Publishing Journal Articles

Andrea Ruggeri’s Rules of Thumb for publishing journal articles is probably a productive practical guide, particularly for PhD students. Some of the most vital information that many early stage PhD students may not know or get to know in formal training are that

  • most papers get rejected,
  • most published papers looked very different upon initial submission,
  • resubmission letters (describing the revisions made) are very important,
  • where you submit and whom you cite matters,
  • and a paper needs to state its research question and contribution very early on.

But, I also see some issues with the overall tone and implications of the advice given.1 As Ruggeri notes in his tweet, this kind of advice is usually informally communicated. Below I pulled some quotes from Ruggeri’s document and use them as jumping-off point for some thoughts.

Writing articles, submitting and publishing them is the central business for an academic.

No. Maybe it is a central business. The central business of an academic as a researcher is doing science. Publications are a communication channel, they are the advances in knowledge made manifest as to be reusable as building blocks for future research. And, of course also a reputational tool; they signal productivity and expertise. Publication quantity and quality are performance indicators. They need to be thoughtfully and strategically crafted, but they remain a means to an end.

The central business of a researcher is to generate new knowledge by way of systematic and documented inquiry. It would certainly be naïve to advise a PhD student to focus only on some detached form of idealized scientific investigation and not care about regularly publishing results in the currently dominating form of a concise journal article. That’s the “playing the game” part, adhering to the ruling reward system. But adding a line to your CV has no inherent value – the ideal, the reason why science exists, should not be forgotten or sidelined just because the daily business of research demands that we produce papers. If you do research to get a publication and publish to become a professor, then why do you do research, and publish, once you are a professor?

It is going to take time, care and tears for those papers to become pretty.

a manuscript must be submitted to become a published article.

Agreed. This is a helpful perspective, although tears are not a requirement and good is better than pretty. I can imagine that published papers have a daunting effect on new PhD students. You can’t really imagine yet that your name can become one of those that others cite; your manuscripts are not “pretty.” The people that publish papers are the Real Scientists and seem much different than you, that is, until you get to know some of them. Pursue your research interest and keep in mind that it needs to be published. Probably, a kind of positive disenchantment with the practice of science and publishing will set in.

Depending on the field, I think the first paper is very important and it is therefore a good idea to submit as soon as it is ready. Ready meaning that it is in a state where you would feel proud were it published right away, as is, without any revisions. (The reason I think the first paper is so important career-wise is because it opens the door to discussions and collaborations – lots of people will tell you they are “very interested” in a specific topic, but as soon as there’s a paper to “prove” it, you get taken more seriously). None of my papers were worse after revisions than before, but the revise-and-resubmit or submit-reject-submit process should not be necessary to develop the manuscript.

dealing with rejections – but for that, you need to build a “thick skin”

When you read an editor’s email and the reviews and it sinks in that your hard work is not valued in the way you believe it deserves to be, it’s disappointing. In this moment, it may help to tell yourself that it doesn’t mean that your work is not good enough. And it probably is good. Or maybe it isn’t. You still need to be able to accept justified criticism. Maybe the “thick skin” metaphor promotes the idea that you just need enough patience until your piece finds the right home, which can hinder a sober assessment. PhD students are adults fully capable of dealing with critique.
The attitude that at some point some journal will accept my paper may eventually lead to publications and fleeting gratifications, but probably not to much new knowledge.

Under-submitting is a sin.

This is a difficult issue. There are the impact factor subject rankings with a host of problems. And there are tacit reputation rankings within specialties. There is just too much intra-journal variance to use the publication outlet as an indicator of a paper’s – let alone an academic’s – scientific merit, although this is routinely done. The idea of over- or under-submitting implies that there is a right fit for every paper and if your paper is not that good, aim lower, but get it out there. But ideally, if the paper is not good, it should be abandoned or substantially improved. As a reader, it is all the more disappointing to read a bad paper in “top” journal. Yes, all else being equal, I’d prefer to see my publication in a higher-ranked over a lower-ranked journal, given the prevailing reward system, but maybe it makes sense to focus on the (imagined) audience first, that is, which research community you make a contribution to (this is also mentioned in point 5). In the current system, you depend on journals’ certification of your contributions, but if it were purely about knowledge, posting the PDF publicly would be enough. I’d prefer a widely read (and cited, for instance because it’s open access) article in a “lesser” journal or on a preprint server over a forgotten one in a prestigious journal. Also, reviewers of “top” journals often feel it is their honorable duty to safeguard the journal’s prestige, for example by requesting consideration of some/their theory, which could lead to a manuscript that tries to please everyone, but loses its potential for impact. (What exactly impact is, is another question, and counting citations has its own issues).

Your manuscript’s references suggest you where to submit

Here, I’d actually be more strategic. While most references in the paper will be determined by their substantive relevance, there are almost always alternative sources to cite (I think this is quite political). So, it’s not like you just write an entire paper and then look at your incidental list of references to figure out where to submit. It makes sense to have a very short list of possible outlets even before you start with the research project and tailor the manuscript accordingly within the bounds of your substantive goals. And, if you have a very innovative contribution or try to establish some new perspective in a subfield, you may not have citations to the journal you are submitting to.

Try to answer to all reviewers’ points; but it is not necessary to do all what they ask you to do.

This is quite important. The review process should assess whether the paper is theoretically and methodologically sound, and some journals also have strange criteria regarding “novelty.” But if a manuscript is ultimately published, it will have your name on it, not the reviewers’.

Ultimately, academics have to balance their intrinsic motivations and genuine interest with “playing the game” – while early career researchers benefit from erring on the side of conformity, I think it is essential that tenured professors, administrators, and hiring committees lead the way in changing the publication culture and push for quality over quantity.2

One of the most useful written resources I have come across is Paul Silvia’s Write it up. However, much of the publishing circle is also field-dependent and its mechanisms are implicit knowledge.

1 I am writing this from my experience in communication science. I have not published dozens of papers, but some. I have reviewed many dozens of papers.
2 If you are a “unicorn” (quantity and quality) that’s fine, but the additional oviparous paper (“something will be published, somewhere”) can have real detrimental effects. The mammal’s (“few pieces, high investment”) one attempt at an opportunistic paper that probably never makes it does little harm.

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