Hacks for Academic Publishing

How to get your academic work published without too much pain

Posted Feb 21, 2019

Free-Photos / Pixabay
Source: Free-Photos / Pixabay

Academic publishing is famously difficult. Many jokes have been made, for instance, regarding hypothetical “Reviewer 2”—a reviewer who is so heartless and nasty toward your work that you may well think about changing professions and never writing a sentence ever again after reading Reviewer 2's comments!

As an academic psychologist, I’ve been in the business of publishing academic work since the 1990s. At this point, I’ve amassed about  100 scholarly publications, including a combination of peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and books. I know the territory pretty well.

Yesterday for a graduate class I am teaching, I gave a glimpse into hacks (or efficient processes/decisions) that I use to make sure that I succeed in the shark-filled waters of academic publishing. Here is a summary of these hacks—if you are an up-and-coming academic, hopefully, you will find this helpful.

Choosing a Journal

There are tons of academic journals out there. I guess that is partly good news. However, they vary dramatically in terms of quality and potential impact. Generally, you want your work to appear in relatively high-quality journals that have a strong impact. There are several ways to check on the quality of a journal. A powerful and efficient tool for this process is found in the online software eigenfactor.com. This free website will give you basic impact information on most academic journals. Here, you can tell if a journal is non-competitive, moderately competitive, or highly competitive. And you can use this information to calibrate your decision. If your research is super-high in quality, including multiple studies, amazing and novel findings, and a large, cross-cultural sample, for instance, you might want to shoot for a very competitive journal. If your paper summarizes one small study that administered a survey to 85 college students and your findings are somewhat equivocal, you might want to submit your paper to a lower journal.

Another factor that you need to take into account pertains to if the journal is a “pay” journal. An increasing number of academic journals require you to (gulp!) pay to have your work published with them. I personally find this trend kind of shocking. Further, I work at a university that does not have funding to support these kinds of costs.

This is a real problem because some of the most important scientific journals in the world, including both Science and Nature, for instance, have publication fees.

I recommend checking on this issue early in the process. If you can’t pay such fees, then you should screen out “pay journals” quickly in the process. Information on if the journal is a pay journal or not is usually found (a bit hidden!) on the website of the journal. And if you’re unsure, you should email the journal editor to find out. If you can’t pay a publication fee, don’t waste your time submitting your work to pay journals.

Writing a Cover Letter

As part of the journal submission process, you will usually be asked to write a brief cover letter. No need to unleash your inner Shakespeare on this one. This letter is very practical in its purpose. You are pretty much saying “please consider this manuscript for publication in your journal.”                   

Here are some pointers in writing a cover letter for the process:

In a standard business-letter format, write a brief (1-2 paragraph) letter to the editor requesting that the journal consider publishing our manuscript. In doing so, please follow these points:

1. start with “Dear Editor,”

2. indicate that you request that the journal consider our manuscript, titled _____, for publication in their journal.

3. indicate that the manuscript is not currently under review with any other journal

4. indicate that the data-collection process presented in the manuscript was approved by our local Institutional Review Board (IRB)

5. give them contact information (email, phone, etc.)

6. ask them if they have any questions to contact you.

Submitting Your Manuscript

Back in 1994 when I first-ever submitted a manuscript, it was a pretty easy process. I would (a) make four copies of the paper (in hard copy), (b) write a cover letter on departmental letterhead, and (c) mail it to the editor of the journal. Estimated time to submit: 15 minutes.

By the late 1990s, the process became streamlined due to advances in technology. In particular, email made this process really easy. Then, you would find the email address for the editor on the website for the journal and email your paper and cover letter as an attachment to the editor. Estimated time to submit: 3 minutes.

By about 2005 or so, the “web-based system” kind of process emerged, as it has for just about everything else. This system is currently the dominant kind of system that journals use for overseeing the manuscript submission process. Systems now are quite elaborate, usually requiring you to (a) create an account, (b) create a password, (c) provide extensive personal details, (d) type in the abstract and title and keywords as separate elements of the process, (e) type in the first names, middle initials, last names, and email addresses of all co-authors, and (f) a lot more! Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the current web-based system approach that nearly all journals use these days. I simply find it to be very arduous and time-consuming. But it sure seems like this trend is not changing any time soon, so, like it or not, we’ve got to get with the program. One thing I’ll sometimes do is hire one of my junior co-authors to formally submit the paper as part of his or her duties connected with the paper. They get to learn the process along the way. Estimated time to submit: 90 minutes.

Navigating the Blind-Review Process

Once your paper is submitted, it will (usually) be disseminated out to reviewers. These reviewers are experts in the field who are chosen by the editor. Usually, the editor will choose two or three reviewers.

The review process for most academic journals is a “double-blind” process, meaning that the reviewers don’t have information as to who the author is, and vice versa. The process is, then, anonymous. An unfortunate result of this fact is that people are not always on their best behavior under anonymous, deindividuated conditions. So sometimes reviews are not very nice. Young academics need to be prepared for this fact!

Categories of Editorial Responses

After you have submitted your paper, there are many possible paths. Below is a list of the common possible outcomes:

  • Desk Reject: The editor, for any number of reasons, might tell you (usually within 48 hours) that he or she will not send the paper out for review. It ends there! This will typically happen when the editor sees the paper as outside the purview of the journal or the editor may see some red flags (e.g., a very small sample size) that would generally lead to the paper being rejected via peer review. This is a cold-feeling but practically useful outcome.
  • Major Revisions: This is actually usually the status that most published papers start out with. Here, the editor essentially says, “We are not able to publish this paper in its current format. However …” The editor will then provide a list of suggested changes based on his or her own reading along with the comments by the reviewers (which are usually provided in full). These changes might be conceptual, writing-based, statistically oriented, etc. They might ask you to cite more literature. They might ask you to sharpen your conclusion. They might even ask you to collect more data (This one always has me running for the hills, btw!). After receiving a “major revisions” decision, you and your team will need to determine how you want to respond. Typically, unless they are asking for new data, I’ll do whatever it takes to do a strong and comprehensive job of addressing the suggested revisions. Not only will I modify the manuscript, but I’ll also create a letter that annotates each of the changes made. Or if we have chosen to not make a change, we articulate our rationale therein. This letter will usually be between 4-10 pages and I make sure to write it in as respectful a manner possible. The reviewers and editors are working on behalf of your ideas and your work, after all. Ideally (although not always), the editor and reviewers will appreciate your efforts and you will soon have your paper meet the “conditional acceptance” category!
  • Minor Revisions: This category is, in my experience, pretty rare! When your paper gets this status, the editor essentially says “We like it! There are only a few small changes to be made!” In this case, simply make the changes, write a brief accompanying letter, send it back, and break out the champagne early. A “minor revisions” response from the editor is typically amazingly good news!
  • Accept as is: In 2006, I received an “accept as is” response from a journal. It had never happened before. And I don’t expect it to ever happen again! This category is pretty self-explanatory.
  • Rejected: A common outcome is simply being rejected. The reviewers might find all kinds of concerns and they might ultimately recommend rejection. Or, in some cases, they might find concerns, recommend “major revisions,” but the editor might go rogue and reject the paper based on the comments. It happens. In fact, rejection is quite common in this business, so don’t be discouraged!

Responding to Rejection

If your paper is rejected, for any reason, I say that you consider the possibility of submitting it, straight away, to another journal. Sort of like getting a second opinion. Now, I suggest this approach only if (a) it’s been rejected only once or twice and (b) you really put a lot into it and you really believe in the manuscript. If this all is true, I say to shoot it out to another journal. You will see the comments/suggestions that editors raise are often unique and something that emerged as a fatal flaw by Reviewer 1 might not even make it into the letter written by Reviewer 2, and so forth. This process is really not exactly perfect-there is a lot of human error and bias in the mix.

If the paper has been rejected multiple times and there are some consistent themes that emerge among the reviewers’ comments, then I suggest taking the time to make revisions before submitting this paper out to a new journal.

This all said, don’t give up. Some of the greatest academic articles had been rejected by multiple journals before ultimately getting published. Have a thick skin, smile at the rain, do good work, believe in yourself, and you’ll ultimately be able to get your work published.

Bottom Line

The academic world is a bit shark-infested. The domain of academic publishing is perhaps the prototype of this fact. Academic publishing can be cold, difficult, and even hurtful. You need thick skin and a resilient approach to your work to succeed in this business.

The guidance here is designed to help academics navigate the waters of academic publishing. By doing good work and by creating efficient processes for yourself and your team, and with a little splash of luck, you should be able to succeed in the world of academic publishing. Good luck with the process. And remember, when you read that nasty review by Reviewer 2, realize it’s not personal and try to laugh at it. And always remember, as with anything in life, to move forward.