Getting published in peer-reviewed journals is the gold-standard for most academics. We’ve spent years learning our science, mastering analytical techniques, field methods, statistics and programming languages. We’ve written lots along the way too, but there’s much more to publishing than this: we must choose the right journal; adapt the structure, tone and contents of our manuscript to suit it; decide who is worthy of authorship; and deal with reviewers comments in a way that will get us published without compromising our message.
I want to share some useful tools from a short course I took earlier this year. The course was delivered by Peter Moore of Thinkwrite – credit for the resources mentioned in this blog must go to him.
Choosing the right journal and pleasing its editor
When I first started publishing, choosing a journal was an ad-hoc decision. With no systematic tools to help me decide, I simply chose to publish in the journal that I knew best. Of course, we will naturally have an idea of where to publish based on the sources we are using. We have probably done keyword searches on google scholar, web of science or a similar search engine. So we have a shortlist of journals. What next? Here are some suggestions that have helped me in the past:
- Go to the journal’s homepage and check the aims and scope of the journal. Is this a good fit for the approach you are taking? Does it match the message that you want to get across?
- Here you will also find the impact factor and ranking of the journal, and sometimes information about the rate of rejection. Are you being too ambitious? Not ambitious enough? Can you afford the time to aim higher and risk rejection, only to have to re-submit to a less ambitious outlet with all of the reformatting and re-writing that will inevitably require?
- Often, the journal’s home pages give information on the average lead times from submission to decision, and from acceptance to publication. Do these timescales fit in with your needs? Do you need to get an important new piece of knowledge published sooner than this, or are you happy to wait for the right journal?
- Next, if you don’t know already, check who the editor of the candidate journal is. Look at their disciplinary background and browse their recent publications. Will this editor favour the approach you have taken? Will they be interested in your message? Essentially, will the editor be supportive of your manuscript as it goes through the review process? If there could ever be a single person you are writing for, remember – it is the editor!
By now we should have identified which journal we are going to target. Next we need to structure and write our manuscript in a way that is consistent with the journal. I have discovered a few simple but effective tools to help with this:
- Check the author guidelines on the journal’s website. They will provide guidance on structure, formatting, length, etc.
- Sample four or five strong papers from the target journal. Choose some papers that are highly cited and some that are close to the topic of your paper. Remember that the journal’s style may have changed so go for papers that have been published in the last two or three years
- Thinkwrite provides a helpful framework within which to analyse these sample papers (see this link). By completing this analysis you will have a much clearer idea of a suitable title, abstract, structure and balance (between sections, between text, figures and tables) for your manuscript.
The authorship question
I have spoken to colleagues on numerous occasions about the pitfalls of deciding who gets authorship. You might be faced with the difficult situation of two senior academics opposing each other’s authorship on your paper. The thing to remember is that it is your work. It should be you, and only you, who gets to decide on authorship. The Vancouver Agreement may help you decide. It recommends that authorship is based on the following 4 criteria:
- Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
- Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
- Final approval of the version to be published; AND
- Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.
Contributors who do not meet all four criteria should be credited in the acknowledgements, not named as an author.
Responding to reviewers
If we got this far we must be doing something right, so don’t get disheartened by ‘major revisions’ or even ‘revise and resubmit’ decisions. The important thing is to stay true to the message you are trying to get across. This can be tough when you must also appease two expert reviewers who may want to replace your message with something more expedient to their own research. There are some tricks of the trade to getting through this stage whilst maintaining your message.
- Always provide a detailed commentary on your response to reviewer’s comments, clearly stating the reviewers comment, the line numbers in the original manuscript (if applicable) and your response. Some people like to do this in table format, others in a traditional commentary. Either way, editors and reviewers will thank you for making their lives easier. They might even be tempted to be more lenient in their responses to you!
- A neat trick is to ensure that you quote any lines that have been taken out or put in to the revised manuscript in the commentary. Again, this makes editors and reviewers jobs easier. More importantly, it makes them less likely to come up with more comments in the second review because they don’t have to read the revised manuscript in detail
- Finally, remember that not every comment from reviewers must result in a revision of the manuscript. You are welcome to argue against any changes as long as you can justify it properly (and provide references) in the commentary. Think about which comments support the core message you want to get across, which comments make no difference to your message and which might damage your message. Also try to deduce which of your reviewers holds a senior position and which is more junior.
Of course, there is more to publishing than all this! One area where I feel guidance is lacking is in the preparation of quality figures. I hope to make this a topic for another blog post. For now, happy publishing!