First Time Publishing Wo(e)rries

So you’ve spent months, years even, coming up with a great research project and have done months of fieldwork and data analysis, and have finally got a paper written up and ready to go to a journal – hard part over, right?


The black-hole of publishing for first time publishers often reminds me of the dread I feel when even just thinking about trying to buy my first home (I’ve still done neither, by the way). There’s just so much to think about. When you ask people who have done it before, they all say that you simply have to take the plunge: just try it and see. But when it’s your first article, most likely derived from the years of sweat, blood and tears of your PhD, you don’t want to submit the paper to just anywhere. You want to submit to the best, the most appropriate, the one with the most readership, or impact factor, or distribution – whatever metric floats your boat, but it has to be the best.

My PhD thesis conveniently had four empirical chapters. They all fit very neatly together, but they also stood up on their own. This was very fortunate, since I had, in effect, four papers almost ready to be published as four different articles. For the first empirical chapter, I was approached by an academic who was editing a book on my very topic. He wanted me to submit a chapter to the book and so I jumped at the chance. Great! Yippee! First publication under way. But book chapters don’t really count, do they? Neither do unpublished papers on (my only other claim to readership fame) regardless of how many tens of thousands of views and downloads they’ve had. Not, at least, for things like the REF (Research Evaluation Framework) and that matters when my next potential employers deliberate over whom to give their much coveted job to.

So I’m no better off at this point. I have three more empirical chapters which I’m excited about and believe are good enough to be published as separate papers, but no clue as to how to get them published. To move forward, I decided to think of my three favourite publications in my field of study, Science and Technology Studies, and make a resolution to submit a paper to each of these. I picked ‘Social Studies of Science’, ‘Science, Technology and Human Values’, and ‘Science as Culture’. I’ve admired these journals for many years, and have read their articles with great interest – so why not aspire to these? It seemed to be as good as idea as any.


That was five months ago. Five months that I’ve been sat on these chapters, but completely paralysed as to what to do with them and how to go about turning them into something spectacular enough to be accepted into one of these journals. I’ve spent the last five months riddled with self-doubt and imposter syndrome. Sure, they gave me a PhD for this very work, but is it good enough to be published in one of these top journals? I decided to focus on one of these chapters, the one that I had most fun writing, and decided to ‘get it ready for submission’, whatever that meant. That took over three months and I am still no further to a complete product that I think is ‘good enough’ – mostly because I have been poring over every word and have criticised each sentence as not being professional or smart enough for any of these journals.

I spoke to my colleague about these woes and worries. She told me to stop being so precious about these papers and just get them sent off. She told me that this is not going to be my magnum opus, and that I should just get things out there. In effect, she told me not to let perfect be the enemy of the good. And good enough is all I really need. I know that in theory, but in practice it’s a bit more difficult to let one of your precious papers be judged by someone you likely don’t even know and who has the power to push that almighty REJECT button on your life’s most important work to date. I know it won’t be the most important thing forever, but right now that’s exactly what it is and certainly what it feels like. And that’s caused me to stare at my screen like a rabbit in headlights for far too long.

I’ve therefore decided to loosen up a little with this. I’ve realised that as it stands I’m making sure that my chances of being published at the moment are zero, since I’m not actually submitting anything at all for fear of it not being the best thing I’ve ever submitted. I need to keep in mind that, sure, if you play the game you may lose, but if you never even roll the dice, there’s absolutely no chance of winning whatsoever.

Yesterday that same colleague told me about ‘Kaizen’ – the Sino-Japanese word that roughly translates to ‘change for the better’ – she told me that if I spent just one minute a day for a week working towards getting published, then it’d become easier and easier to lift that mental block and get things done. And the week after that I should spend two minutes a day, and then three and then four and then…you get the picture. So today I spent my one minute going to the ‘Social Studies of Science’ website and navigated to the ‘submission guidelines‘ section. There I found 2690 words with about 23 different links to other things that the potential publishee ought to read up about.

I was filled with dread yet again. What do I do about Open Access? Who pays for it? Which referencing system do I need to use? And footnoting? And how do I insert figures and diagrams – in-text, or at the bottom? What’s the word count Do I need a separate list of figures? What font should I use? Can I attach my document, or do I have to copy and paste? Can I blog sections of my own work or is that self-plagiarising? What key words are appropriate? Is the current editor sympathetic to my conceptual and methodological choices? Does that matter? How long till I get a response? And on, and on, and on. If I thought doing a Phd was a daunting task, I had another few sleepless nights worth of thinking coming!

I started to get bogged down in detail, and was close to once again growing floppy ears and a little fluffy tail, and increasing the prescription on my glasses from all the staring at my screen. But I decided to do something productive with these worries instead. Today my one minute led to spending one hour writing this post (if only my journal writing happened at this speed!). I thought that perhaps by writing some of my anxieties about publishing for the first time, I might be able to better understand the things that have prevented me from just giving it a go. At the very least, at least I’d be able to create a checklist of the things that I need to do to have the paper ready to be sent off. This checklist includes both the conceptual and methodological requirements of the journal, as well as the admin and practical stuff, which I’m increasingly learning is much more important: the journal might publish something that is conceptually a little out of the norm, but they most certainly won’t accept Verdana Font size 14 when they only publish in Times New Roman size 12, and if you’re thinking of referencing Chicago Style, forget it!



From the ‘Quantified Self’ to a Community of Communally Enacted Selves

We live in a curious society. Not only because we are a strange species, but because we are inherently eager to learn more about our society and our selves. This is true of both those of us formally researching society, and also of those in society whom we are researching. People are increasingly turning to technologies to track, measure, and record themselves, for the purposes of finding out more about who they are and what they do. Quality of sleep is being monitored by wearing sleep bands, blood sugar levels are being tracked using blood-glucose monitors, activities are being recorded using pedometers and GPS watches, and emotional states are being analysed using heart-rate variability devices. To make sense of how these technologies affect the self and society, I spent four years ethnographically analysing the ‘Quantified Self’ group, a group where people come together to share stories and experiences about their practices of self-quantification.

Are these technologies just recording and measuring who we are – simply tracking our behaviour and merely representing us via the resulting numbers and visualisations? Well, this research would be pretty uninteresting if the answer was yes! As has been argued many times, by economists and quantum physicists alike, the very act of measurement changes the nature of the thing that is being measured. The same can also be said for the case of self-quantification. The use of technologies to track and measure the self changes the very nature of the self and its behaviours. These technologies are not merely representing or recording the self, but are actively complicit in producing the self as it is being measured, and consequently in changing the behaviour of the measurer. Understanding how these technologies have a bearing on the self is therefore paramount.

Think about this for a moment: a CEO of a company that I met told me that he usually went for a run to de-stress from a hard day at the office. He had recently downloaded an application on his phone to track the speed and distance of his runs. After one particularly stressful day at work, he decided to go for his usual run. He put on his trainers and grabbed his phone to track the run via this application. A few metres into the run, however, his phone ran out of battery. Rather than continue with the run, he turned around to go back home, he put his phone on charge, and watched TV instead! He told me that it would have been a ‘wasted run’ if it wasn’t tracked and recorded. What happened here? How did the need to record the activity supersede his tried-and-tested method of de-stressing? 

I found that simply saying that one went for a run, was not thought to be as convincing as being able to ‘show’ that one went for a run, using graphs and charts illustrating metrics like average pace, heart rate and distance. It is apparent, therefore, that the recording of an activity and the resulting visualisations enable the self-quantifier to have a new way of being able to communicate themselves with other people. Moreover, it seems as though these data-visualisations allow the self-quantifier to see things that may otherwise have been unknowable through instincts or intuition alone. A weight-loss of 100g in a day, for example, is difficult to notice in the mirror, but much easier to ‘see’ when plotted on a daily graph showing a downward trend.

This ‘seeing’ is not only important for the person that is doing the quantifying, it is also important for those with whom this person communicates. Here, others are invited to participate in the production of the self in question by including them in the negotiations of what the visualisation may even be revealing about the self, be this the-self-that-has-lost-weight, the-self-that-has-diabetes, or the-self-that-is-stressed. The inclusion of the audience in the narrative of the self is thus one of the most important aspects of data-visualisations in practices of self-quantification.

Paradoxically, therefore, in trying to show the individuality and uniqueness of their particular self, the person engaged in practices of self-quantification ends up measuring similar metrics to others in the group, presenting these metrics using similar visualisations, and adopting very similar language to communicate these. Through practices of self-quantification, the ‘self’ becomes a communal achievement.

To be an individual here, depends on being part of a collective, and the collective is enacted during the communal  achievement of seeing and producing the self through numbers and the resulting data visualisations. In this context at least, curiosity didn’t kill the cat, it created a community of quantified-selves!

“Self-Quantifying Technologies and the Agential Self”

Presentation given at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference in Leeds, 2014. The paper was part of the “Frontiers” stream organised by Chris Till and Mark Carrigan and also featured papers by Deborah Lupton and Karen Throsby. See here for abstracts of the papers.

(The ‘Quantum Physics 101’ slide featured a cartoon explaining the Double Slit Experiments and can be found here.)