Kirsten Bell

Research Associate at University of British Columbia

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The Really Obvious (but All-Too-Often-Ignored) Guide to Getting Published

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Anyone who has ever submitted a manuscript to an academic journal will likely have had some opportunity to reflect on the capricious nature of the peer-review process. Attempting to publish is, at best, a frustrating experience. At worst, it seems that banging one’s head against a brick wall would be more fun.

But let’s step aside from what’s wrong with academic publishing, important though that may be. Junior scholars need to get published, and they need to consider—pragmatically—how to go about doing that within the current system.

So is this the article where the illustrious academic at the end of a long career generously imparts her pearls of wisdom, Mr. Miyagi-style, on a new generation of academics? No. But I have experienced the publication process from a variety of perspectives: as an author, a reviewer, and an editor. Especially in the last role, I can’t help but notice that there are several errors I see again and again—the sort of things that make me shake my head (and bang it against my desk on occasion). So with this in mind, I provide some tips on getting journal articles published. As promised, they are obvious—really obvious—which is why it’s a little surprising that I see them ignored so frequently.

Familiarize yourself with the journal you want to submit to.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve received papers, both as an editor and as a reviewer, that were completely inappropriate for the journal to which they were submitted. To illustrate, I’m an associate editor of a journal called Critical Public Health. Given the types of submissions I regularly receive, I can only surmise that there’s a certain scholar who stumbles across the journal and thinks: “I’m writing about an urgent—nay, a critical—public health issue. Wait a minute, there’s a journal called Critical Public Health? That sounds perfect!"

The only problem is that Critical Public Health is not a mainstream public health journal, but an interdisciplinary social-science one. The “critical” in our title refers to the fact that our publication is devoted to critical perspectives on public health, something readily apparent if one bothers to peruse an issue. So you can pretty much guarantee that any article that uncritically invokes the idea of an “urgent” public health issue is going to be wildly inappropriate.

Isn’t it better for everyone if you don’t waste your time—not to mention the editor’s time, and potentially a reviewer’s as well—by submitting your manuscript to a journal where it doesn’t have a hope of being published? Look at the journal’s aims and ensure your manuscript is actually in scope for the type of content it publishes. And here’s an even more radical idea: Actually read through some of the articles.

Make sure you nominate reviewers, if the journal gives you the option to do so.

Anyone familiar with the vagaries of academic publishing knows that success is largely a matter of persistence and luck (with actual talent coming in a distant third). But there’s one thing you can do that helps to stack the odds in your favor: Nominate appropriate reviewers you think will be sympathetic to your argument. (By “appropriate,” I don’t mean your mates.) I’m absolutely gobsmacked at how many authors don’t nominate preferred reviewers. The thing you need to know is that editors want you to nominate reviewers. They outright appreciate it.

Let me share with you my process for when I receive a submission and the author has not supplied a list of reviewers. Unless it happens to be a topic I know well, I spend the next 10 minutes (sometimes longer) searching our journal database and Google Scholar to try and find names that seem appropriate. Bear in mind that I usually have to approach at least four people (and often manymore) to find two reviewers for any given paper, so this process may be repeated several times over. And of course, the more people I approach, the more desperate I become. Eventually I might end up sending the manuscript to someone who I know probably isn’t all that good a fit, but whose primary appeal is that she will likely accept the review invitation. This is generally someone I know and can shamelessly manipulate into doing the review.

You can save editors this time and energy (and abuse of the goodwill of our friends and colleagues) by simply nominating appropriate reviewers. After all, you know your topic area much better than we do.

Don’t make it glaringly obvious that your paper has been rejected by another journal.

Many manuscripts don’t get published in the first journal to which they are submitted. This is pretty much a fact of life. At least a third of the articles I have written were rejected by the journal I initially targeted for publication.

But while an editor may suspect that their journal was not your first choice, it’s best not to draw her attention to this. The dead giveaway is the reference list (though occasionally the abstract makes it clear, too). When I see your reference list formatted in a way that is contrary to my journal’s specifications and in line with those of several more prominent journals in the same field, it’s the literary equivalent of a flashing neon sign.

I know it takes time to redo your references. I know it’s daft that every single journal has a slightly different referencing system, even though they have impressive names, like the “Chicago” system or the “Harvard” system or what have you. Every time I have to painstakingly update my own reference lists I curse the heavens and think: “If only I had bothered to install that EndNote software gathering dust on my desk.” But believe me, it’s worth taking the time to redo the references, because nothing is likely to turn off editors more quickly than knowing that we’re receiving some other journal’s discards. It also makes you look lazy, which is never an identifier you should be aiming for.

Learn how to write a paper before actually submitting one.

I recognize that we live in an age in which students are expected to start publishing before they get to graduate school if they hope to get accepted into a program. I’m thankful I was raised intellectually in the era before this insanity began, and I sympathize wholeheartedly with your plight.

But how do I put this nicely? I’m afraid the “A” you received for your graduate paper is not a signal that you should immediately submit it to a journal. After all, a graduate paper is generally designed to accomplish something rather different from a journal article—it’s about displaying knowledge rather than contributing to it.

The best way to get a sense of how to write journal articles is to read them—lots of them—especially from the journals you want to publish in. And if you want to publish an article based on your thesis, then at least make it look like a journal article. Bear in mind that while we live in an era of premature publication, if you do manage to get that essay published (and there are plenty of predatory “open-access” journals ready to publish whatever you submit, as long as you’re willing to pay for the privilege), it will be out there circulating in the world forever. Like the fairy tattoo you got when you were 18, what seemed like a good idea at the time may be something of an embarrassment a decade later.

Be persistent (when it’s warranted).

Now let’s say you’ve written a paper you’re genuinely proud of. You submit it to the journal you feel is most appropriate and it’s rejected. This is where persistence, when not misplaced, pays off. The trick is not to be disheartened by rejection. (If you’re the sort of person who is incapacitated by critique, I hate to break it to you but the halls of the academy are probably not the place for you.)

This is, of course, easier said than done. A review of the first paper I ever submitted began with the line “This paper looks like a graduate-student essay cobbled together at the end of semester.” Frankly, it just got worse from there. That I had completed my Ph.D. a year before submitting the paper merely added insult to injury.

Generally speaking, it’s easier to publish a piece of mediocre scholarship than something new or innovative or on a controversial topic. For the most part, editors tend to make conservative decisions when presented with polarized reviews. (Although, in my experience, the more prestigious the journal, the less willing its editorial team is to take risks.) However, rejecting critical feedback out of hand is never a good idea, because even the nastiest reviews can force you to improve your work—and I say this having been the recipient of a goodly number of them.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the paper you had rejected from one journal might very well be sent to the same reviewer the next time around, especially if there are a fairly limited pool of people working on the topic. I have seen this happen as an editor, a reviewer, and an author, so it is by no means rare. This person, if she agrees to do the review, will expect you to have taken on board their prior feedback, so if you submit an article unchanged from journal to journal, you do so at your peril.

In sum, if you believe in your paper, take what you can from the reviews and move onto the next journal. But make sure your paper fits the journal’s mandate, has been formatted to the journal’s requirements, is written like a typical research article published in the journal, and you have nominated at least four appropriate reviewers. To mix several tired metaphors, successful publication might be a crapshoot, but don’t shoot your horse in the foot before it even leaves the gate!

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  • If people made fewer of these frequently encountered errors, would more paper get published? Or would it mean that some other papers that would otherwise have deemed worthy of publication get rejected instead?

    When you got your review of the first paper you submitted, a year after finishing your PhD, did you already have a full-time academic appointment with research support? How are those of us who need publications in order to get a job supposed to benefit from that lesson?

    Beyond the basic points about formatting and topic appropriateness, the rest of your advice is hard for anyone who needs it to follow. Graduate students are under pressure to start publishing before they go on the job market, so unless they can afford a year or more or un/underemployment, they'd better get some articles out while they're still grad students. But without more experience, how are they supposed to know whether the paper that they're "genuinely proud of" just "looks like a graduate-student essay cobbled together at the end of semester?" How do they know when to be persistent and when to keep polishing? If they knew that, they wouldn't need this advice.

    Derek Bowman
    Derek Bowman
  • To the previous commenter... I believe the writer gave some advice on how to know. Read other articles in that journal. I assumed she meant to read them critically and compare the to your own style and format, but perhaps that needs to be explicit. Also, submit, and read and take in the feedback you get, whether it gets accepted or not. If all else fails, you could also ask a faculty member or graduate student ahead of you in the process for some help and feedback. If you're looking for assistance with academic writing or writing for a particular journal (rather than topical expertise), your helper might not need to even be in your discipline. That counts as the "experience" that you are worrying that you don't have but need and don't know how to get.

    Janice Gerda
    Janice Gerda
  • Wendy Belcher's "Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks" is an excellent, practical guide to demystifying this process for folks in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

    Pattie Wareh
    Pattie Wareh
  • Not "many" but "most" articles are rejected by at least one journal. Any editor who allows herself to be even slightly biased at the thought that a her journal was not the first choice or who reads an article differently because of inferences about the author (e.g., makes you look lazy) is just not behaving well. So, while the advice may be sound in the sense of realism, a little editorializing on this point would not be out of order.

    D R
    D R
  • Derek: I did have an academic position when I submitted my first paper, but no research time was built into the appointment (which had a teaching load of 4 courses/semester). These are not intended to be in-depth tips on getting published - just observations regarding some of really obvious (and easily corrected) mistakes I see time and again. As Patti notes, there are plenty of good in-depth guides out there. Echoing Janice, my point was that if you want to submit a manuscript to a journal, reading the sorts of articles they publish will give you a feel for what your manuscript should look like - its structure, tone, etc. And her point about the need to give your work to others for feedback prior to submission is spot on. As far as knowing what makes a 'good' article, that of course is ultimately subjective (in my experience as an editor and author, polarized reviews are more common than not). My point was that if you are proud of what you've written and think you have something important to say, then don't give up. It's worth noting that the best papers I've written (from my point of view, at least) are in most cases the ones that have been the most difficult to publish. However, not everything we write is solid gold. I'm pretty certain that some of the graduate students who submit what look to be class assignments to my journal (largely unchanged), do not think think they've written something particularly good, but have done so simply in the hopes that they might get lucky (this also goes for some manuscripts we receive from more established scholars). It's these kinds of submissions that I think you should be wary of.

    Kirsten Bell
    Kirsten Bell
  • "Bear in mind that while we live in an era of premature publication, if you do manage to get that essay published ... it will be out there circulating in the world forever. Like the fairy tattoo you got when you were 18, what seemed like a good idea at the time may be something of an embarrassment a decade later."

    I'd like to thank you for speaking directly to the issue of grad student publications in the "era of premature publication," because as a first-year PhD student, it certainly weighed heavily on my mind before submitting my first term-paper-turned-manuscript. I'm glad I did submit my paper, though, because after some major revisions, it was accepted. And while the new line on my CV is a very welcome one, at the moment, the greater excitement comes from having survived peer review. At this stage in the game, the acceptance of my manuscript comes as tremendous professional validation of my ideas and of my ability to communicate them. Only time and citations (or lack thereof) will tell if this paper was a fairy tattoo. But for now, I relish the opportunity to have been invited to sit at the table with the big kids and contribute to conversations that I've spent years only listening to from a distance.

    Do I feel pressure to publish? Yes. But 'pressure' is not the only reason I try to publish. Not even the main reason. I'd like to think that when I hit the academic job market in 4 years' time, hiring committees will recognize that my papers were published at a time when newly minted PhDs were expected to have a short list of publications, as a matter of course, and will see my fairy tattoo publications for what they were: an eagerness to join the conversation.

    A  B
    A B
  • Kirsten:

    While your explanation no doubt holds for some cases, I think you're mistakenly looking for an individual psychological explanation for what is, a more systematic problem. If grad students have to submit journal articles to be competitive for jobs, you're going to get lots of submissions that look like grad student work, because it will be grad student work. Those students who already know how to distinguish quality work from amateurish work won't be submitting their amateurish papers. But those who don't yet know how to do that can't always afford to wait around to figure it out - they're going to submit their best work (so far) and hope it turns out to be good enough. Some of them will be, and most will turn out to be a waste of time. But as long as publications continue to play a key role in employment for post-docs and junior faculty positions, you're going to have to keep filtering out bad grad student work.

    I have a colleague who, like "A Grad Student" below, submitted a revised version of a grad seminar paper that eventually got published. That helped give the kind of validation, and quite simply, practice of submitting to journals, that lead to an even more prestigious publication while still a grad student. In contrast, my adviser gave me the "be careful about publishing too early" warning, and given my own perfectionist tendencies, I held off submitting anything because I wanted to wait "until it's ready." Guess which of us had to choose between multiple tenure-track job offers as an ABD job candidate, and which one is trying to publish papers while working as an adjunct.

    Derek Bowman
    Derek Bowman
  • Thanks for writing this. Most folks have no clue how clueless their colleagues can be when it comes to publishing. As a fellow journal editor and longtime reviewer I've seen every permutation of stupid come across the desk, and not always from newbies. Even established authors can put out dreck or ignore formatting guidelines, etc.

    The suggestion to suggest readers is new and different for me - we don't do that in business disciplines, although sometimes our reader pool can be pretty small, too.

    Tim Michael
    Tim Michael
  • Great article. Good advice.

    J Q
    J Q
  • Journals are for established scholars who have found institutional favour within the academy. The authors are those who hold views similar to those in the field and do not advance any heretical ideas or anything unique. Academia is a culture of fear. After all, it's all about protecting the turf they have garnered in their career.

    Goo Ber
    Goo Ber
  • Thanks Kirsten for posting this. I appreciate your pointing out the realities of getting a paper reviewed whether people want to hear it or not. Plus you have pointed out both here and in your other article that reviewers are not perfect, rather they are humans with their own careers, deadlines, and lives. They are not paid for reviewing but must fit it into their busy schedules. To expect reviewers to read graduate seminar quality papers happily is wishful thinking on the part of some irregardless of the need for students to publish. I do realize that some graduate papers are well written and may be accepted, but many are not. Most of mine were not - like Derek, I am a perfectionist and must now get publications to get a job. Do I wish I had had more mentoring and some help learning how to write a publishable paper? Of course I do. But, for whatever reason, it didn't happen.

    I found your article full of good reminders and tips and thank you for writing it.

    I have often been told to pay attention to the articles you read so you know what journal

    Laura Farmer
    Laura Farmer