Publishing scholarly research in the form of journal articles, monographs, edited volumes, book chapters and so on is at the heart of an academic career. Writing and publishing research is the means by which the sum of human knowledge in a given area advances. In consequence of this, it is essential for career progression for an academic all the way from post-doc to personal chair. This remains broadly true in all higher education systems around the world although different levels of emphasis may be placed on other skills such as teaching or leadership from country to country.
Within the UK system, between the introduction of the Research Assessment Exercise in 1986 (renamed the Research Excellence Framework in the 2010s) and the move to £9,000 a year undergraduate fees in the 2010s, published output moved for one generation of academics towards becoming almost the only real criterion for many (but not all) academic appointments. Teaching has undergone something of a revival in importance as a result of the introduction of higher fees in recent years, but published output probably still remains the decisive factor for determining the career trajectory of an aspiring academic.
In short, you will need to publish to get a job. What follows are a few tips on how to publish your work in a peer-reviewed journal.
- Once you have your idea for a paper, choose the journal that you want to publish it in carefully. It is important that you tailor your paper to the themes that the journal publishes. Take your time also to familiarize yourself with papers already published in previous volumes of the journal.
- Make sure that your paper fits the theme of the journal (there are so many journals that it should not to be too hard to find the right one).
- Prepare your article for consideration very carefully. Go through multiple drafts and seek comments from established senior academics within your department prior to submission. Comments from your fellow PhD students can also be helpful (often very helpful) but this is not a substitute.
- Check both the journal’s preferred house style (guidance will be available on their website) and pay careful attention to questions of grammar, syntax, spelling and so on. It is very tedious to work through a badly written paper and by irritating the reviewers you increase the chances of rejection. A badly written paper looks like the author just doesn’t care.
- Aim high. Your first few papers may not be suitable for the American Political Science Review, but there is a very good chance that they will be suitable for a quality journal in a specialist sub-discipline. Remember that PhD students are not only highly familiar with the state of the literature in a given discipline but will also often have a large amount of empirical material that sheds new light on a given problem. It is better to aim high and miss than not to try. You can always use the feedback from referees to improve the paper for another journal.
- Don’t be put off by a revise and resubmit – this is normal and indeed a better response in many ways than a ‘publish without corrections’ since you have a chance to improve the paper (nearly all social science papers can be improved in one way or another).
- Write a carefully worded letter to the editors with your resubmitted copy to explain how you have responded to the comments of the reviewers. This makes it easier to assess what you have done. You don’t have to do everything the reviewers ask, but you do have to explain why not if you do not.
- Be polite, fair and professional throughout the process in your dealing with editors, editorial assistants, copy editors and so on. It is unwise to acquire a reputation as a prima donna before your career has begun.
Whatever the quality of your article, there is a certain amount of luck involved in the process of publishing peer-reviewed articles. Bear in mind Churchill’s maxim that ‘success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts’. In other words, if your article is published, great, but this is not an excuse to rest on your laurels. And if your article is rejected, keep trying. Writing is a skill that is honed through practice.