Getting published as a research student can be a huge leg-up in your career. If you’re planning a future in academia, it’s one of the best ways to demonstrate your credibility and productivity as a researcher. And of course if you’re writing your thesis by publication (Format 2, in AUT lingo), it’s all part of the process!
But what’s actually involved in getting an article from draft to publication?
Of course, actually writing the article is a crucial step toward getting published. That’s not what we’re going to focus on today, but for those just getting started with writing, you can check out these resources for ideas:
- From Thesis to Article workshop
- Publishing your Research workshop
- Thesislink post: Entry-Level Ways to Start Publishing
- Thesislink post: How to Not Annoy Journal Reviewers
- Thesislink post: How Do I Know if a Publisher is Legit?
OK, so let’s say you’ve written your article. What’s in this middle ‘um’ step?
Targeting and submitting to a journal
To which journal will you send your article? Deciding this is, to some extent, really more of a preliminary step rather than a middle step. Researching suitable journals is helpful for determining how you ‘pitch’ your written article, and so you should have at least some idea of suitable journals before you write. But even if you’ve written with a particular journal in mind, it’s a good idea to review what you’ve written and reassess the best place for it.
This is particularly important to get right because many journals don’t allow simultaneous submissions. In other words, you can only submit your article to one journal, exclusively; and if they reject it, then you can submit to another. So choose carefully. Consider:
- Does the scope of this journal obviously include my topic?
- If particular journal issues are themed, does an upcoming theme allow a good fit for my article?
- Is the audience for this journal the right type of audience for my work?
- Do I recognise some names on the editorial board? (Not essential, but a good sign that the journal is focused on your niche area!)
- Is this journal reputable?
- Is this journal’s impact factor a good fit for this stage of my career? (Higher impact factors usually mean more kudos for published authors, but tougher standards for acceptance.)
- Would my article be published quickly enough for my purposes? (If you need quick publication, look for journals with advance access – i.e. that publish articles on their website as soon as they are accepted.)
Once you’ve made a final decision on which journal to target, you can prepare your submission. Ensure that you follow any formatting requirements carefully. Do a last-minute check-in with your co-authors, if you have them. And lastly, prepare a cover letter. Your cover letter should introduce the article and give a big picture overview of its contents, without duplicating the article’s abstract.
Finally, you’re ready to submit!
Waiting… and waiting…
After submitting an article to a journal, it will be reviewed. Journal editors may do a cursory review themselves, to check whether the article is a good fit for their journal. They also typically send the paper out to a number of peer-reviewers – experts who assess the quality of the submission in detail.
This is when you get to wait… and wait… and wait.
Academic publishing can be s l o w. A poll of Nature readers found that 62% had experienced a wait of at least a year to get a paper published (and 10% had waited at least 3 years). A lot of this time is spent in the review process and on any subsequent revisions.
While waiting times in the years do happen, fortunately they aren’t the average. You can realistically expect to wait several months for an outcome. Different journals and fields have different standards, but a survey of conservation biology journal authors found that on average, they reported a typical review time of about 14 weeks before receiving feedback on a manuscript (Nguyen et al., 2015).
Of course, you don’t have to sit around twiddling your thumbs during that time; but it is frustrating.
Responding to the outcome
Once the initial review has been completed, the journal editor will consider peer reviewers’ reports and make a decision about your article, which they will communicate to you.
If it’s accepted…
While it is possible to have an article simply accepted for publication with no revisions, it’s not common – and especially not for novice researchers. (In fact, it may be a red flag. If your article is accepted with no revisions and you’re asked for payment in exchange for publication, you may have submitted to a predatory journal.) But on rare occasions, a novice researcher can get a straight acceptance in a legitimate journal – so if it happens to you, celebrate!
If you’re asked to revise & resubmit…
A much more common outcome is to be asked to revise and resubmit. This is normal: don’t give up! Some authors feel so defeated at this outcome that they abandon their attempt to be published – which can be tempting, when you see all the ‘problems’ that reviewers have identified in your work. But at this stage, in the context of the overall publication process, you’re nearly there!
A ‘revise and resubmit’ outcome means that the reviewers see promise in your article, and probably want to accept it (with some changes). Your reviewers will give feedback on what they feel needs to be revised, and your job is to work through those revisions (along with any co-authors). You have discretion to accept the reviewers’ suggestions or not; but be aware that you’ll have the best chance of acceptance if you acknowledge and act on at least most of the feedback. You may be asked to prepare a ‘response to reviewers’ document, in which you can rationalise your choices. When you resubmit your revised article, it will go back through the review process again.
If it’s rejected…
If the journal rejects your submission (or resubmission), try not to take the decision to heart. Some top-ranking journals can have rejection rates as high as 95%, so a rejection doesn’t necessarily mean your work is bad – it may just mean it’s not the best fit for the journal. Once rejected, you can submit your article to another publication. You may like to revise based on the reviewers’ feedback, if some was given, to improve your chances of acceptance in another journal. You may also like to try a journal with a higher acceptance rate. This can be a trade-off if the impact journal of your next targeted journal is lower, but sometimes one lower-ranked output is better than nothing.
So what’s really in between writing and being published?
Here’s a diagramme that broadly illustrates the journey your article takes from writing to publication. Every journal has their own way of doing things, so do take this with a grain of salt – but it represents a fairly typical version of the process.
Nguyen, V. M., Haddaway, N. R., Gutowsky, L. F., Wilson, A. D., Gallagher, A. J., Donaldson, M. R., … & Cooke, S. J. (2015). How long is too long in contemporary peer review? Perspectives from authors publishing in conservation biology journals. PloS one, 10(8), e0132557.