Nina Hallowell from the Journal of Medical Ethics provides her top tips on getting published in peer-reviewed journals for the first time.
Publishing is the lifeblood of academia; indeed, if you are not keen on writing for your peers, then this is not the career for you. Writing journal articles is a skill that improves with time and practice. There are, however, a number of very simple rules that you can follow, which hopefully will ensure your success in getting published.
Decide what you want to say:
This is less obvious than you might think. Many people start with a vague idea of what they want to say and get bogged down trying to formulate and firm up their argument on the hoof. This is not a good strategy; I have a whole folder of unfinished bits of writing, writing full of interesting intentions but unfinished ideas. So the first thing you need to do is absolutely nail what the paper is about. To help with this process there is a very simple rule; keep it simple. A paper should contain one clear argument, not five or six. A paper is not a concentrated version of your PhD, but rather a small but perfectly formed part of it.
TOP TIP Do not just submit a chunk of your thesis as it will read like a chunk of thesis. You need to rework it as a journal article.
Choose you audience or find your journal:
Once you have decided what you want to write about, then you need to find somewhere to get it published. Your chances of getting your paper accepted are greatly increased if you submit it to the right journal, i.e. the one that publishes similar types of papers to the one you want to write. You need to do some research to find the best fit for your paper. For example, if you are writing an empirical paper then submitting it to a journal that only publishes conceptual papers is a complete waste of everyone’s time. That is a very obvious example to make a quite subtle point. You should know which are the best journals in your field of research, the ones where the leaders in the field publish, but if you don’t you should ask a mentor and then go and check out the journals they suggest. Always check the journal you are targeting if you are not familiar with it. Ask yourself have they published similar papers before (these could be good to cite). If they haven’t, either your paper is super innovative or it is really the wrong journal for this piece.
TOP TIP Always start with higher ranking journals in the field, but be prepared that they may not even send your paper out to review (they get lots of submissions). Have a list of back up (lower ranking) journals that you can try if rejected.
Read and follow instructions for authors:
Journals do not write these for fun, they are meant to be followed. They pertain to style and content. With regard to style, the most important features are length or word limit. While the indeterminacy of meaning may be a great topic for philosophical debate, when it comes to word limits of articles X,000 or less means X,000 or less words, not Y,000 or X,500 (i.e. more) words. The word length of articles is exactly the place where less means more, insofar as staying at or under the word limit makes it more likely that your paper will be sent out to review and you will not be rejected at the first hurdle. Quite often journals have different types of submissions, e.g. the JME has original papers and extended essays. Every journal will be very specific not only about how long different submissions should be and how may references you are allowed, but also what type of content the piece should contain, for example, extended ethical argument. Follow these rules slavishly. If you don’t, then you will be rejected overnight.
TOP TIP Do not be disheartened if your paper is rejected quickly. Lots of journals these days do an editorial triage where they reject papers without sending them out review, often this is because they are out of scope, too long or not following journal requirements. Just brush yourself off and send it to the next one on the list after making sure it fits with their style and scope.
Draft and redraft:
Write, rewrite, until the writing is the best it can be. Simple, clear, and not convoluted is the key. If you need an abstract, make sure it reflects what is in the paper. Read others in your target journal to get an idea of what abstracts should contain.
TOP TIP Read your draft aloud, as this helps you to pick up typos and realise how your sentences actually read.
If you work as part of a team or have had lots of input from other people, make sure you know from the outset what other people’s expectations are about authorship: who the authors will be, what order they will be in (this counts), what coauthors are expecting to do, and what you expect coauthors to do. If you have a team of authors, you will need to get their input (i.e. comments) at different points, one way to deal with this is to set reasonable deadlines for them. If they miss these you then have a bona fide excuse to prompt them.
TOP TIP always confirm expectations about authorship before you begin writing.
Writing to the editor(s):
All submissions require a covering letter. Don’t waste too much time on this. You should politely ask the Editor to consider your paper for publication, point out why it is novel study/argument or indeed, how it responds/ extends maybe something that they have earlier published in their journal, if this is the case. You may be asked to revise and resubmit your paper after it has been sent out to review. This is generally a good sign because if your revise it as suggested OR make the case for why you should not revise the paper in line with reviewers’ comments, then you are likely to get the paper accepted. This letter is important as it will show the Editor and reviewers how you have addressed their suggestions. It should politely thank the reviewers for their suggestions (even if you think these are completely nonsensical) and respond to each one. You should highlight the revised manuscript where you have changed it and also add changed sections to your response letter. If you disagree with the reviewers suggestion, and this is common, as quite often reviewers may have misunderstood what you are saying (ask yourself have you written clearly enough), then just matter of factly lay out your argument again.
TOP TIP Some reviewers may have got your paper all wrong, do not lose your rag just be calm and polite. In other words, a bit of grovelling helps here.