Why did my paper get rejected despite all the hard work I put into the research? Most researchers ask this question at some point, especially in the early career stage. In this post, I highlight six practical tips to make your research paper stand out and scale through the publication process.
From my experience as a reviewer and editorial board member for a number of journals, I have learnt that the quality of results presented in a research article is only half the battle of getting it published; presentation and packaging make up the other half. This is nicely summarised in a quote that I picked up during my PhD days (I cannot remember now who first said it): have something to say, say it and stop once it is said. Each element of this three-part maxim holds two important tips that I present below.
A. Have something to say
- Do good research
The desire to publish should be preceded by a good research project. Most researchers start out their career by publishing from their thesis before going on to a level where they can develop independent or collaborative research projects. One way or another, a publication needs to be based on good research questions or objectives, sound methods and non-trivial results. As Dr Amos Fatokun pointed out in a recent webinar (skip to 19:05), good writing cannot help bad science.
- Tell a coherent story
Every paper must show a coherent flow of thought. The introduction, literature review, results and conclusions must all link to the objectives. If one or more of these elements do not align, the paper becomes confusing. If a research question is raised, it must be answered before the end of the paper. If an objective is stated, there must be a clear demonstration of how it has been achieved. If one or more hypotheses are stated, there must be results that show whether these are supported. One of the best ways to achieve coherence and clarity is by asking peers for critical feedback. My personal rule of thumb is: if a colleague or friend has an issue with a point in my paper, then an editor or reviewer could also have an issue. While I could personally explain to my colleague or friend, I do not have that opportunity with editors and reviewers so I had better get it right the first time.
B. Say it
- Make a good impression
These days, many journals provide templates that help authors reduce the burden of formatting – please use one wherever available. However, templates will only give a good visual impression; the researcher needs to consciously craft the impression that they want a reader to get from their paper. In this regard, the most important elements are title, abstract, keywords, contribution to knowledge and conclusions. There seems to be a consensus on the power of well-written titles, abstracts and conclusions. It will be both ignorant and arrogant to ignore the wisdom of the community. Keywords play an important role in the selection of reviewers. An editor may inadvertently allocate a paper to the ‘wrong’ reviewer if the keywords are sloppy. Moreover, papers that do not clearly show a contribution to existing knowledge will almost always be rejected. The contribution to knowledge should appear in both the introduction and in the conclusion. Additionally, the conclusion must show the ‘so-what’ of the paper, that is, what policy, practical and research implications can be drawn from the paper.
- Learn to write well
As I already hinted above, good writing cannot save bad science. However, bad writing can ruin good science. What is the point of several months or years of hard work doing research if the findings cannot be understood by anyone else? A research paper is not the place to show off language prowess; simplicity is always better than ornateness. The best way to learn to write well in any discipline is to read the published work of some of the most respected writers in that discipline.
C. Stop once it is said
- Resist the urge to overload
Every paper must come out as a standalone piece. In other words, a reader should not need to read another paper before understanding the current one. However, the urge to include everything in a single paper must be firmly resisted. Sometimes, a researcher becomes emotionally attached to a passage, figure, table or result because it took a long time to produce or because it looks attractive. This is not enough reason to include it in a paper. If it does not contribute to the story of the paper, it does not have a place in the paper.
- Avoid routinised, uncritical referencing and literature review
Many times in the course of writing a paper, a researcher stumbles on some additional relevant material. The temptation is typically strong to include such material. However, if it is not saying anything additional to or different from already cited sources, it does not need to be included. If it says something similar to an already cited source but is more recent, then swapping it in is better. This way, the literature review and references will be kept at the minimum functional level. I tend to think that a paper—which is not itself a review—is poor in other substantive sections if its literature review section is too long. For me, ‘too long’ is when the review section is longer than half of the introduction, method, results/discussion and conclusion combined. If in doubt, ask a friend, colleague, supervisor or someone else who should know.
To summarise, my six tips on getting published are not exhaustive and they may be idiosyncratic as they are based on my own experience in my disciplinary area. Nonetheless, I believe that they provide a practical framework especially for early career researchers. For further reading, I recommend the Academic publishing resources section of Prof. Anne-Wil Harzing’s website and Dr Bert Blocken’s article on some pitfalls to avoid. Both resources give good insight on avoiding plagiarism.
Dr Abiodun Egbetokun has a PhD in Economics and earlier degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Technology Management. He is an Assistant Director of Research in the Science Policy and Innovation Studies Department at the National Centre for Technology Management in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. His articles have appeared in such journals as Technovation and Technological Forecasting and Social Change.