academic publication

How to get your research published

Last week I was on one of those “Meet the editors” panels and we had an interesting discussion about research, publication and how to get your work into journals. I thought I should share a few of the conclusions that we came to.

Just as some background, the panel consisted of SAJEMS editor Pieter Buys along with Melville Saayman (TREES) and Matthijs Bal (Vrije Universiteit) who are section editors at a number of journals in tourism and industrial psychology / organisational behaviour, respectively.

So everyone probably knows the process: You submit your work to the journal and the editor has a quick look. Then he or she assigns it to a section editor. The section editor appoints 2 or 3 reviewers. And hopefully everything goes well from there.

What is a “dealbreaker” and could lead to rejection of the paper by the editor or section editor?

  • If your work falls outside the scope of the journal. 
  • If the editing is sloppy.
  • If the contribution is not clear.

The first point means that you have to write for a journal and its audience. Don’t just pick a journal from the ISI list and give it a try. Read the author guidelines, work through a number of issues and see what they are about before submitting your work. This also makes the letter to the editor quite important – Pieter said that he reads them – you have to explain how your work is of interest to this particular group of readers.

If the grammar is bad and the references incomplete it can easily lead to a desk reject. We all have to remember that journals receive many submissions and have pipelines full of approved articles. They don’t have to work through sloppy manuscripts to search for good ideas. I know how I get irritated by post-grad students sending me unreadable documents – editors and section editors will not waste reviewers’ time with draft versions of research. You have to submit your best effort.

These basics will get you past the editor, but the section editor is the expert in a particular field and wants to know if your well-written manuscript makes a contribution. You may feel that the contribution is in the eye of the beholder, but the fact is that you can make his or her decision easier by spelling it out. Let’s assume that you started out with a contribution-level idea – the challenge is explaining it to readers. It should be clear as day, right there in the introduction. Highlight how your work informs the big questions in the field.

The dreaded third reviewer
Then you need to hope that the section editor picks good reviewers. Everyone has a story about a completely unreasonable third reviewer who wants a completely different paper. There is not much that you can do about this. A really good abstract, introduction and accurate key words / JEL codes (for topic, case/application, method) can help the section editor pick reviewers that knows the field and can sensibly look at your work. If the section editor does not quite understand what the paper is about, they end up picking names from the list the journal keeps (and when did you last update your research interests on the list of reviewers?)

How long should you wait before you follow up on a submission? 
With some journals you can check electronically, with others you can ask whether they have at least appointed reviewers after two months or so.

What if you gets the reviews back and they recommend major revisions, to the point of asking you to do a different study?
The panel felt that you should engage with the section editor or editor that you are corresponding with: Explain the changes that you have made and acknowledge the limitations.

More on the contribution
Matthijs also made a few comments specifically about the contribution of the paper. These points are not really related to how you present finished work, but to how you conceptualise and do the work in the first place.You have to start by asking what are the big questions in the field and how can you make a small contribution to answering them. Testing a particular theory or model for the first time in the South African context, is not a contribution. Revisiting big questions with more sophisticated statistics is not a contribution. The South African application only becomes interesting if there is a clear case that South Africa is somehow different – and that difference should be accounted for in the analysis, not just argued in the introduction. Using more sophisticated techniques is only a contribution if the way of modelling something has been a big question in the particular literature. These day the better journals are not keen on cross-sectional designs, mono-source and mono-method papers. He nicely argued that this does not mean that everything should be new, but that it should be interesting. You have to ask what can everyone learn from this work.

Finally, if you don’t have one yet, grow a thick skin. Rejection is part of the publication process and considering all its vagaries, you should not take it personally. Just revise and resubmit. Never give up, never surrender.

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