What can I do to get more people to read my published work? (Anonymous, history)
Dr. Editor’s response:
In the sciences, a robust body of research attests to the writing strategies that lead to high citation counts. Authors have been advised, for example, to publish with at least five co-authors and to include at least six figures and two tables, and as many equations as you need (see Elgendi, 2019).
Few if any of these strategies will be relevant in most humanities disciplines, including yours, dear letter-writer.
I could find no published work investigating the strategies most often linked to high citation counts in humanities disciplines or to publications in high impact factor humanities journals. Most likely, this research doesn’t exist because the metrics used to calculate scholarly influence too regularly exclude some of the most important humanities research, as that work is published in books and journals not captured in the big databases.
Moreover, many in the humanities are skeptical at best of the value of impact metrics which, it has been argued, entrench a conception of knowledge as anglophone, Western, and male (see for example Batty, 2003; Bendels et al., 2018; Symonds et al., 2006; van Leeuwen et al., 2001). Measures of research impact are thus not necessarily measures of research quality (Anderson, 2018).
So — without investing in the veracity of metrics, what is within your power to do, to help your work to find an audience? What can you do to ensure your research is read, understood, and considered in continuing scholarly conversations?
Getting your journal articles read and cited
1. Use plain language writing strategies
Use words your readers will recognize. Favour the active voice. Ensure your main verb is one of the first few words in your sentence. These writing strategies help your reader to understand and remember your writing.
Not every highly cited work is written using plain language strategies. See, for example, this joking take-down of the opening of Das Kaptial:
what is wrong with undergrads today??? look at this horrible paper my student wrote: pic.twitter.com/Bs39TOkrKr
— Max Larson (@loadedonloaded) February 18, 2020
But Das Kapital isn’t a journal article. A set of particular generic conventions shape the most influential journal articles in the most important journals in your field. In the humanities, many of the best and most influential journal articles fit the profile of plain language writing. The best work is written well.
For a proxy of good, clear writing, let’s look at sentence length in one of the top journals in history. Articles published in American Historical Review in the past five years had an average sentence length of 25.68 words, with over a quarter of all articles having, on average, between 25.00 and 26.99 words per sentence (I did the math). Of the nine most-cited AHR articles in the past five years, only one had an average sentence length of more than 30 words per sentence; most were in the 25-to-26-word range.
Does this mean that you’ll get more citations if your article has an average of 25.68 words per sentence? No, of course not. There is, however, a notable trend among the most-cited papers in this high-prestige history journal. Writing like some of the best in your field therefore seems advisable.
Sentence length is not the only proxy of plain language evident in the highly ranked AHR articles: in the highly cited pieces, authors used “to be” verbs at a lower rate than is evident in all AHR articles published since 2015 (2.48% compared to 2.56%). The author who used the most “to be” verbs among the highly cited papers still used it almost a quarter less often that the author who “is”-ed the most in the five-year dataset (3.23% compared to 4.22%). The fewer “to be” verbs, the easier the writing tends to be to read.
Of course, the difference between instances of “to be” verbs in AHR dwarfs in comparison to other fields: Sword (2012) found that 14 percent of articles in her sample of evolutionary biology research published in high-prestige journals have a “to be” instance greater than four percent, the figure was 16 percent in medicine, and 26 percent in computer science.
So, dear letter-writer, I advise that you run the numbers on your own draft manuscript. If more than four percent of your word count consists of “to be” verbs, then you’re not writing like someone who publishes in AHR: you’re writing like a scientist. Tighten up your prose, use more plain language writings strategies, and your work will begin to read like something from a high-prestige history journal.
2. Consider publishing Open Access
There’s evidence that Open Access publications receive more citations than non-OA pubs (Sotudeh et al., 2015; Piwowar et al., 2018), but whether that’s true for humanities research is up for debate (Wray, 2016). Indeed, whether the relationship between OA publication and high citation numbers is one of causation or correlation is also contested (Lewis, 2018).
Consider publishing open access in case it helps to increase your citation count, but remember that the arguments in favour of OA have more to do with the ethics of knowledge production, dissemination, and exchange than they have to do with measures of research impact.
Publish openly if you want people to be able to access your work whether or not they are affiliated with a big-budget research university in the Global North.
3. Tweet about your work
Tweeting about your work appears to increase the chance of your work being cited — at least, so it goes in the sciences. In ecological research (Lamb et al., 2018; Peoples et al., 2016), ornithology (Finch et al., 2017), and clinical medicine, microbiology, molecular biology, and neuroscience (Ravikumar & Khonglam, 2018), tweeting about newly published research appears to contribute to increased citations. Indeed, Peoples et al found that activity on Twitter is a better predictor of an article’s future citation count than the impact factor of the journal in which that article is published.
With OA, we’re not yet sure if works receive more citations because they are published openly, or if those two factors are simply correlated. With Twitter, though, tweeting about your work does appear to be one of many causes of being cited — especially if you have a large follower count (see Ortega, 2016).
Again, though, this data refers to researchers in the sciences. Whether the results hold in the humanities is to be determined. I am nonetheless happy to posit the unsubstantiated, non-evidence-based theory that, if you’re an academic with a decent number of Twitter followers, you’re probably interesting. You’re possibly even funny. And when you tweet possibly funny things about probably interesting research, people just might check it out.
Does this mean you have to sell your research article in a social media marketplace? No — instead, participate in conversations that strike your interest, and share your new research when it comes out, along with a good reason why your followers should read it. If you’re active and well-connected on Twitter, this activity could result in increasing numbers of citations.
In short: write clearly, like the best writers in your discipline; publish openly, to reach as many readers as you can; and tell people online about the work you’ve done and its connections to things they care about.
That’s what we know from the paltry data on helping your readers to find your latest humanities journal article — but what about scholarly monographs? To learn how to develop a robust communications plan for your next book, please read Part 2 in this two-part series, to be published in this column in May 2020.