Kirsten Bell

Honorary Associate at University of British Columbia

With Support From

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

Full 06172014 suffragist

Need more publishing tips or support? Swap strategies at our On Scholarly Writing discussion group.

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!

Join the Conversation

11 Comments

Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.