Why publish?

Whether you will write up any papers for publication during the time of your PhD and MPhil will depend in part on your discipline and the nature of your research topic. In some disciplines, such as the Arts and Humanities, there often isn't a finished product to get published until the very end, and the appropriate publication form will probably be a book rather than a journal article. In other disciplines, a PhD is often made up of a sequence of discrete sub-projects which can get written up for publication along the way. If this is the case, then writing your work up for publication as you go is a good idea for a number of reasons:

  1. It will help you to develop your scholarly writing skills which will help you to write a successful thesis document.
  2. If you've already written up much of your work in the form of papers, when it comes time to write your thesis much of the work will already have been done. But note though:
    • You may have to reformat some papers to achieve overall style consistency as journals vary a lot in terms of formatting and referencing styles.
    • Some reorganisation of material might also be needed to take into account that in a thesis, a journal paper becomes part of a larger body of writing.
    • In a journal article you frame yourself as an expert writing for other experts, whereas in a thesis you frame yourself somewhat as an expert (in your thesis), but somewhat as a novice researcher seeking to get a qualification. Consequently, you may find that what you wrote for journals will need some expanding for your thesis.
  3. Getting your work critiqued by other experts in the field through the reviewing process can help you to develop as both a researcher and as a writer.
  4. When an examiner sees that a thesis is based on already published work, they realise that other experts in the field have already assessed this work as being of a publishable quality and so immediately have a positive frame of mind about the thesis.
  5. If you leave academia after your PhD, the chances of getting your work published can greatly diminish as the time you have for working on this may greatly reduce.
  6. And of course, it is very pleasurable seeing your work published! 

Choosing a journal

Different journals have different foci and scopes, and they differ on how hard it is to get published in them based on their level of prestige. It is best to decide on a journal before you start writing things up so that you can use the relevant style right from the word go (many journals now have electronic style files that you can download and use in the preparation of your manuscript).

So how do you go about choosing the right journal for your paper?

  • Based on your reading of the literature, you will get a feel for the sorts of papers which get published in different journals, and this can be a guide (which you can check by reading the "Focus and Scope" section of the journal in question). If a lot of your references come from a particular journal, then that journal might be a good choice.
  • Another consideration is the relative prestige of the journal. (These days, relative prestige is being quantified with so-called "journal impact factors".) Authors obviously want their work to be read by the widest possible audience, so they want their work published in the most prestigious journals. But acceptance rates in such journals can be under 10%, while in less prestigious journals acceptance rates are much higher. Consequently, unless your work is truly groundbreaking, it is unlikely to be accepted in the highest ranked journals. Nevertheless, some authors take a "nothing ventured, nothing gained" attitude, submit their work to the most prestigious journals, and if it gets rejected there, send it somewhere else.
  • A third consideration is time to publication. Many articles have the submission and acceptance dates in their header material. Comparing these dates with the publication date for a few articles can give you a feel for how long it typically takes a paper to get from submission to publication. If it's too long, you may want to avoid that journal.
  • Whether the journal has publication page charges Understand whether you, the author, are charged a certain amount per page of your final published paper, and whether you can get funding for this.

Preparing your manuscript

Check to see if the journal has a downloadable style file

Read the "Information for Authors" pages of the journal

In particular note whether your submission has to be "blinded" (i.e. all references to the author removed so that the reviewers don't know whose paper they are reviewing).

The idea of blinding is to guard against any possible conscious or unconscious bias towards the authors. E.g. are you more likely to get published if you have a prestigious co-author? Some research has also suggested that papers by women are slightly more likely to be accepted when the review is done blind.

It may help to copy or print a couple of sample papers from the journal to imitate (e.g. is the in-text referencing author-date, in square brackets [2,3] or superscripts2? Is it "table 1" or "Table 1", "Fig. 3" or "figure 3"? and so on).

Preparing figures

Particularly for double column journals where figures might get significantly reduced in size, check that when reduced, axis labels and numbering are still readable and that line thicknesses are still sufficient.

Alternatively, prepare figures at more or less the same size they will appear in the journal and use the magnify function in the graphics package to make working on the figure manageable - but regularly check that at its real size, the figure is readable!

Watch out that that the beautifully coloured lines created automatically by some graphing packages, while they may stand out well from each other on your computer screen, may be indistinguishable in black and white, so you'll have to change some to dotted or dashed, etc.

Find some papers you think are actually written well and analyse what they do (one critic of the scientific literature claimed that only about 5% of the papers he had read in his fields were in fact written well). Also, make a note of what you as a reader like or don't like and use that as a guide on how to write well. If you're not sure if your difficulties as a reader are your fault or the writer's, have a look at some of the things written for authors on the Nature website, particularly the article by Leslie Sage, and "The Science of Scientific Writing" by George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan.

Surviving the reviewing process

Receiving critical comment from reviewers on a paper you slaved months over can feel like a kick in the stomach (a bit like how performing artists must feel if the critics slam their latest production or performance).

However, it's important to realise that nearly every article is asked to be revised to some extent by the reviewers, and that in most cases the revisions asked for will in fact lead to a better paper. So the feedback should be appreciated ... after you recover from the emotional blow! 

Some referees do make erroneous criticisms though. So while it is annoying to have to point out why they are wrong, it is a necessary part of the process to do so as diplomatically as possible ... "In claiming X, the referee appears to have made a mistake because ..."

In fact, even if your paper gets rejected by one journal, the feedback might help you knock your paper into better shape for an attempt with another journal. Note that it is not uncommon to have to submit a paper to a second journal to get it published. Kate Chanock discusses this issue in greater depth in the Guest Editorial of Volume 2 of the Journal for Academic Language and Learning.