Getting Published in Peer-Reviewed Journals
Copyright 2009 by Val Gerard, Ph.D
The most important research in the world is valueless if it’s not communicated to other people. Nowadays, however, most peer-reviewed journals, especially the prestigious ones, accept only a small percentage of the manuscripts submitted for publication. Rejection is not only discouraging, but can significantly increase the time between when you conducted the research and when your results appear in print. Therefore, you should do everything possible to optimize your chances of success before you submit your paper. Here are some tips that will help you get your papers published.
First, choose a journal that is appropriate to the topic and scope of your paper. Although it is tempting to submit to the journal with the biggest reputation (everyone hopes to be published in Science and Nature), that journal will probably be the most selective. Sending your paper to a specific journal because you know someone on the editorial board may get you a more apologetic rejection letter, but not necessarily better reviews.
To optimize the probability that it will be accepted for publication, your manuscript must clearly present your purpose, approach, results, interpretation, and conclusions. Any unclear information will be misunderstood or misinterpreted by some readers, including reviewers. Therefore, it’s critical that you understand your results completely before you begin writing. The first step in preparing a paper for publication is to analyze the results, and prepare figures and tables that most clearly illustrate your interpretation. Figures and tables should be as simple as possible. Unnecessary data should be omitted (even if you spent a lot of time and effort generating them). Readers tend to compare information that is side-by-side, so if possible, put your most important comparisons in adjacent columns, not rows. Once you have your results presented effectively, list the points that you want to make from them. Then, organize the points to “tell the story” that you want to present to readers. Less is more when it comes to the text of the Results section. Use the text to make your most important points, not to repeat data that are already presented in the figures and tables.
At this point, I find it useful to write a preliminary Abstract. This focuses the writing on the most important points of the paper. The Abstract should be revised when the manuscript is complete.
Theses and dissertations have extensive Introductions and Literature Review sections; publications, aside from review papers, benefit from short Introductions. One way to avoid putting too much information in the Introduction is to write it after you write the Discussion. That way, you know exactly what you are introducing, and you can avoid the common problem of citing literature that really belongs in the Discussion.
You can write the Methods section at any point in your manuscript preparation. Some people write it first to warm up. Some write it after the Results are written. The advantage of the latter approach is that the Methods should be presented in roughly the same order as the Results. For example, if the Results present data from Experiment X first, then data from Experiment Y, the methods for Experiment X should precede the methods for Experiment Y. Likewise, the Abstract and Discussion should include Experiment X before Experiment Y. The objective is to make the reader’s job as easy as possible, to avoid confusion and misinterpretation.
As a writer, reviewer, and editor, I cannot emphasize enough that every sentence in a manuscript must be clear and accurate. This may be the most difficult achievement in writing a paper for publication. Your ideas are flowing, and you are writing down sentences that you think clearly state those ideas. When you reread what you have written, it sounds good! Unfortunately, it’s often not good enough. Your brain will subconsciously fill in missing bits of information and unravel confusing sentences, because you know what you are trying to say. The reader does not. That is why you should ask a colleague to read your draft, or hire an editor. A competent editor will find and fix those problematic sentences, poorly organized paragraphs, and illogical conclusions. You can learn to effectively edit your own writing, but it requires help at the start and a lot of practice along the way. Try reading what you have written out loud: your ear-brain connection will catch problems that your eye-brain connection will skim over.
It is not unusual to have a paper accepted for publication after it has been rejected by other journals, often several times. If your paper is rejected, make the most of a bad situation by seriously considering the reviewers’ comments. Most reviewers try to provide constructive criticism, even when they recommend rejection. Following their suggestions may make the difference between rejection and acceptance by another journal. However, the next reviewers will almost certainly be different people, and their comments may contradict earlier reviews, so use your own best judgment in making revisions.
Good luck! I wish you 100% success in getting your papers published.