Why is academic publishing so intimidating?
“We’ve got a paper here,” my PhD supervisor told one of my peers as they were looking through the data.
I was happy for my friend that he got to publish his research: his third paper since he started his PhD program less than 4 years earlier.
I had been working on my project for over 2 years and I wasn’t even close to publishing.
Even worse, I had no idea what I had to do to get my research published.
What I realized was that the biggest hurdle to writing a publication was that I didn’t know how to do it
I had imagined that one day my data would look so spectacular that my supervisor would take one look at it and say: “Dora, I think we’ve got a paper here.”
Academic Publishing: How to Learn From the Pro’s
My postdoctoral supervisor was one of the most published researcher in his field.
Before I joined his group, I talked with one of the postdoctoral fellows who had just accepted a position at a company.
“Did you like doing research here?” I asked her.
“Oh, it was great,” she replied. “I loved the research and I published 5 papers.”
I remember being speechless at the thought of publishing 5 papers in just a few years.
But 4 years later, when I finished my postdoctoral fellowship there, I had 5 publications too.
It was not a coincidence that this group was so successful in academic publishing.
They didn’t leave it up to chance whether their research would result in a story that the journals liked.
Instead, they had a vision of what they would submit to the journals and then reverse-engineered what it would take to create that paper.
Does this mean that every idea turned into a published paper?
Of course not.
Many ideas were never published, many publications turned out very differently than expected.
What distinguished this group is that they were intentional about their research, and how it would contribute to the story they would submit to the journal.
I later learned that other well-published professors used similar approaches.
They drafted their paper in advance with place-holders for their results, and use that as their guide to carry out the research.
Being intentional about your research (rather than hoping that something will just work out) is the first step to creating a publication.
You might be thinking: “But Dora, I know so many people whose papers were rejected. Is it worth my time to put so much effort into something that might not even get accepted?”
I hear you.
Coping with rejection or addressing revisions is not the most fun thing in the world.
But here is a little-known secret:
Many of the factors that determine whether a journal accepts your paper are within your control.
Read that statement again.
Most journals get more submissions than they can publish. But they also get many papers that get rejected before they are even read by reviewers.
While there are no guarantees that a specific journal will publish your paper, if you write a well-thought-out paper and follow the submission guidelines, you have already set yourself apart from most of the manuscripts that a journal receives.
I would go even as far as saying that journal editors are pleasant surprised when they get a manuscript where the authors have followed all the submission guidelines.
You might be wondering: “Why doesn’t everyone just follow the submission guidelines for journals?”
I suspect that many authors don’t have the time, or academic publishing is not a priority for them.
But based on my experience with PhD students and postdocs over the past 10 years, I can safely say that many of these rising researchers don’t know the process of academic publishing.
One of the best ways to get started is to model someone who is already successful at it.
It can be someone you know in person, or another researcher whose papers are widely cited.
How do they present their stories in the publications? What are the gaps in knowledge that they fill in?
Second, look through the journals where you would like to be published.
Anytime you write a manuscript for publication you must know who your audience is.
Which journals publish papers that have a similar focus as yours? How are those papers structured?
Third, use the approach of reverse-engineering your paper.
Even if you are just getting started with your research (or have years of data to sort through), create a rough draft of your paper based on a journal article.
How does your research contribute to the field? What actions do you need to take to create that paper? Get started today. Remember, ideas are born with writing.