Who doesn’t love a sequel? Summer is a great time for them, isn’t it? (Reminds me… still need to get to How to Train Your Dragon 2…) Of course, some are better than others…
Last month I re-blogged a helpful little article with tips for getting published. This morning I saw that the author, a journal editor at the University of British Columbia, wrote a follow-up piece with some helpful advice. Since we’re at about the halfway point of the summer, a prime time for many of us to re-focus on our scholarship, it seemed prudent to pass it along. (And since the author references The Princess Bride right after the jump, you know she’s cool.)
In my last article, I provided a handful of obvious tips for junior scholars on getting journal articles published. My aim wasn’t to provide a comprehensive guide to publication, but instead to highlight common (and easily rectified) issues that I see regularly as an associate editor of an academic journal.
But there’s more to say. So as a follow-up, I thought I’d offer a few random reflections informed by my work as an editor and my experiences as an author.
A quick disclaimer: I don’t know the secrets to getting published. That’s because there aren’t any such secrets. Anyone who says differently is selling something. (And yes, I stole that line from The Princess Bride.)
As I’ve mentioned before, at least a third of the papers I’ve written were nixed by my first-choice venues, and I had to submit various papers to multiple journals before they found a home. In one recent case, it took two years, four journals, and 16 extraordinarily polarized reviews before my manuscript saw the light of day. I got feedback ranging from “The tone of the article reveals one of the most dramatic lack of even-handedness in its presentation of arguments that I have read in my entire career” to “This is a near-perfect essay—clear, informative, balanced, and timely.” As these quotes illustrate, there aren’t any foolproof techniques, primarily because reviewers often disagree on what a good paper actually looks like.
Now that we’re totally clear on what I don’t know, here are several things I do know:
Submission dates matter.
It’s my belief that when you submit your paper affects how long the review process takes—and, potentially, whether your paper is accepted. Here’s why. You know how you try to get a bunch of stuff done before you go on holiday so you don’t have to do any work over the break? Well, guess what? Thousands of other academics do that too! As a result, there tends to be a glut of submissions in November (and May, to a lesser extent) and an even smaller pool of reviewers than usual willing to review them. Would you agree to a review invitation you received on December 5th?
What this means is that: a) your paper is likely to sit for longer than normal before it’s sent out for review; b) it’s likely to be sent to a lot more people before two (or three or however many reviewers is standard for the journal) accept the invitation; and c) the reviewers themselves, assuming some are actually found, may not be the ideal candidates, since presumably the most suitable ones would have been approached first. This last factor, in particular, is instrumental to the fate of your paper. So if you can, I’d avoid submitting to journals during these busy periods, even if it for most of us it goes against the grain to sit on a manuscript you feel is ready for submission.
You can go big or go small.
When I finished my Ph.D., I was given wildly varying advice (most of it unsolicited) on whether it’s wiser to focus on big, prestigious journals or smaller ones. Some people insist that it’s best to target smaller journals when you’re starting out, based on the assumption that your work is more likely to be published in them; others argue that it’s better to have fewer publications in more-prestigious journals. To further complicate matters, we live in an era of intense research rationalization. Various countries have implemented all sorts of daft systems to quantify research “output” and “impact”; to some extent, these determine the sorts of decisions we make about where to publish.
I’ve published in an array of journals, including prestigious ones, middling ones, and those that show up on no radar to speak of. However, when I scrutinize my publications (thank you, Google Scholar), I see no consistent correlation between a journal’s prestige and citations. In my own case, the main predictor of citations appears to be the topicality of its subject matter.
In my experience, there’s no question that publishing in a prestigious and widely indexed journal gives your article a greater degree of exposure, not to mention a certain cachet among your colleagues. But as long as people can find your article (that is, it’s indexed in at least one of the standard indexes: SSCI, SCI, Web of Science, EMBASE, ProQuest, PubMed, or Scopus, to cite a few prominent examples) and it makes a valuable contribution to your discipline’s literature, it will ultimately be read and cited, regardless of the publication it appeared in. However, I’d still be very wary of unsolicited invitations to submit articles to journals you’ve never heard of (unless you happen to be an academic superstar, although I have no idea why you’d be reading this post if you were). Jeffrey Beall has a helpful list of predatory open-access journals to watch out for.
There’s a wrong way and a right way to challenge an editorial decision.
Now let’s say you’ve received mixed reviews, or even primarily positive ones, and the editor still rejects your paper. The latter has happened to me on several occasions, and there’s no denying that it’s one of the more frustrating experiences an academic can have. Why bother requesting reviews in the first place if you are going to ignore everything the reviewers say? you think to yourself, cursing the journal and the insanity of the system.
You might even be tempted to pop off an angry email to the editor at this egregious injustice. (I have.) Don’t. Today you might swear to yourself that “I will never submit to that journal again.” But chances are you’ll change your mind, whether it’s a year from now or five. And the thing is, editors never forget the authors who burn bridges, especially those who blow them up Rambo-style.
If you feel you must challenge the editorial decision, be smart about it. Wait at least 24 hours before sending an email. Editors don’t respond well to complaints—even politely framed ones—that they just haven’t realized how special, important, earth shattering, etc., etc., etc., your work is. So you’ll need to convince the editor that your request for reconsideration is more than pique or ego at work and that there are legitimate reasons why resubmission is warranted. That said, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not worth doing. Even if the editor allows you to revise and resubmit the article, I’ve never known it to change the final outcome. To mix several metaphors, it’s better to cut your losses than flog a dead horse (and yes, I have just realized that most of my metaphor-mixing involves some form of equine abuse).
It pays to do your part.
If your paper is accepted by a journal and you plan to submit there again, make sure you accept review requests. Nothing aggravates an editor more (well, beyond those areas I flagged in my last piece) than authors who submit papers but don’t accept review invitations—especially authors who are serial offenders. Yes, the system is flawed. Yes, academic publishing houses make pots of money off the backs of the free labor of academics. But if you want to make the most of the system, flawed as it is, you have to reciprocate.
In all honesty, if an author who is a serial offender gets mixed reviews, this failure to pay it forward may factor into my recommendation to the editor-in-chief. Perhaps I’m petty (a view that I’m sure will prevail in comments on this piece), but I doubt I’m alone. It also goes the other way. If someone who reviews regularly for us submits a paper that receives a mixed response, I’m much more likely to recommend that the author be given an opportunity to resubmit the manuscript. My point is that willing and able reviewers are increasingly rare, and editors tend to appreciate those who take on this often thankless role.
In sum, sometimes it’s wise to wait a few weeks rather than submit your manuscript during crunch times, and it’s unwise to base your choice of publication venue exclusively on a journal’s academic ranking. Think hard before you challenge editorial decisions (even ones that are clearly stupid)—cutting your losses can ultimately save you time and angst—and make sure you accept review requests from journals you submit to. I can’t guarantee that these things will help you get your papers published. But they certainly can’t hurt!