Thursday, June 29, 2017

The anatomy of an article – small nation, big ships

First, I had such high hopes of being able to actually keep this blog at least semi-active. No such luck, as the dissertation has quite reasonably taken most of my time and will. Clearly I haven't had the will to document the minutiae of that work, but I will try to make up for it in the future.

That being said, I now have a happy story to tell.

For the past year and a half I've worked with a colleague from Aalto University, Saara Matala, on a little side project to both our dissertations: the national history of Finnish icebreaker development, 1878-1978. Why is this significant? It was my first international peer reviewed article in scientific journal and the first on that I did with someone else. As such, it was a learning process of many hues.

Revisiting the history of Finnish icebreaking service

Saara approached me with the idea of revisiting Finnish winter navigation and icebreaker development soon after I had returned from London. It would take the two of us to do this properly. She was not wrong, although it took a bit more than what I thought at the time.

We quickly worked out a first draft, then rewrote over a couple of coffee infused sessions at Aalto in Otaniemi. We had ideas and we had questions but the argument was still elusive. After a good many revisions we felt confident enough to share the draft with our supervisors and a colleague, who also took the time to comment our English.

Unsurprisingly the draft didn't survive that contact. We had too much stuff in the piece and were pulling the argument to differing directions. Not a good thing. So we rewrote the whole thing again. Having worked on the article for about six months, we had the opportunity to take the case across the world into SHOT conference in Singapore in June 2016. More critical comments, questions and ideas followed. By then we were confident however that there was it there. Working our arguments into a conference paper helped immensely with constructing our argument and doing away with unnecessary bits and pieces.

A year ago we sat down again and went through our work again. The draft was rewritten for the Nth time. We had identified a journal to aim for. Since we were revisiting a hundred years of history, this was never going to be a concise piece. Therefore our target was the journal History and technology, as longer articles get published there as well. This revision was done with their style guidelines in mind.

Then we submitted... and waited.

Finally the editor answered. He had good and bad news. The introduction needed work, badly, but there was something there. Not a yes but not a no.

Rewrite and resubmit

So we set to work again. Argued by the white board, drew concept maps and slung revision versions at one another over the email. Saara left for MIT in the fall and we worked out a new version in the hectic weeks preceding her departure. More colleagues read the draft and commented at this point. While much of the content was already there, framing the question and being poignant was hard to come by. Writing together had a helpful effect, as we could both exorcise each other's bad habits and help one another to kill our darlings. During the more hectic stages fo work I would write something in Finland in the morning and sent it to Saara who would pick up from there U.S. time and thus greet me the next morning with a new version.

This went on for a couple of months that I have little memory of (but lots of archived emails). Finally in November, we had a version the editor felt confident in sending to peer review. Winter came, oscillated and my anxiety grew. Somewhere there we had been asked to participate in a lecture session at Tieteen Päivät at my university in Helsinki in January 2017. As Saara was in Boston, I held my first big lecture in front of a lot of people i knew and some I came to know later through this work.

While we waited for peer review comments, the whole icebreaker thing met a perfect storm. It is quite difficult for anyone else to grasp how important these ships are in Finland. I knew this and still I wasn't at all prepared to the interest our research would fan. I got called to speak at transport infrastructure sessions and to give lectures at the Maritime museum of Finland. Journalists wanted to talk to me and people I've never met started calling me. We struck a dialogue with a German historian, who's been doing work on icebreakers for decades and wanted to exchange ideas and materials with Finnish researchers. Meanwhile Saara took our icebreaker story on a tour of North America. This unpublished thing had wings.

And then we received the peer review comments. Were they crushing, o were they!

Learning to do science

While it was easy to talk about icebreakers to Finns, we evidently still had a lot of work in framing our arguments logically. The editor was still positive and pushed us back to work. So once gain we took to MS Word and tore our piece to shreds. Read more research and theory, rewrote the introduction and the conclusions and generally tried to stick holes into our own boat. What fun!

By spring, I felt exhausted and somewhat annoyed with this story. I was getting quite good at talking about it, having practiced over and over. I even got a chance to write a short popular piece about it in Finnish in the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies journal. I felt all this exposure to our ideas was somewhat out of place, as we still didn't have an actual academic publication. Frustrated, I hardly enjoyed the attention, even if engaging others is a good thing for science. I felt unsure, even false, an impostor. And that was absurd, because I had done the work, over and over again. Endless days combing over archives to find the smallest of clues missed by previous historians and then disseminating all that with my colleague. But the feelings were there.

We sent our corrections and errata back to the editor. He came back at us with more questions and clarifications. Still by April this year, I had a feeling of hope. Clearly the editor wouldn't go through all this trouble if there really wasn't something there. Really really. So with steely eyed resolution we took the paper once again.

Finally, quite recently we got a message from the editor, we could hardly understand: "we're almost there..." it started. What did it mean? Would this ever end? What would I do then?

Closure snuck up on us. After a long 18 months, all of a sudden we were in a hurry. Final corrections, permissions to use pictures, revisit the bibliography. Emails were streaking between university serves hourly as our final sprint gathered momentum. Our last session felt electrified and when the FINAL_final_V3b (or whatever) slipped from our computers into academia obscura, emptiness took me over. I went over the publication agreement in a daze, not fully understanding that to so many this is a menial, commonplace occurrence. Land ahead!

What then?

Our article is currently here (early online publication before paper):

While my monograph dissertation is on track to be done in 2018, this article collaboration experience has served an important purpose. Working with others is becoming more relevant in history, I feel. Having had a chance to try it out, I now think that any research idea in our field should go through some kind of self-evaluation of how could I do this with to make it better. Writing with a colleague isn't necessarily easy, but it hat helped me frame my own research interests, strengths and weaknesses and to communicate much better than before.

More importantly this piece is so much better than anything I could have accomplished on my own. Maybe someday, but as a learning process, this has been invaluable and well worth the trouble. To that end, I also feel privileged that the journal editor took the time to push and guide us in the development of our craft.

To conclude, I can also say that the process opened a new and significant path into the future. While working on this article, we recognised important phenomena for analysis.

Any article I write in the future, will probably not shake me like this one did, and that's the point. Doing a phd is a learning process and doing articles on a significant level forces us to learn.

(We had great help from a lot of people along the way. Our supervisors and other informed colleagues took the time to read the work in progress and help us with their comments. All the seminar and conference exposure forced us to hone our argumentation in significant ways. While only two names appear on the article, the academic study of history is by no means a solitary endeavour.)