I have published more than 200 peer-reviewed academic journal articles, mostly in collaboration with colleagues. One of the most important decisions, that sometimes results in a long discussion is choosing a publication outlet. Where should we submit our completed paper in hopes of having it published? There is generally a long list of possibilities, and finding the right fit is important.
The Publication Process
Authors submit articles to journals in hopes that their work will be published. For each article, an editor is assigned to make a decision, based largely on feedback from peer-reviewers. These reviewers will read the submission and make comments about strengths and weaknesses. The editor will read the article and the reviewer comments an make one of three decisions—accept, invite a resubmission after issues are addressed (the coveted R&R), or reject. Thus, publication in an academic peer-reviewed journal can be a difficult and time-consuming task, often requiring several rounds of submission and re-submissions.
There are several steps involved in submission.
- Complete the work. Obviously, the first step is to complete the work and prepare the article. To some extent the article is written to suit a particular journal or set of journals. Practices vary by discipline. If I am writing an article for a health science journal it will be different than for an industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology or management journal. For example, the introduction section for a health science journal can be very short—often a paragraph or two. I-O and management require introductions of 10 or more pages that provide extensive background not necessary in health science journals.
- Format the article. Even within fields, journals can use different formatting systems. Many journals use American Psychological Association—APA format. Others do not, and might have different requirements for abstracts, referencing and subheadings. Once the article is written, these format requirements need to be incorporated.
- Submit the article. Journals have online submission portals where the article can be uploaded. In addition to uploading the article, the author has to provide additional information such as author information (name, affiliation, e-mail address), keywords, and disclosures (e.g., conflict of interest and funding source).
- Response to reviews. For an R&R, an additional document is provided that explains in detail the author’s response to each point raised by the editor and reviewers.
Choosing a Publication Outlet
Where your work is published is important not only for career success but for the potential impact it will have on the field. Academics want to publish in the most prestigious outlets because that counts most for promotions, tenure, and rewards. It also means people are more likely to see it and take it seriously. Colleges of business typically create lists of the top journals where they want faculty to publish. In other disciplines there might not be formal lists, but there can be broad consensus on which journals are considered “top tier”.
There are several factors to consider in choosing a publication outlet that maximize chances to get accepted.
- Strive for the most prestigious outlets. This is tempered by whether a particular article might be competitive for acceptance. For a top-tier journal, a given paper must make a significant contribution to the field. This is, of course, a subjective judgment, but experienced academics will have a rough idea about whether an article has a chance based on the potential contribution. When in doubt, ask opinions of experienced colleagues who have no vested interest and can be objective.
- Design the article with outlet in mind. Before writing the paper, or even conducting the research, consider where you want to submit and what that outlet will expect. In my field, a single survey of employees is unlikely to get into a top-tier journal unless it does something so new and unique that the reviewers feel it has sufficient value. Lower tier journals are the likely home for such articles, and sometimes that is the target from the beginning.
- Tell a coherent story. Good writing is often rewarded, so put effort into making the article clear, concise, and well-organized. An academic research article shares many of the features of a good piece of fiction. It should have a strong opening that gets the reader’s attention (explains the purpose and why it is important), introduces the characters (the concepts or variables), and tells their story (explains what was done and found).
- Pay attention to what the outlet publishes. Journals have preferences for approaches and topics. Some specialize in certain topics and rarely (if ever) publish others. I have had papers rejected because editors felt the topic didn’t fit. Some prefer certain methods and not others. In my field some editors will reject any empirical study where the subjects were students. Others will reject cross-sectional designs. These preferences change over time, so scanning only recent issues is the best approach.
- Take stock of your contribution. The main contribution of some articles is for the data they provide, that is they offer new findings about a phenomenon. Others provide new ideas or theories. Some can do both. Be clear as your write the paper what your contribution is and highlight that in the writing.
- Provide something unique. A book editor once told me that a successful textbook should be evolutionary but not revolutionary. What she meant was that the book should be different enough from the competition to stand out, but not so different that readers couldn’t relate to it. The same is true of an academic article. It should offer something unique, but not so unique that people can’t appreciate or understand it. Pushing the envelope can be a good thing, but not too far.
- Challenge the status quo. One successful strategy is to challenge commonly held beliefs. If you do this, your evidence and logic has to be compelling enough to convince reviewers that your point of view has merit. Keep in mind that some people have thin skins, and you might get unlucky and draw reviewers or an editor who doesn’t appreciate dissent in the academic ranks.
- Should you pursue the new or the old? Much of my career my strategy was to focus on topics that were new or neglected at the time. When I first started writing about control variables, employee misbehavior (counterproductive work behavior), international issues, method variance, and occupational stress, they were not popular topics in my field, although they are now. Other authors focus on hot topics that are currently popular. Both approaches can be successful.
Success at academic publishing can be enhanced by choosing a publication outlet early in the process. You should let the chosen outlet inform the work you do and how you write your articles. Not every article is going to hit a top-tier journal, and often we target the lower tiers. Regardless of where you wish to publish, proper preparation can increase your odds of success.
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