Three (tentative) tips for getting published - Prof Rupert Brown, University of Sussex
Older but not much wiser: three (tentative) tips for getting published
School of Psychology
After many years of endeavouring to get my work published in the world’s psychology journals, I offer these three pieces of advice for younger colleagues. Be warned though, they come with no ‘money back’ guarantees of success. If there is one thing that nearly four decades in the business has taught me, getting published in the scientific world remains a rather unpredictable and capricious affair.
1. Keep it clear, keep it short
The best way of increasing your chances of getting published is to be understood by reviewers and editors. And the best way of being understood is to write simply and clearly. Use a direct style and the active voice; don’t try to appear too ‘academic’ by using convoluted sentences full of passive verbs and abstract jargon (I once remember Mick Billig, himself a brilliantly lucid writer, advising younger colleagues, only half-jokingly, to “write in a way that your grandmother would understand” - see, for example, his essay, Billig, 2011). Try to avoid academic clichés – ‘specifically’, usually following some over-abstract general formulation is one grossly overused adverb in my view. Be sparing with the ‘cut and paste’ function in word processing packages – I find it intensely irritating as a reviewer or reader to see the exact same phrases repeated several times in a Results section, with just the numbers changed! Surely it can’t be too much effort to find another way to describe a result.
Editors, reviewers and (eventually) readers are all busy people, and journals are imposing ever shorter word limits (e.g., Eich, 2014). In other words, shorter is definitely sweeter when it comes to preparing your manuscripts for publication. In my opinion, the Introduction and Discussion sections of most articles are too long. Yes, you have to provide a decent rationale for your work at the outset, to convince your readers that you have something interesting to say. But after that, let your (beautiful) findings speak for themselves and use your Discussion section only to unravel their most glaring complexities. Be sparing with your references. Do you really need those six citations in parentheses in the middle (ugh!) or at the end of each sentence? Isn’t there one seminal paper or integrative review instead that will substantiate the claim you have just made? In my many battles with journal word limits, losing references and shortening the Discussion section have invariably been the easiest ways of making economies.
2. Choose your journal well
We all know that there is a ‘hierarchy’ of journals in our field – some journals are viewed more favourably by appointing or promotion committees than others. So, even if we find such hierarchies distasteful, they are a fact of academic life. Moreover, the more prestigious journals do tend to have larger readerships. So, if dissemination is our goal, aiming ‘high’ has much to recommend it. But how ‘high’ is reasonable? Here there are several competing considerations. Some – not all – of the top journals have rather long decision times and even longer ‘revise and resubmit’ times. So, aiming too high may entail a long wait before one gets published, and for colleagues seeking that first postdoc or permanent position, such a delay can be a career handicap. Top journals all have higher rejection rates (that’s why they are top journals). Thus, even after a long delay, the chances are that you will get rejected anyway, with obvious consequences for your imminent employability. On the other hand, some of the highest ranked journals nowadays operate a ‘triage’ system in which the editor will make a rapid initial decision as to the manuscript’s ultimate publishability. That decision may (often) be negative, but at least you will know this sooner rather than later and can try your luck elsewhere. A wise colleague of mine once remarked that if you are getting accepted by your first choice journal more than 50% of the time, you are probably aiming too low. Not bad advice in my view.
The kind of journal you target is also important. There is little point in sending a qualitative paper to a journal with an exclusively experimental remit. Is your paper’s message mainly ‘policy-oriented’ or ‘basic’, reporting primary data or reviewing a body of work, empirical or theoretical? The answers to all these questions should dictate your choice of journal to submit to.
In sum, then aim high but not too high, and choose the outlet best suited to the work you wish to present.
3. Develop a thick skin
Scientific publishing is far from a rational process. We can all tell stories of that infamous ‘Reviewer B’ who wilfully misunderstood our paper or who seemed to have some mysterious personal vendetta against us. Editors can be myopic or stupid (sometimes both) in their inability to appreciate the importance of our work (and in their failure to discount that obviously biased Reviewer B). In short, the chances are you will get rejected more often than you will get accepted, and your ego is likely to become a bit bruised as a consequence. My advice here is simple: try, try and try again…….and develop the hide of a rhinoceros. Such is the plethora of journals that you will find a home for your precious pearls of wisdom somewhere. I recently had occasion to check the growth in publications over a thirty year period in several related topics in social psychology (“well-being”, “values” and “identity”, since you ask). To my astonishment, I discovered that the number of published articles on these topics nearly doubled every five years. That exponential growth in publication must surely be related to the insatiable appetite of publishers to issue new titles on what seems like a monthly basis. Whilst such journal proliferation and its consequent information overload is not without its problems, it does at least give us researchers hope that someone, somewhere will eventually accept our article. So, hang in there, don’t take your rejections personally, and never give up.
Professor Rupert Brown is a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Sussex, UK.