Home » Dr Alexandra Wilson » Tips on publishing for musicology research students by Alexandra Wilson and Jo Cormac

Tips on publishing for musicology research students by Alexandra Wilson and Jo Cormac

One of the most rewarding aspects of running OBERTO is having the opportunity to help early career researchers and PhD students to develop their academic careers. In early February, Dr Alexandra Wilson and Dr Joanne Cormac ran a workshop for OBERTO PhD students (joined by a PhD student from the Brookes Popular Music Research Unit) on publishing their work. Below are some of Alex’s and Jo’s responses to the students’ questions.

Is it better to publish a PhD as a book or series of articles?

There’s no right or wrong answer to this question. We know colleagues who have taken both approaches and gone on to achieve successful academic careers. In part, the decision would be guided by what type of PhD you write: a PhD that has a strong sense of a narrative arc would lend itself better to publication as a book, whereas a PhD that takes a case study approach might lend itself better to articles. Some people feel that they have had enough of their PhD topic by the end of their studies and find that a new topic offers fresher challenges. Other PhD topics cry out to be adapted as books.

Potential academic employers like to see that a book is on the way, but it needn’t necessarily be an adaptation of your PhD. One thing is for sure, however: you should try to get an article out before finishing your PhD, especially if job-seeking in the UK market. British Universities will always have the REF upper-most in their minds when hiring and will want to be able to submit your outputs. Early career researchers often only need one item for the REF, so having one article in a top journal can make you a really attractive prospect. It is a good idea to start thinking about this when you are roughly halfway through your doctoral studies. At that point, you should (hopefully!) have something you could work into an article. Beginning the publishing process at the mid-point of the PhD should allow enough time for the article to appear as you finish (remember even once it’s been accepted your article will not be published immediately). Of course, you also need to be careful not to become too distracted from your PhD studies.

How would you go about getting your PhD published as a book?

The first thing you need to do is select a publisher. Have a look at the other sorts of books that they have published and see if you think your PhD would be a good fit. Cambridge University Press is a very popular choice for many musicology PhDs and they have some excellent series (e.g. Cambridge Studies in Opera), for which your topic may be an ideal fit. Oxford University Press is a similarly prestigious academic press but also publishes music books with a more popular appeal (and at lower price) so can be a good choice if your topic would lend itself to a wide dissemination. US university presses with good music lists include California, Chicago and Harvard: there are many more. Other popular presses for music books in the UK include Boydell and Ashgate.

Having chosen your publisher, you would need to make contact with the commissioning editor for Music, either by email or in person. (If you’re lucky enough to be able to attend the AMS, there are opportunities to meet representatives from all the major presses.) As with other aspects of academic life, networking is important. The editor will want to see a substantial proposal and a number of chapters, possibly even the complete manuscript. You can find detailed guidance on most publishers’ websites regarding what to include in the proposal. Make sure you read these thoroughly. Be warned that the process of getting a proposal accepted can be quite lengthy: perhaps up to two years from the initial point of contact to the final ‘yes’.

If you do publish your PhD as a book, what changes would have to be made?

Publishers can sometimes be wary of publishing books that have been PhDs (although many books do originate as PhDs). In your initial pitch, you need to make it very clear that the book will be a different beast. You will probably need to remove the ‘clunkier’ methodological sections and you may need to write additional chapters to ‘round out’ your narrative. You’ll need to pay attention to matters of tone in order to make the book as ‘readable’ as possible and your title may need to be a bit punchier: academic presses publish academic books but they are still keen to sell as many copies as possible!

How would I approach a journal about an article and how does publishing an article in a journal work?

Most musicology journals now have online submission systems and provide clear instructions to authors regarding how to submit their work. Once you’ve submitted your article, it will be sent by the journal’s editor to a number of peer reviewers (often three) who will read your article and send a report containing feedback. The process is anonymous, so they don’t know who you are and you won’t know who they are, although sometimes it is possible to guess (on both counts)! This process usually takes around three months, although it can be longer – and note that you are not allowed to send your work to several journals simultaneously (or, at least, it is very much frowned upon). The result may range from a definite yes to a straight no, but there are many shades of grey in between: very often an editor will ask you to rewrite the article taking into account the reviewers’ comments. The comments can sometimes be rather harsh but more often these days they are constructive. If you receive an offer to ‘revise and resubmit’, it is often a good idea to explain briefly in an email how you have engaged with the reviewers’ feedback. This will demonstrate that you have considered their comments carefully.

Which journal should I choose?

Our advice would be to aim as high as possible and go for a really top quality journal: this will stand you in very good stead for the job market. We had our first publications published in Cambridge Opera Journal (Alex) and 19th-Century Music (Jo). That said, it might be a little unrealistic to send your first attempt to The Journal of the American Musicological Society, which publishes a small number of long articles in each issue and is the journal of choice for (the very large number of) American musicologists. It’s always a good idea to discuss the choice of journal with your supervisor.

You need to make sure that you choose a journal that actually publishes work that is ‘like yours’. Then you can choose between a niche journal (e.g. Cambridge Opera Journal, The Opera Quarterly) or go for a generalist journal that publishes on a wide variety of topics (e.g. the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Music & Letters). Whether you publish in a British or an American journal doesn’t matter too much: it’s an international market these days.

You will need to check the word count of each journal (typically anywhere between 8,000 and 18,000 words, including footnotes). You will also need to adhere to their ‘house style’ in terms of referencing: neglect to do this and the editor may not take you seriously! If you have images you will need to pay for the reproduction and copyright costs yourself, although there are various funding bodies and charities you can apply to for assistance with such costs.

To conclude, although the publishing process can be stressful at times, the final outcome always makes it worthwhile. It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling to see an article – and particularly a book – in print!


  1. […] recent perspective on publishing is given by Alexandra Wilson and Joanne Cormack on the blog of the OBERTO research group at Oxford Brookes University. See also a previous blog post by Jeanice Brooks and Loren Diclaudio […]

  2. […] recent perspective on publishing is given by Alexandra Wilson and Joanne Cormack on the blog of the OBERTO research group at Oxford Brookes University. See also a previous blog post by Jeanice Brooks and Loren […]

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