Planning to publish in an academic journal? Top Tips for PhD students

Academic writing is hard, but getting your work published can be even harder. Increasingly, PhD students are expected to have at least one peer-reviewed publication under their belt as they enter the academic job market. Going through this process can be a daunting, and at times, confusing experience. Depending on who you ask, you will get different advice on how to publish, who to publish with and what your strategy should be. Very often, PhD students find themselves feeling around in the dark.

It is important to remember that academics at all stages of their career experience rejection and criticism. This is not a failure on the part of the researcher, but something to learn from. In a recent article, Brian Martin suggests that we should learn to love rejection. After all, publishing is not a test, it is a process – without critical comments and feedback our work would not be the best that it can be.

It helps though to know exactly what journal editors and peer reviewers are looking for when they review your work. Earlier this year, Charlotte Hamilton and Steve Rolfe took part in the SPA Insight into Publishing Scheme. As part of this, Charlotte and Steve worked with the editors of Social Policy and Society (SP&S) to learn about the requirements of publishing in an established social policy journal. In this post, Charlotte and Steve demystify the peer review process and offer some top tips based on their experience.

Steve Rolfe

“I’ve learned a lot through the Insight into Publishing Scheme, so it’s hard to narrow things down into a few top tips, but I guess I would say have no fear, get your targeting right, and try other routes too.

If you’ve just had an article rejected, or you’re working towards your first submission and feeling discombobulated by the whole edifice of academic publishing, it’s important to realise that the editors and reviewers at the heart of the process are human too. In particular, editors are generally keen to help people who are thinking of submitting to their journal, even if they can’t spare a lot of time. Most journals want to encourage more submissions, so don’t be afraid to approach editors with an outline of your proposed article, to see if it will fit with their journal – this can be particularly important in terms of targeting the right journal. Working with Catherine Bochel and Hugh Bochel, the editors of SP&S, I could feel the frustration when they received a really interesting article that just doesn’t fit with the journal. You can waste a lot of time submitting an article to the wrong places – much better to research your possible journals first and contact the editors for advice before you submit if you’re not sure.

And it’s worth trying out other publication routes too. As part of the Scheme, we were encouraged to write a blog post to disseminate some of the work published in SP&S. I found this was a really helpful way to try out a few of my own ideas too, in a much less formal style and without the barrier of peer review. It may seem like just another thing to do, but throwing together a short piece for a publicly accessible blog site can really help sort out your thinking for a more detailed article later, as well as ticking that all important ‘impact’ box.

Oh, and if the opportunity of the Insight into Publishing Scheme comes up, jump at the chance – it really does give you invaluable insights behind the facade of academic publishing. If you can’t get onto the SP&S scheme, you could even approach another journal that you’re interested in and suggest they do something similar.”

Charlotte Hamilton

“So the pressure is on to write an article, you have a draft thesis chapter, surely you can cut a few words out and submit it to a journal? … Nope, I’m afraid not. My top tip number one is to write for the specific journal. This means choosing an appropriate journal and writing your article to suit their audience. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily quick or easy to do, but it is time well spent. As Steve points out, good articles are rejected if they are not suited to the journal. Think about what the readers of the journal will want to know about your research and keep that at the forefront of your mind when writing.

Helpfully, journals produce guidance on what they want. Top tip number two is to read, and follow, the advice for authors. This is where all the useful and routine information is, such as word counts and formatting. Make sure you pay attention – no one wants to have changes that involve cutting out thousands of words because it was too long in the first place.

Like everything else, writing for journals takes practice. Top tip number three is don’t take rejection personally. I know it’s easy to say and hard advice to follow, especially after all the effort it took to submit it. Keep in mind that editors don’t like rejecting articles either and it’s often not about finding your research boring or hating it (or you). Yes, wallow for a bit, but then speak to other people about it (you’re not the first person to have an article rejected) and start again. You’ll have feedback from reviewers so you can do what they suggest or look into other journals to send a different version to.”

Steve Rolfe’s blog post: “You take the high road, I’ll take the low road, and we’ll see who’s more democratic when we get to the other end…”

Charlotte Hamilton’s blog post: “Are we entering a new phase of Ageism?”

The SPA Insight into Publishing Scheme offers postgraduates a comprehensive introduction to the work and processes involved in the administration and publication of Social Policy and Society. Applications for the next round will open in November. For informal enquiries about the scheme, please contact Daniel Edmiston