The University Writing Center has published a video of the recent Graduate Writing Series by Bruce Thompson, Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology and of Library Sciences. Dr. Thompson discusses writing for publication and gives his advice to aspiring scholar-writers.
In his presentation, Dr. Thompson referenced the following article:
Title: Publishing Your Research Results: Some Suggestions and Counsel
Author: Thompson, Bruce
Journal: Journal of Counseling & Development, v73 n3 p342-45, Jan-Feb 1995
I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this before; I’ll share a little secret in my academic background. I published my first article when I was an undergraduate student , and I published a book chapter when I was a masters degree student. So, I’ve been at this a long time, and it is, I think, a very critical aspect of graduate life. And obviously, I’m preaching to the choir in saying the business of publishing is a very critical ingredient in graduate work, and ultimately, for those of you who go on into the academy for employment after you graduate, in keeping your job and getting raises and things like that.
[.46] I really think the single most critical ingredient in you getting articles published is you submitting manuscripts that are well written. I’m convinced that no matter how life changing, how earth shaking, what you have to say is, if you write the article poorly, the article is not well written, I think you will have a very difficult time getting the article published. Or, conversely, I’m convinced that you can probably get just about anything published if the article is well written. It may not be in the best journal if the work is not particularly scholarly or makes a real contribution, but I think you can find a home for pretty much all of your work if the work is well written.
[1.40] Recently, an editor of a journal took all of the files of the journal and did a study of what things predicted the success of manuscripts submitted to that journal, for the history of that journal, which was a relatively young journal, about ten or twelve years old. The largest predictor of the success of manuscripts being accepted for publication was writing quality. Every review form I’ve ever seen for any journal, each journal has its own reviewer rating form, and, of course, the bulk of the review is actually open ended comments, but every journal has rating criteria. They vary fairly widely across journals. By the way, one good thing for you to do when you are submitting to a journal, you can often find the rating form on the web for that journal, and it’s not a bad idea to go check that out and see what they are going to be looking at. But I’ve never seen a rating form without writing as one of the criteria. This editor I was referring to found that manuscripts on a 1-5 scale that were rated 3 or lower, with lower being not good, were 15 times more likely to be rejected than manuscripts rated higher in writing quality. Of all the things they looked at that predicted acceptance versus rejection that was the single most important thing. Now, I’ll mention a few other ones, but clearly, writing quality is very important.
[3.20] The key to good writing is revision. There’s a saying, “few people write well, many people revise well.” I’ve published a lot. This has been critical to my success. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to revise your work many times before you submit the work. First impressions count in your social life. They count also in your professional life when you are submitting manuscripts. Don’t think, “gosh, I’ll get something on paper and maybe it won’t be my best work, but the editor will tell me how to fix it.” To some extent, maybe the editor will, but the editor also may just tell you, “this is not fixable” when the manuscript could enjoy a happier story if, in fact, the manuscript was better written. One thing I find very useful with respect to revision is I like to work on a manuscript, write the manuscript, and then I often will put the manuscript aside for days or maybe a couple of weeks because when you are working on something you are passionate, you’re engaged, you’re focused, you’re connected with that work. You will lose sight of what was said in the article because you will remember the process of putting your ideas on paper and you’ll remember what you wanted to say, and that will interfere with you reading what you have said. You’ll be thinking what you meant rather than what you actually said. So, you’ll see things you completely missed that you will otherwise not see, you’ll see those things if you put the work aside for a bit and come back to the work.
[5.18] I will also tell you that probably there is no limit to the potential improvement in a manuscript. You can revise and revise and revise infinitely, many times, probably finding something each time that you could have made better, maybe only a word or a sentence.
[5.40] Another thing I will say about writing is people in academic disciplines sometimes think that their writing needs to be very formal, objective, and sterile. I will tell you that that is a very naïve idea. You need to develop your own voice, your own tone, that is unique to you, and your personality needs to come through in the work that you do, maybe not bled all over the page in every sentence, but there should be places where some of your passion, some of your humor, some of your cleverness, whatever your personality may be, comes out. Most journals use blind review where the reviewers don’t know the author and the author doesn’t know the reviewers, but partly because people will know my voice, they know a Bruce Thompson article whenever they see it. Of course, one clue is that I always cite myself shamelessly, they see here are 15 citations to Thompson.
[6.47] One thing that people say about my writing, and about my teaching, is “he is so clear. He is often wrong, but always clear.” I think that is one of the major hallmarks of good writing and academic scholarship. I’m a big believer in short, active sentences, with the noun first, then the verb, active voice. I hate pronouns, especially “it”.
[7.26][Select Target Journals before Writing] I strongly recommend that you select the journals, plural, that will be your target places for a given research project or writing project before you start writing. There are many reasons for this. First, it’s possible that the work you’re doing will not fit with a journal. There may not be a journal that is a suitable outlet, that’s focused on what you’re doing. You could do a study or write an article that may be a great article but maybe there’s not a journal that that piece belongs to. Or, at the other extreme, there may be a lot of journals that would love to have that work, that fits clearly within the scope of the journals.
[8.17] Prioritize. There are three journals I think this will fit in, or there are 5, and have a rank ordering of them and think about them. I’m going to go to this journal first, and if that’s not successful I’ll go to this journal second and so forth. The kind of things you want to think about, once you say that these journals are all fits, the kind of issues you want to think about in selecting the journal are acceptance rates. Some journals are particularly difficult to get published in, other journals accept a larger percentage of manuscripts. You have to make a decision about that.
[8.57] Many academic journals are rated. They get an academic impact factor by a service that looks at journals and journal articles and who is citing the journals, who is citing particular articles. Top-tier journals will have impact factors. I will tell you that impact factors are somewhat discipline specific, like the medical journals have much higher impact factors than the education journals, for example. So, you can’t really compare impact factors across disciplines. That probably won’t be an issue for you because you are probably going to be working in your own discipline only, but if you happen to be comparing impact factors across disciplines, you’ll want to remember that they can’t be compared very readily apples to apples. Also, you might want to think of things related to impact, like how many people get the journal, how many libraries are subscribed, how many individuals are subscribed to the journal, those kind of considerations. Different journals may have different tones a little bit. You want to write in the tone of the journal that you want to submit your manuscript to. Don’t assume that will be the same for every journal. The tone may vary some at different journals, and make sure that you check that out before you get into writing.
[10.26] There’s a good resource called Cabell’s Directory of Publishing Opportunities. He has an online service I believe you can subscribe to, or there may be some free access to it on the web. Just google it, you’ll find the website. He tells you things like where do you send the manuscript. Do you send paper copies, how many? Do you send them electronically? Who do you send this stuff to? What’s the rejection rate? What’s the turnaround time? Author guidelines. Do not only assume you only need to know ,for example, APA style for social scientists. Each journal may have its own and often will have its own author guidelines that say certain things that are not part of the style guide that you really need to pay attention to. There’s no point in submitting a manuscript where the editor has said that if you don’t have x, I’m not going to accept your manuscript. All you’re doing is sending in a manuscript that doesn’t have x, so you can get a rejection letter to prove to yourself the editor meant it. What’s the point of that? The editors are busy and why put them through the screening of you manuscript to find that you haven’t even met the basic criteria specified within the author guidelines. Look for the author guidelines. Pay attention to them.
[12.12] Remember, I mentioned an author that did a study of the rejected and accepted manuscripts. He found in that study, manuscripts with 3 or more style errors in the references were 8 times more likely to be rejected than the other manuscripts. That is not a causal statement. It may mean that people who do bad work, write poorly and make a lot of style errors. But, still, you are sending a message to the editor and the referees that you can’t be bothered with the style stuff. So, learn the style in your discipline. Some people like to write query letters to the editor or email the editor or call the editor and say, “I have a manuscript about whatever. Would you be interested in this manuscript?” If the manuscript is clearly not within the scope of the journal’s mission, you ought to know that without having to do a query. If the work fits within the scope of the journal, as the editor, all I can say reasonably to you is, “send me your manuscript,” because I don’t want to lose a potentially magnificent piece of work, and I can’t really make this judgment without the manuscript. So, there’s no value added from doing a query in the context of if you know the manuscript is within the scope of the journal. Believe the editor.
[14.10] I want to make clear to you that what you want to pay attention to when you get an action letter from the editor is what the editor says, not what the reviewers say. This process of getting published is not a voting process. The referees’ input is only advisory to the editor. It’s my [the editor] name on the masthead, it’s my responsibility to make that decision. Listen to what the editor says to do in the revision. By the way, a lot of people when they first started this stuff think, “well, the editor said I can revise, but they probably just say that to everybody.” No, that is not right. The editor will not ask you or allow you to do a revision if they do not believe that there is a reasonable possibility that your manuscript, through revision, might be publishable. Now, in some cases you might end up making more than one round of revisions, but once the editor makes a decision, at whatever point the editor makes this decision, that the manuscript is never going to be revised successfully, the editor will cut you off. Now, almost always, they will give you blinded copies of the referees’ comments, and they will give you their own letter. If the editor says fix these 5 things and the referees have a lot of things they want changed that the editor doesn’t mention, the editor is telling you, “don’t change those things, unless you want to maybe.” Don’t think you have to make everybody happy, but pay attention to what the editor says, not to what the referees say.
[16.12] Another thing when you are doing revisions, take every point the editor said need to be revised, list it, number it. [directed to editor] “Number one, you wanted this, I wrote two new paragraphs in the middle of page 10. You wanted this, I added 3 citations on that.” Say exactly what they wanted and say exactly what you did and exactly where it is. In some cases I will even submit a revision with an extra copy where I’ve put paper clips on areas of the manuscript that I’ve changed and highlight so they can see exactly where the changes are, and I’ll put the number of the revision. “This is revision request number 3,” in big read letters. Make it very clear what you are doing and what you’ve done has been done. Now, you do not have to do everything an editor asks you to do. If the editor is asking for stuff you think is wrong or will make things incorrect, don’t do them because if you are right that they’re wrong that will not be in the journal’s interest, the editor’s interest, or your interest. The literature is archival. You don’t want to publish something that’s wrong in some respect that will be there forever. Be respectful but be direct and make your case for why you didn’t do [what the editor asked].
[18.05] By the way, the key thing in the article is that you’re not making inferential leaps. One way I say this is if you justify everything explicitly, there ought to be a lot of the word ‘because’ or some synonym. Justify everything, including… I’m a quantitative researcher…including the analyses you do and have citations in the results section. Don’t just say I did this analysis or that analysis. Have citations that explain or justify those analytical choices. There probably shouldn’t be too many things that you just refuse to do [that the editor asked for]. Or if there is something basically wrong, it may be that you need to submit to another journal rather than resubmitting the manuscript.
[19.07] I’ll say here that the only thing the editor will lie about is turnaround times. In my experience, typically the journals will tell you their turnaround times, “if you submit, we’ll let you know the decision in 2 months” or whatever. I usually roughly double or maybe a little more, 2 and half times what they say. I usually wait considerably passed the published time before I start contacting the editor about what happened to my manuscript, what’s going on. You do want to follow up at some point when that time has passed because manuscripts do get lost. Things happen. You don’t want to wait 5 years and then write the editor. [Editor] “Oh, gosh, that got misfiled. I didn’t realize it. Sorry.” So, follow up, but wait a while passed the announced time, and have a lot longer than what they say will be the time as your expectation.
[20.20] If your article is accepted, you will be given some kind of proof copy, sometimes called a galley copy, and there will be a copy editor’s queries, like “hey I noticed your references don’t exactly match, in one place this is Jones, A. and over here it seems to be Jones, R., what’s the story?” or there is a missing reference or the copy editors will suggest wording changes. When you get the proof copy, you’re not supposed to make any changes except to deal with copy editing issues. You can’t say, “gosh, I want to rewrite that paragraph. I could have written it better.” Sometimes they will let you do that, but they may well charge you money for that. Their expectation is that they don’t want you to make those changes. One consideration is, if you change what was accepted through the review mechanism, then you are putting stuff in that manuscript that the editor and referees didn’t have any chance to look at, and there are some real issues with that.
[21.39] And one last thing I’ll mention here, a lot of students think, “ok, my article has been published and now I’ll just sit back and wait for the congratulatory emails or when I go to the conference people will doubtlessly be buying me cocktails.” You need to promote your work once it’s published. Don’t just publish it. Even the world’s premier experts can’t keep up with all of the literature and know all of the research that’s being done. It means you can’t assume that when you write your article that the earth will move, the ground will shake. You need to do things to make your work be read and recognized. Send a pdf file, send a paper copy. Who do you send it to? The people you think are the movers and shakers in the discipline, the people that you cited. Hey, people like to be cited. In a lot of universities, when you go up for tenure, they don’t just look at how many articles you have or sometimes pay much attention at all to how many articles you have. They look at how many citations you have because that’s trackable. You can go into google scholar or you can go onto the library webpage and find out how many times this article has been cited, by whom, and people pay attention to that. People do like to be cited, and they are legitimately interested in that area if you cited them in your references, and they may well read your work and they may well cite your work.