2) student perceptions of the academic publishing industry. As current graduate students, the authors began the study under the assumptions that publishing one’s academic writing is a rite of passage and that publishing is a scholarly ritual of belonging in the academic world. Further, the authors surmised that for graduate students the process of submitting one’s work to critical scrutiny is both an anxious and intimidating experience on one hand, but also inevitable for academic professionalization, on the other. This study confirmed that graduate students harbor significant concerns about the state of scholarly publishing but at the same time continue to work hard to publish their research. Ultimately, the authors intend that student responses and suggestions may shed light on and offer solutions to some of the problems within anthropological publishing.


The authors distributed a 28-question, online, anonymous survey to graduate students in 20 anthropology departments in both Big Ten and Ivy League institutions, and received back 150 completed responses from 11 Big Ten and 5 Ivy League institutions. We sought to interrogate the ways graduate students themselves perceive the publishing industry as well as to record their current achievement and struggle in the publishing process by combining the quantifiable data with insightful typed responses to open-ended and opinion based inquiries. The survey allowed the authors to document the number of published items by graduate students (both MA and PhD level) at different stages in their respective programs (see Table 1). The survey inquired about different genres of publishing and co-publishing practices, asked respondents to rank publication types by prestige or importance, and gauged the number of graduate student contributions to scholarly blogs and interdisciplinary (and non-anthropological) journals. The survey also recorded publishing outlets used by successful students, gauged the rejection rates among those students submitting work to peer-reviewed publishing outlets, and allotted ample space for written responses to a series of questions on the perceived issues and problems in the publishing field. While the survey has served well as an initial foray into the graduate student experience of publishing, subsequent studies might amend these findings by doing in-depth interviews with graduate students and perhaps honing our survey questions.

Results Summary and Discussion

The purpose of this survey was to collect data on the rates of academic publishing amongst anthropology graduate students. Table 1 diagrams some of the most significant findings of the research project. Out of 150 graduate student participants, 96.7% of them were PhD students. The students were very well distributed among the years of study in the programs (with more than 7 years being the highest percentage at 19.3%). 20.0% of the participants were from Indiana University. Cultural anthropology students constituted the majority of the participants (38.0%). 61.9% of the participants had the experience of publishing original work in academia. The peer-reviewed journal article was the most popular way to publish; 36.0% of respondents reported having published work in this format. 42.1% of the graduate students had published with advanced colleagues. Out of the 68 graduate students who had experience in co-publishing with an advanced colleague, 22.0% did more work on researching for the paper than their colleague (13.2% report having done none of the research, 20.6% some of the research, 16.2% half of the research, 19.1% a good deal of the research, and 8.8% of students report having done all of the research). In terms of writing, 27.5% of them reported doing some of the work (17.4% did none of the writing, 14.5% wrote half, 18.8% wrote a good deal, 15.9% wrote the most of the paper, and 5.8% wrote all of the paper). 23.6% of the participants reported having published work with a student colleague or peer (as opposed to publishing with an advanced colleague). At least 24.0% of the participants have published with interdisciplinary journals in the past, and 74.0% considered publishing with non-anthropology journals in the future. 13.5% of the participants have contributed to online anthropology blog forums. 19.0% of the participants have contributed to scholarly or academic blogs in general. According to 85.32% of the participants, peer-reviewed journal articles were the highest ranked in terms of prestige, followed by chapters in edited volumes (33.0%), and third, online, peer-reviewed, open access articles (38.5%). 33.1% of the participants believed that more than 3 published works by the time of graduation would make them an attractive candidate on the job market (see Figure 1). 62.0% percent of the participants have submitted work and have been accepted. Among those reporting rejection by publications (20.7%), 45.2% have had 2 rejections (see Figure 2). At least 58.9% of the participants currently do not have items under review for publishing. 44.7% of the participants think that publishing is “very important” at this stage of their academic career (see Figure 3).

The method of emailing the survey to graduate students was successful for getting a high volume of respondents. The strongest result from this survey is that the majority of the students have had experience in academic publishing (see Figure 4). Among the participants who have submitted papers to be published, most of them had their work accepted for publishing. The results of the survey would have been more accurate if the number of participants had been more evenly distributed amongst different institutions. On the optional part of the survey, respondents submitted valuable opinions of graduate students on academic publishing. For example, some responses elaborated on the importance of feedback, and how that graduate students should have “thick skin” and be accepting of critique, while others described receiving criticism as both “humbling and frustrating” due to mixed and contradictory reviewer feedback. Several responses suggested that advisors take a more active role in coaching students in publishing strategies. Still others described the process as “anxiety laden but helpful overall” in terms of improving the quality of one’s work. As mentioned before, more qualitative research on graduate student impressions would strengthen this research. Furthermore, incorporating information about the students’ ethnicity and gender would also be valuable.

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