How to publish your journal paper

By | September 26, 2013

The Catch 22 in research publishing is that few authors work effectively in the process until after they’ve published a few manuscripts. The good news is that experienced journal editors and authors are willing to pass on their secrets of success. Here is their best advice.

Have a focus and a vision

Angela M. Neal-Barnett, PhD, of Kent State University and author of the forthcoming book, “Bad Nerves” (Simon & Schuster, 2003), as well as numerous papers in multiple journals believes that the key to successfully publishing an article is to “get a vision”–a reason and purpose for writing. That concept isn’t always familiar to academicians who often write because they have to for tenure or promotion, she says. But, she advises, while “academic wisdom [says] ‘publish or perish,’ ancient wisdom says ‘without vision, the people will perish.’”

Once you have a vision, says Neal-Barnett, write it down and keep it in constant view to remind you of your mission.

Write clearly

“There is no substitute for a good idea, for excellent research or for good, clean, clear writing,” says Nora S. Newcombe, PhD, of Temple University, former editor of APA’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Newcombe endorses the advice of Cornell University’s Daryl J. Bem, PhD, who in Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 118, No. 2) wrote that a review article should tell “a straightforward tale of a circumscribed question in want of an answer. It is not a novel with subplots and flashbacks, but a short story with a single, linear narrative line. Let this line stand out in bold relief.”

Newcombe also admits that neatness counts. Though she tries not get in a “bad mood” about grammar mistakes or gross violations of APA style, she says, such mistakes do “give the impression that you’re not so careful.”

Get a pre-review

Don’t send the manuscript to an editor until you have it reviewed with a fresh eye, warns Newcombe. Recruit two objective colleagues: one who is familiar with the research area, another who knows little or nothing about it. The former can provide technical advice, while the latter can determine whether your ideas are being communicated clearly.

Many academic departments form reading groups to review each others’ papers, says Elizabeth M. Altmaier, PhD, editor of Clinician’s Research Digest: Briefings in Behavioral Science. “New faculty should and can form reading groups where they can exchange drafts and get feedback to each other,” she says.

After you’ve gotten that fresh critique of your work, says Newcombe, listen to the pre-reviewer’s advice. If the reviewer down the hall “didn’t really understand page six and therefore got lost in page 13,” she says, “don’t just say they didn’t read carefully–other people are going to make that same error.”

For a final check, some editors suggest having the manuscript professionally copy-edited (see Further reading).

Send your manuscript to the right journal

Many rejections are the result of manuscript-journal mismatch–a discrepancy between the submitted paper and the journal’s scope or mission. Newcombe advises authors to consider the “theoretical bent” of the papers that regularly appear in the journal before they submit a paper to it.

A major faux pas is submitting your manuscript simply to get it reviewed, says Newcombe. She’s heard authors say, “This is a small experiment that I know would never get published in that journal, but I would like to get some feedback.” Not a good idea, Newcombe says, because it wastes editors’ and reviewers’ time, and those who reject it from the journal may also be the ones who have to review the paper when it’s submitted to a different journal. “It’s a small community out there. Don’t use up your reviewers,” she says.

Beef up your cover letter

Many authors don’t realize the usefulness of cover letters, Newcombe says. In addition to stating “here it is” and that the paper conforms to ethical standards, Newcombe says the letter can contain the author’s rationale for choosing the editor’s journal–especially if it’s not immediately apparent.

The letter can also suggest reviewers for your manuscript, she says, especially in the case of a field that an editor isn’t well-versed in. The flip side is also acceptable: Authors can suggest that certain people not review the manuscript for fear of potential bias. In both cases, authors can’t expect the editor to follow the recommendations, says Newcombe. In fact, the editor may not follow any of them or may use all of them.

Don’t panic

The overwhelming majority of initial journal manuscripts are rejected at first. “Remember, to get a lot of publications, you also will need to get lots of rejections,” says Edward Diener, PhD, editor of APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Personality Processes and Individual Differences. Only a small proportion–5 to 10 percent–are accepted the first time they are submitted, and usually they are only accepted subject to revision. Since most papers are rejected from the start, says Newcombe, the key is whether the journal editors invite you to revise it.

Read the reviews carefully

In fact, anything aside from simply “reject,” Neal-Barnett reminds, is a positive review. These include:

  • Accept: “Which almost nobody gets,” she says.
  • Accept with revision: “Just make some minor changes.”
  • Revise and resubmit: “They’re still interested in you!”
  • Reject and resubmit: Though not as good as revise and resubmit, “they still want the paper!”

Some reviewers may recommend submitting your work to a different journal. “They’re not saying the article is hopeless,” says Neal-Barnett, “they’re just saying that it may not be right for that journal.”

If revision isn’t invited following the initial rejection, many new authors may toss the manuscript and vow to never write again to or change programs. Newcombe’s advice, though, is to read the reviews carefully and determine why that decision was made.

If the research needs more studies or if the methodology needs to be changed somehow, “if you have a sincere interest in the area, do these things,” says Newcombe. You can resubmit it as a new paper, noting the differences in the cover letter.

Also keep in mind that “quite often, unfortunately, a journal will reject an article because it’s novel or new for its time,” says Newcombe. “If you feel that it is valid and good, then by all means, send it off to another journal.”

Gary R. VandenBos, PhD, APA’s publisher, adds, “once you have published, you take a feedback letter for what it is–a good-news sign telling what you need to do to transform it into an acceptance.” It can take three or so journal-paper publishing experiences to get the hang of the process, he says.

Don’t put off the revisions

If you are invited to revise, “Do it, do it fast and don’t procrastinate,” says Newcombe. Also, she warns that because reviewers can at times ask for too much, authors should take each suggestion into consideration, but decide themselves which to implement.

Be diplomatic

What if reviewers disagree? “There is a wrong and a right way” to address dissention among reviewers, says Newcombe. She quotes from Daryl Bem’s Psychological Bulletin article:

Wrong: “I have left the section on the animal studies unchanged. If reviewers A and C can’t even agree on what the animals have developed, I must be doing something right.”

Right: “You will recall that reviewer A thought the animal studies should be described more fully whereas reviewer C thought they should be omitted. Other psychologists in my department agree with reviewer C that the animals cannot be a valid analogue to the human studies. So, I have dropped them from the text and have attached it as a footnote on page six.”

Ultimately, it’s good to keep in mind that the road to being published isn’t a lonely one: “All authors get lots of rejections–including senior authors such as me,” says Diener. “The challenge,” he says, “is to persevere, and improve one’s papers over time.”