To publish or not to publish? That’s not the question!

By Alejandra Rivera

Image by Werner Moser from Pixabay

Throughout our academic careers and 4CITIES it becomes increasingly appealing to have our work and our ideas contribute to the academic global dialogue. That is a fascinating idea, I find, that anyone can contribute with unique thought to the way we perceive and understand the world.

The thesis should be an enjoyable process. One should really enjoy every step of finding out what research is, then attempting to do it, and writing the final product. The constant struggle with ideas and internal fight to organize them is a process of growth both personal and professional. The mini-book that results is just the tip of the iceberg of what you learn and grow, the experiences you go through, people you talk to, trips you took, calls and emails made, the realizations and arguments that made it to the draft and the ones that died too soon to make it. The process of writing is a self-discovery journey of what you are capable of, how to handle challenges in the face of adversity, how you resolved inconveniences, how you fixed unplanned events. At the end, you can look back and see how is that you made it.

Finding an interesting topic to research is fundamental. I increasingly became more intrigued about social innovation in general, and grew curious about its manifestation in my two chosen (crazy different) cases: Malmö and Medellín. Now I reflect on the importance to choose a topic not only that you like or want to know more about, but that you are truly passionate to submerge yourself in, one that you are willing to dig into, and deal with whatever you find in your always surprising research hunt. Reality always finds a way to surprise us despite any vast amount of theory that we read or write to try to explain it.

I think the point of the researcher is to contrast. First, to contrast what others have said about the topic with your own understanding, opinion, conception of it, and secondly to contrast those two versions with the observable reality found in empirical cases, and to do so in an organized and methodologically sound way. Doing that contrasting is already a great accomplishment, but so far, it has only described reality. The true challenge of a thesis, and I would even jump to assert that it is also the case of any scientific work, is to explain the underlying reasons for why the contrasts you describe exist. An even larger challenge, but also larger contribution, is to use what you find in that contrasting exercise to propose new understandings or conceptualizations, to add your own stance to your topic, whatever it might be.

Somewhere along the process I lost interest in the grade or in fulfilling the assignment. I became more intrigued about my results, comparing the cases, and finding out what would be possible to conclude and contribute to the global academic dialogue. That became a powerful fuel.

At my defense, my work was well received. That encouraged me to make it into an academic article for publication. So, I did. I took a different route and did not try to submit to academic journals directly but to international conferences. I find that this method also gives the opportunity to present your thesis to wider audiences, and is another chance to be nervous and to overcome it. So, after making a list of some ‘Call for abstracts’ I finally sent my abstract to 3 conferences:

  1. SIIU2020 “International Conference for Urban Research” by University of Lisbon and UPC (Barcelona)
  2. IPSA World Congress “International Political Science Association
  3. IUPE13 “International Urban Planning and Environmental Congress” in Tartu, Estonia

There are many international conferences organized all the time, where a topic in urban studies will be very relevant. My abstract/paper was accepted by all 3. The general process goes something like this: send an abstract, once it is accepted you are notified and ask to send the academic paper (usually 8-15 pages), this would be a very concise and clear summary of each chapter in the thesis, one by one. Once it is accepted it goes to a review committee where it is peer-reviewed by at least 2 anonymous scholars who make suggestions, changes, and recommend it or not for presentation at the conference (a power point 15-min. presentation). If at that point the article is recommended for presentation, then you have to re-submit it with changes considering the comments from the reviewers. Then it is finally approved for presentation at the conference.

The whole process can take months or up to a year (usually these are annual conferences). These three conferences were originally scheduled for summer 2020. Due to Covid both IPSA and IUPE13 were moved a year to summer 2021, so I am still in the process for those two, but SIIU2020 was moved to November 2020 as an online version. On November 26, 2020 I presented my research paper, based on my thesis, at the “International Conference for Urban Research”, and since the event was online, it was livestreamed to a global audience. It was a very powerful, rewarding experience and feeling to be able to share my research with people who are interested in my topic and my work.

This experience came with a bonus. My article was chosen among the best 15 papers of the conference. The prize was an indexed publication in a compilation of the 15 best articles in a book by Taylor & Francis. For that, I resubmitted the article in a new template with very strict editorial specifications so it is “camera-ready”. I submitted this final version on January 1st as my new year present to my future self.

At the end, my working thesis draft – a hardly condensed year and a half research adventure, including 41 interviews, everything that people had to say, the result of my contrasting exercise and all the ghosts of my failed attempts – was first condensed into 137 pages, and then to just 8. This forced me to rework it from the end product back to its core, in exchange of the promise to be added to the ongoing and ever-building academic dialogue in urban studies.

Along these lines I would like to encourage all 4Citizens to do something beyond 4CITIES with their produced thesis. The effort and the experience should go beyond a passing grade and a decoration on a bookshelf. Even if the result was not personally satisfying or did not get a high grade, it is an opportunity to complete it, to improve, to make it personally satisfying and academically and socially meaningful. It takes time and effort, but as I wrote in a previous Field Notes article: “in the midst of the internal struggle sometimes we face about doing or not the ‘optional’ extra work, I reaffirm the rewards are always worth doing it”.

To publish or not to publish! That’s not the question! As already hinted, I assume that it is desired, and I think it should be. The question is rather how to go about it. There are many avenues. I opted for international conferences because I think they offer the opportunity to share your research with the world and have a voice yourself. But the options to upgrade your work are endless. I think we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to multiply our efforts and magnify our voices.

The knowledge we produce as urbanists, let it be this thesis or any piece of work in our careers, it has the potential to contribute not just to academia but to every actor and every citizen. They too can benefit from what we have to say, and the actions that can be derived from it. Therefore, I encourage the current or future 4citizen reading these lines to always do the extra work, go the extra mile, and take your work to the next level. Beyond any benefits that publishing could bring to one’s career or recognition, it is far more rewarding and meaningful that your work reaches a wider audience, others that could reflect, build upon, or challenge your thoughts, and positively impact the lives of people that we urbanists research and work for.