Over the last few months I had to balance and navigate my way through trying to publish an academic article but also one in which the content was featured in the media, before it was published. During a presentation of my work for the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History in January, I was asked a question about the balance between the media and academics and I don’t feel like I answered it quite fully and it has bothered me that I didn’t explain myself fully so I opted to write this post.
Academics dealing with and providing content for the media is pretty old hat. Lots of academics do write ups for the press like articles and the like or offer commentary on issues. Having your research be the story happens too, most often I would say with the sciences as one study after another usually finds its way into the “Health” or even the”Science” section (still no humanities section featuring latest research). Humanities academics though can sometimes find themselves in a bit of a competition with journalists as journalists have stories they want to write and publish and the boundaries can sometimes be rather fluid. If a journalist finds a great story about a historical event that no one has discovered previously, it may be newsworthy and get written up with the historian in the relevant field perhaps hoping they would have made that discovery.
What happened to me in October 2016 was a rare find. New discoveries in Canadian history do not come around often as other historians who made new discoveries recently could probably attest to, like historian Ian Mosby and James Daschuk. I made an Access request in October to Library and Archives Canada for one specific file and that file revealed the government’s wiretapping program PICNIC that began in 1951 with P.C. 3486. I searched the existing secondary literature, and consulted with other senior historians in the field the night I read the file. We recognized this may be something the media may want to see and report on. But I had a dilemma. I also wanted to publish something on this academically because no one had, but that would take months if not a year to do, and this document now having been released, was now public, so what do you do? This is something perhaps only a “still in the hunt for a tenure-track spot” academic like myself may be concerned about. I’m not sure if more senior academics would be kept up by these questions but I do think for people in the hunt for a permanent position, ways of standing out matter, and new discoveries certainly make one stand out (though it remains to be seen if it truly does make a difference in the long run!).
In the end I opted to stick with academic publishing since at the time I thought that what mattered most was the contribution to my field. In hindsight I still think it was the right choice. I wrote an article concentrating heavily on the document I found and submitted it for review to the Canadian Historical Review. From the day I found it to the day I submitted was about 2 weeks. It took me about a week to write it, and I looked it over once more. It was admittedly a little rough for a submission but I was hoping that reviewers would recognize the significance and rarity of the find over the typos. Reviewers typically were expected to provide their review within 8 weeks and it was only as that date drew closer that I began looking for a media outlet interested in the story. Contacting media too was not straight forward. I emailed every major paper, and various CBC outlets (Toronto and Ottawa). I emailed the Canadian Press too because days were literally passing and no one seemed interested at all which surprised me a bit. The Canadian Press took interest but time was passing as I waited for a follow up and CBC finally took notice when they were doing stories on the RCMP wanting lawful access to internet traffic. An unknown wiretapping historical discovery now seemed pretty timely. It didn’t hurt that the Privy Council Office in their refusal to release P.C.3486 added more intrigue and drama to the story by claiming they couldn’t confirm or deny the secret order’s existence. The story was now writing itself, but now the Canadian Press also came back into the mix. As someone who was thoroughly unfamiliar with any of this, I had not realized that the Canadian Press and CBC were competitors in the news game. Thankfully all agreed to work together. The story also didn’t go public until the peer review process had been completed and the editors of CHR had a decision on publication. So I preserved the peer review process and got the public attention. The academic article will be published in the September issue of the CHR.
My advice then to young academics who may discover a rare find in their research: do your academic publishing first if your eye is on doing it for a living. Forget social media and everything else, seek to find a home for your work with a peer reviewed journal and after that, if you think the general public would be interested, seek out ways to get your stuff out to them. If you’ve written academia off then by all means do whatever, but otherwise, your academic publication will have longer legs than the news cycle.