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Chris is co-founder of Prolifiko, writing productivity coach, writer and content consultant.

Highly-cited academic authors at the top of their game might seem unreachable for some publishers and scholarly societies. However, research reveals that understanding the motivations of these superstar scholars and leveraging their desire to write long-form and be seen as ‘thought leaders’ might better equip more publishers to attract their talents.

Last year we surveyed 600 academic authors and asked them questions about what and how they wrote, what pressures, blocks and barriers they faced, and how satisfied they were about their writing and publishing.

We wanted to learn more about the scholarly writing process and dig into how they got the work done.

We asked scholars to tell us what they predominantly write and publish and gave them a number of options to choose from.

It’s no great surprise that overall, scholars write and publish a variety of different types of content – and that writing articles for journals takes up most of their time with conference papers coming a close second.

Whilst all very interesting, it’s not particularly revealing. What’s far more useful is to understand what academics write at different stages of their career and more importantly – why. 

Related reads: Three reasons why early career researchers suffer with writing stress >>

Student priorities rule

Early on in an academic career – the first two years in particular – scholars have their heads down completing their theses and dissertations.

It’s not until they’ve been writing for around three years that thesis writing starts to wane and from year six or seven that article writing replaces dissertation writing entirely as the main focus.

From then on, dissertation writing falls away dramatically and is replaced by forms of writing that are linked to their professional development and career priorities like journal articles and conference papers.

Related reads: Publish or perish: the barriers facing early career academics >>

Mid-career work pressure kicks in

As academics move through the middle stages of their career (6-15 years’ experience), all forms of writing and publishing linked to professional progression become a priority.

They have little time for writing whole books and monographs (types of writing not always valued by institutions) although they are writing more book-related content like book chapters and book reviews. At mid-career stage, scholars predominantly churn out journal articles, conference papers and grant reports.

Digging into the data further, we find that whilst these career-oriented professionals don’t seem to particularly enjoy writing this type of content, dissatisfaction isn’t a factor. So, we might assume that mid-career academics just see this type of writing as a necessary part of the job.

Related reads: Time blocking and why it works for writers: investigating the science >>

Satisfaction and thought leadership takes over

It’s not until late career where things get really interesting. We see some big shifts occurring – shifts most likely related to changing professional priorities and perhaps, less career-advancement pressure.

At around year 16 of an academic career, authors ease-off writing and publishing journal articles, conference papers and grant-reports in particular (a form of writing linked to dissatisfaction) and start to write more books, monographs and book chapters – something linked to very high levels of satisfaction.

In short, scholars start writing more of what they enjoy the more experienced they become.

At late career stage, we also see academics writing more blogs, more trade journalism op-ed style pieces and more consultancy reports – suggesting that personal brand and thought leadership are important. We also see a spike in creative writing at late stage – suggesting these academics might have a little more time on their hands!

Related reads: The surprising hobbies of superstar scholars and what you can learn >>

What academics want to write

Understanding how academics’ motivations change means that publishers can more effectively work with them. Now we know that late career, academic priorities shift away from raw career advancement and towards fulfilment, satisfaction, legacy and recognition – publishers can be smarter about how they incentive top authors to join their stable.

Now it’s clear that highly-cited academics enjoy writing long-form and have more professional freedom to do it, publishers might be able to attract superstar scholars to write books for them where they might struggle to attract them to contribute to journals.

What academics don’t enjoy

By understanding the motivations (and egos) of these late-career academics, publishers can sell them on the enjoyment, professional freedom and profile they will gain through working with you. Once an author is part of your stable, how could you leverage their desire to be considered ‘thought leaders’?

Also, now you know that academics seem to choose to write less of what they don’t like writing when they get the chance, how will you widen your content output? It also calls for different types of author services as a result. Can you offer support to late-career gurus which will attract them to your business and differentiate your brand?

Related reads: How to be a prolific academic: the writing strategy of Wharton’s youngest ever full professor, Adam Grant >>

Understand the ‘why’ of writing

Publishers and scholarly institutions do a great job at supporting authors but it’s only by understanding why they write and how this changes over the course of a career that they’ll fully appreciate the motivations and drivers of authors – and so be able to incentive and support them better.

Scholarly authors are more than just content creators – they’re people with individual values, motivations, blocks and pressures. Understanding why an author writes and how they do it is critical to productivity – and that’s something that individuals, institutions and publishers all have a vested interest in.

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