(a.k.a. everything you ever wanted to know about academic publishing but were afraid to ask)
As a PhD student, it can seem like publishing is something you’re supposed to know about – and participate in – but no one ever explains how to get started. I remember being embarrassed to ask questions about the publishing process. I thought everyone else knew what to do and was (secretly) submitting articles to journals. I felt lost and a bit left out. It was only in my third year that I realised we were all in the dark and feeling equally isolated.
I recently spent some time chatting with a group of current PhD students about how to approach the publishing process. They shared similar anxieties to those I had harbored for so long and had many of the same questions. By bringing these issues out into the open, hopefully this post will alleviate some of the fears that accompany submitting an article to a journal for the first time. It will also offer some tips on how to approach the publishing process.
So, how on earth do you get started??(!)
The first thing to do is to think carefully about which journal you want to publish in. In many cases, it makes sense to publish in the journals you read. There are several reasons for this. Most obviously, your research (and therefore the topic of your eventual article) will be closely aligned to the sources you’re already using. Some journals will be more relevant than others, of course, but you should be able to identify two or three journals that you use most regularly – those journals should be among the first you consider publishing in. Other reasons for choosing to publish in the journals you read include (a) that you’re already familiar with the format and style of articles published in those journals and (b) you will likely be referencing articles previously included in those journals, demonstrating to the editors and reviewers that you’re familiar with not only your topic but that specific journal’s content.
PhD students often wonder what level of journal they should target. Your supervisor can give you some advice here. My own opinion on the matter is that you should aim for the journal most suited to your research. If that happens to be a top-ranked journal, go for it – but put in the work required for your article to belong there. At the very least you’ll get some thoughtful feedback that you can use to revise and resubmit your article elsewhere.
Once you have narrowed your list down two or three potential journals, the next step is to go to the journal websites and find the author guidelines and style guides. These can be tricky to locate, but are always hidden somewhere. The author guidelines will include things like what type of articles the journal publishes and acceptable word counts. They will also provide details on which citation system you should use, the number of heading levels you’re allowed and how many keywords you need to include with your submission. Read these guidelines carefully. Knowing exactly what each journal is looking for in an article will help you decide which journal to target for the type of article you want to write.
Having identified which journal to target, you can start to plan your article. You need to package your article so that it looks and reads like it already belongs in that journal. So, when you’re writing your outline, think about your audience (i.e. What is their level of expertise? Do you need to include a literature review? Will they care about methodology?). Only use the number of heading levels specified in the author guidelines and try to format the body of your paper so that it resembles other articles found in that journal. Thinking about these things at the outset will save you a lot of time later on.
Now start writing.
In reality, though, there really shouldn’t be that much new writing to do. The advantage of publishing as a PhD student is that you have content ready and waiting in your thesis chapters; there is absolutely no need to start from scratch. You will, however, need to edit this content and rearrange it into a stand-alone paper. And once you’ve drafted your paper, test it out. Present it at a conference or departmental seminar and see what kind of response you get. You can also ask for feedback from people whose standards you trust but who you know will also be kind, either in your department or further afield. Getting critical feedback at an early stage from people who know and care about you is always preferable to getting the same feedback from a reviewer who happened to be in a particularly foul mood when reading your paper.
With a lot of work and a bit of luck, your paper will be accepted. Hooray! But bear in mind that’s the just beginning of a whole new process that includes making stylistic corrections, copy editing and reviewing proofs. I suspect you’ll find, as I did, that writing for publication in academic journals – particularly as a young academic – is about the journey as much as the destination. When in doubt, it never hurts to stop and ask for directions.