By Jennifer L. Lebrón, Doctoral Candidate, George Mason University
Communicating your research to an academic audience is a critical skill for any graduate student, even if you don’t plan to work in the academy. Publishing in academic journals helps you hone your writing skills, earn a seal of approval for your research, and gain confidence in your scholarly work. Academic journals also provide a touchstone for your research, giving you a platform to communicate your work to broader, non-academic audiences such as practitioners or the media. However, publishing in academic venues can be an arduously long process, filled with apprehension, confusion, silence, and rejection. Winning at publishing means overcoming these obstacles and understanding the perspective of those reviewing your work. Here are some insights I’ve learned as an Assistant Editor for international peer reviewed journal as well as Editor-in-Chief for an interdisciplinary, student run academic journal at my institution which have helped me to understand and be responsive to the academic publishing system.
Respect the process. The first academic journal was produced in 1655 (Andrare, 1965), and throughout the intervening 350 years, the publishing process has been refined for a single goal: to produce the most rigorous and well written scholarly work. The peer review, editorial review, revision, copy editing, and final editing process (yes, it is at minimum that many steps) makes a difference in the final product. Respect that each step is an important part of the publishing process and know that all writing can be improved. This frame of mind will help you succeed.
Find the right venue. There are thousands of academic journals, some reputable or not, some competitive or not. Faculty mentors can guide you to the right place to submit your work. Journal editors want your work to fit with the journal and make a contribution, as they view it, to the scholarly world they are producing. Your reference list can guide you to the right journal; it shows you are already part of a scholarly conversation taking place within that journal’s pages. Confirm you are submitting to the right journal by reading its aims, scope, and guidelines to find out more. You can also use a reference like Cabells, which has a comprehensive list of journals as well as information like acceptance rates and timelines to publication to help you make an informed choice. Remember, you can only submit your work to one journal at a time, so choose wisely.
Think like a reviewer. Before you submit your work, you absolutely must read your manuscript one more time through the eyes of a reviewer. Ask yourself critical questions with an objective eye, and make sure you have nailed APA before you submit. Here are some sample questions to help you think like a reviewer: Is the purpose of the paper clearly explained? Is the literature reviewed in depth and synthesized across themes, methods, or findings, rather than by author? Would a reader know who or what was studied, when the study took place, and how the research was conducted with enough detail? Are your assumptions clarified and addressed? Is there sufficient evidence presented in the text for each finding? Do you understand how this paper is contributing to the field? Is the writing well-organized and error free? If you can’t answer yes to all of these questions (and more), go back and make revisions. You want your work to be understood by the reviewer.
Prepare for radio silence. I hate to say it but the publishing process takes forever, and most of that time you will have absolutely no information about what is happening. After going through an initial review by the editor, your work will be sent to peer reviewers who typically have a few weeks to read and respond. Finding reviewers takes time, and often the first, second, third (or more) choice to review the work is unavailable. Once an editor has a reviewer confirmed, it can sometimes take longer to receive those reviews back. Editors can spend months waiting on reviewers before they can make a final decision. Once you do hear back, it will either be a Reject, meaning you need to send your work elsewhere, a Revise and Resubmit, meaning you need to keep working and send it back, or some kind of acceptance, which is generally really hard to get on the first try. No matter the decision, you will have to:
Revise, Revise, Revise. Have you ever been asked for your opinion but couldn’t come up with anything to say? No? Well, neither have peer reviewers. You will get lots of comments, and at least a few of them are probably going to sting. Don’t take it personally (or get over it quickly), and then get set on revising. Peer reviewers’ comments generally represent a legitimate concern, point of confusion, or way to improve your work. More importantly, the editor of the journal trusts their judgement. Revise (by tracking changes), and then keep track of each reviewer comment in a table, making a note about how you have addressed the concern. This revision matrix helps the editor know that you took the reviewer comments seriously and made changes to improve the work. If you disagree with a comment, the matrix is a way to artfully make that point as well. Even if you received a reject and need to send the work elsewhere, strict attention to peer review comments will make your work stronger in the end.
Be Timely, Courteous, and Responsive. Follow every deadline the journal gives you during the revisions process. If they want final revisions back in two weeks, meet the deadline. If they want a revised and resubmit work in 10 days, do it. Academic publishing is competitive. Being the author that meets deadlines ensures that you have the best chance to get your work out there in a timely fashion. Remember too, there are people on the other end of that email who are making these decisions. If it has been months with no word, a quick and respectful email to the editorial staff asking for an update isn’t a problem, but temper your expectations with the reality of publishing.
You Aren’t the First or the Worst (Probably). Remember that no article you read in a journal looked that way when it was submitted. The review process and the revisions process made each article better than its original version. Finally, remember journals wouldn’t exist without submissions. Editors need quality research to publish just as much as you need to be published. Take that to heart when you hit the submit button.
Andrade, E. N. (1965). The birth and early days of the Philosophical Transactions. Notes Records Royal Society of London, 20(1), 9-27.
Jennifer L. Lebrón is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University studying international and higher education. Her research interests including critical understandings of globalization and internationalization as well as faculty agency and development, particularly in the global south. Jennifer completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Maryland, College Park. Prior to enrolling in her PhD program, Jennifer was an academic affairs professional for over ten years, most recently overseeing international teacher education programs.