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The Survey behind “Low Crawling to Obscurity”
Author demographics, characteristics of successful military journals, engagement with professional military content, writing habits and barriers, editorial experiences, and willingness to volunteer.
Renewing the Army’s professional journals requires some understanding of who writes, and why. But until last week, we didn’t know much about the subject.1
Fortunately, “Low Crawling to Obscurity: The Army’s Professional Journals” published last week by Military Review revealed three key findings. First, authors engage with professional content online almost twice as much as any other way, suggesting a need to modernize the Army’s publications. Second, 68% of authors would volunteer for at least one editorial task, suggesting a hybrid professional-volunteer editorial model is viable. And third, modest incentives like conferences or a note from a senior officer could encourage both writing and volunteer editing.
The survey of professional military authors included 68 respondents from a population of 457 Army authors. These Army authors published at least one article in Armor, Engineer, Infantry, Field Artillery, Military Review, Parameters, West Point’s Modern War Institute, or War on the Rocks between January 2022 and April 2023.2
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To collect the responses, the survey used the Microsoft Forms application as part of the Army’s Office 365 cloud. Unfortunately, this platform had significant drawbacks. More than twenty-five authors wrote me emails indicating they could not access the survey. The Combined Arms Center appeared to be completely blocked, removing at least twenty-one authors from the pool. Additionally, respondents could choose whether to answer questions, so not all questions have sixty-eight responses. Despite these drawbacks, this survey of military authors is (to my knowledge) the first ever, providing important insights as the Harding Project renews professional military writing.
Survey questions focused on the following:
characteristics of successful military journals,
engagement with professional military content,
writing habits and barriers,
willingness to volunteer as an editor for a professional publication.
The survey found that military authors overwhelmingly fit a narrow demographic profile. The median respondent was a white, non-Hispanic or non-Latino male, high-performing active-duty Army major between 30 and 39 years old with a master’s degree who published two articles and has completed the Captains Career Course and one broadening opportunity.
Characteristics of successful military outlets
Analysis indicates outlets succeed because they are online and publish quality content. Authors prefer online content twice as much as podcasts or print content, which were the next most preferred. These preferences were mirrored in their engagement habits and their perceptions of their peers’ engagement habits.
Engagement with professional military content
Authors overwhelmingly engaged with content online and thought that their peers did the same. However, authors believed they wrote more and read more print than their peers who did not write.
Success of Army Professional Journals and Potential Improvements
There was also tension between perceived success of Army outlets and engagements with them. While authors “agreed” that branch magazines, Military Review, and Parameters succeeded, they rarely engaged with branch magazines or Parameters and were evenly balanced on their engagement with Military Review.
To improve branch journals, authors thought they should improve content, format for mobile viewing, and publish more frequently. These views align with the Harding Project goals of modernizing to web-first, mobile-friendly outlets with increased capacity from volunteer editors.
Writing habits and barriers
On average, the Army’s writers have written less than ten articles for a small number of outlets when motivated by an idea or lesson to share. The top barrier to writing is lack of time or competing requirements. When asked about how they learned to write professionally, the top reason was civilian education, followed by being self-taught, on-the-job training, and professional military education. The top motivations included having an idea to share and contributing to the field. Authors overwhelmingly felt free to write without interference from their chain of command or public affairs team.
Editorial experiences are important to continued authorship with a specific publication and ensuring that publications know who they can solicit writing from. However, authors reported widely ranging publication timelines depending on the publication type with web-first publishing in weeks and more academic publications taking more than seven months (to more than 2 years).
Willingness to volunteer as an editor for a professional publication
Enough survey respondents indicated willingness to volunteer as editors for the volunteer editorial model to work. While the task list shows a range of responses to the volunteer question, the following figure shows that 68% of respondents would volunteer for at least one task. Furthermore, the Army could encourage editorial volunteerism with only modest incentives.
This survey provides evidence for the Harding Project’s platform. Authors and their peers overwhelmingly engage with web-first, mobile friendly content. To renew the Army’s outlets, they desire improved content quality, production pace, and a transition to web-first content. This survey also revealed that authors are strikingly homogenous with few female, enlisted or warrant officers, or minority authors. Careful recruiting of volunteer editors and recognition of writers could help encourage all of the Army’s soldiers, non-commissioned officers, warrant officers, and officers to think and write–and strengthen our profession.
See Drew Allen Bennett, “Characteristics of Successful and Unsuccessful Writers for a Military Journal” (PhD diss., Texas A&M, 1991), 8; Kareem P. Montague, The Army and Team Learning (Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, 2008), 41–51, accessed 20 June 2023, https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA485558.pdf; and Alonzo L. Coose Jr., A Critical Evaluation of Military Review (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1970), accessed 20 June 2023, https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/AD0713374.pdf.
In total, the survey collected responses from 70 individuals, but one respondent had not authored an article in the time period and another was a civilian.