Getting published during your PhD and throughout your research career is the gold standard and the metric used to measure your ability as an academic. Getting published is not only a testament to your work, but also your competency to carry out and conduct good research and can be a great transferable skill. Often PhD students fail to get published, or at best achieve one publication. Typically, but not always, this is due to poor time management and not having the time to formulate and submit a paper.
Of course, depending on the nature of your PhD and the field in which you study publication ‘norms’ and best practices will vary. If, for instance, your PhD data comes from a large randomised controlled trial that belongs to a bigger project then there may be legal or logistical implications that prevent you from publishing. Similarly, if your PhD field is highly saturated, it can make publishing more competitive – meaning the work you submit needs to be at a higher standard than most. This all varies but on the most part publishing as part of your PhD should be a key goal.
First and foremost, it’s really important to understand that the work you’re conducting can be published. The simple fact that you’re doing a PhD means that your research field is niche enough to be considered and supported by your current university. Sometimes we worry that our work isn’t meaningful or impactful enough, but it’s important to understand that research does not work on the premise of trying to find ‘ground breaking’ results every time. Research is constructed in a way that findings should seek to move our understanding slightly forward or cement and consolidate things we already know.
The academic community and our understanding of things as a society relies on published evidence – even if it’s not ‘exciting’ or ‘not significant’. It would be totally illogical to read one published paper and then suddenly reform everything we know about a subject. Reform and changes come from an accumulation of the same evidence over time. Therefore, your PhD is similar, it doesn’t have to be revolutionary, it just needs to add a drop to the pool of knowledge (which it will). By getting your work published, you are adding to the evidence pool.
Step one: Write it up.
The first and most important step to take when getting your work published is to write it up. This should be done throughout your PhD – even if in the long run you don’t formally submit the publication, it saves you time at the end when you need to write your thesis. To be able to write, it helps to compartmentalise your PhD into smaller projects – as you would at a conference. You wouldn’t present your entire PhD at a conference, nor should you do the same when trying to get a paper published. More often than not, you discuss your PhD research in chunks or segments, where you conduct several mini studies that link to one another. Here, your job is to write a paper about one of the mini studies within your PhD.
This gives you a coherent narrative and story for your findings. Try not to stress to much about the formatting or style, just get it down on paper. Even if your findings aren’t significant, you want to frame them in a way that adds value to the research community. Knowing what doesn’t work or what isn’t important is equally valuable as knowing what is. After having a first draft, this is where you can spend that laborious process of getting feedback from your supervisors. It’s slow, it’s frustrating, but do not underestimate this process. It can be really beneficial to your chances of getting published as you can draw on their experience. Just don’t underestimate how long this can take – especially if your supervisor is a bit elusive. Use this as further justification to start writing sooner rather than later.
Step two: Choose a journal.
After you’ve got your first draft complete, and you’ve incorporated the feedback from your supervisors, you need to think about the journal you want to get published in. The majority of PhD students are familiar with what an impact factor is. If not, an impact factor is simply a weighted score for every journal (not paper). The score is calculated from the number of times that journal is cited. The higher the impact factor, the more reputable and therefore competitive that journal will be. If your findings are unfortunately non-significant or not very exciting, you may have to opt for a lower impact factor – but you can still get published.
Furthermore, if your work is ultra-niche you may be better off publishing in a niche journal that caters towards a specific audience (therefore having a lower impact factor) as opposed to a journal that is broad and all encompassing. Every field also has a slightly different value for what a ‘good’ impact factor is. So have a look and consider what this could be. In conjunction with a good impact factor, you want to select a journal that meets the scope of your publication. Essentially you want to submit your paper to a journal that publishes other papers on the same or similar topic. A good way to find these journals is to look through the papers you often read to inform your own PhD. If a common journal crops up in your reading material, it’s likely to be interested in your work. It also means that you’ll be speaking to the correct audience if your work is published. A good rule of thumb for picking a journal based on impact factor is to start slightly high and then work your way down if it gets rejected (more on this later).
Other factors that influence your journal choice when trying to get published is time, cost, and access. As outlined in a previous post, writing during your PhD can save you time when it comes to writing your thesis. Depending on where you are during your PhD, you might be aiming to have a paper published in time for your viva/defence. If you’re in your first year, you may not be in much of a rush to get published. If however, you’re in your final year it might make more sense to select a journal that has a quicker turnaround time – irrespective of impact factor. Similarly, if you have several studies that occur in a sequential order, you might want to get one published first so you can cite and refer to it in your next publication. Either way, time is important.
The next point to think about when trying to choose a journal to get published in is the cost. Different journals have different prices to get their work published, more competitive journals are able to charge more as they receive more submissions. Again, depending on your field this can vary quite drastically, but typically publication fee’s (known as article processing charge or APC) are above £1,000 / $1,000 / €1,000. How your PhD is structured will affect how you access funds for APCs – if you’re self-funded you might need to find a way to get sponsored or find financial support within your university. If you’re funded (i.e. with a scholarship) you may be allocated a ‘pot’ of research funds you could use. Either way, you’ll want to consider the financial cost associated with getting published and where you will find this money from.
The last point for choosing a journal is the type of access it offers. This is whether you want your publication to be open access or not. Open access means anyone in the world can read and ‘access’ your work. If not, they must be subscribed to that journal to be able to read it. Currently a lot of journals are moving towards hybrid approaches, where they might be subscription based but also support open access. Either way, it’s something to consider as this has a direct impact on cost and the journal you choose. Furthermore, if you’re funded you may be required to publish you work in an open-access journal – so be sure to check. Note: sometimes funded PhD’s get offered discounts on APCs.
Step three: Format your paper.
After choosing a journal, or maybe whilst you’re choosing, you’ll want to look at the journal formatting. This may include the word limit for a publication, the referencing style, how an abstract is put together, and how they want figures/appendices/tables formatted. Sometimes it’s recommended to look at this first before writing as it allows you to write to fit the journal. Personally, I don’t advocate this.
It’s substantially easier to just write it, and then format it after. It also means you have a ‘master draft’ version which you can use as a template for your thesis but also as a starting point if you get rejected by journal 1 and then decide to submit to a different one. There’s nothing worse than writing your paper in a particular style and structure for one specific journal, only for it to be rejected. This can be a laborious process, but it can really aid your submission, it’s a lot easier for the journal to be accepted by the editor or passed to peer-review if it already conforms to their style.
Step four: Submit the dam thing.
After you’ve done all this, bite the bullet and just submit! Sometimes you can get analysis paralysis, getting crippled by your perfectionism, or imposter syndrome. Once you’ve spent so long looking at it, your supervisors are happy with it, just submit it, don’t over think it.
Step five: Reply to reviewers.
Now you’ve made it this far, all you have to do is wait for a response. This can take anywhere from 3 months to 9 months, or even longer in some cases. Once you hear back you usually have three type of responses:
- It’s not suitable or appropriate and therefore a straight up rejection
- They like it, but it needs some amendments to be considered – rejection or moved to a sister journal
- They like it, it’s now sent to peer-review.
If your paper is rejected without feedback (response 1), try not to take it too personally – it’s more likely to do with the scope of the journal. At this point, I wouldn’t encourage you to change much – just go back to step two and choose a different journal (maybe with a lower impact factor). If your paper has positive feedback but needs some amendments, you can do one of two things. Either, do as previously mentioned – go to step two and pick a different journal (with the same or lower impact factor) without making changes. Alternatively, incorporate the amendments and submit it to a BETTER journal (as now your paper is better!) or re-submit to the same paper – straight forward. If your paper is accepted for peer review, pat yourself on the back.
Once submitted and you’ve made it to peer-review be prepared for a rejection. Again, at this point, you might have some meaningful feedback where you can follow the steps outlined above. If you have comments from peer-review, be ready for the wind to be knocked out of you whilst they destroy your self-esteem (peer-review can be brutal). Once you’ve read through the soul-destroying comments take the day off. Just kidding (sort of), but I always find it best to look through the comments, digest them, and re-visit them on a different day. At this stage, to get your paper published, all you need to do is make the reviewers happy.
You do not have to be objectively correct or factually right, you just need to do what they say. They hold all the power, if you please them, you’re published. It’s a game, and you just have to do as your told – even if they’re asking for something a bit odd. If you strongly disagree, or your reviewers disagree with one another, provide a long-winded explanation as to why you disagree and why you’re doing what you’re doing. This can help get the editor on your side if only one of the reviewers are picky/still unhappy. But ultimately, do everything you can to please them.
Every journal has some particular format on how to respond to reviewers, whether you upload track changes, or reply in a specific box through a web-portal, so be sure to check it out. However, for every publication I’ve done one simple thing – provide a response letter. This is accessible for download at the end of this blog post. But it basically includes a formal response to the reviewers and editor. After this response, just copy and paste every single comment in your paper and address them in a one-by-one format. Here, your goal is to make it easy as possible for a reviewer to see that you have addressed their concerns. A lot of reviewers don’t have the time to re-read your paper and scroll through your changes – so consolidate them in one place!
Step six: Celebrate!
If all goes well, they’ll either give a few more comments and pass you to a second round of -peer-review – so just repeat step four. If not, they’ll accept it and you should hear back from the editor shortly – and then they can start processing the APC charge. Just be sure to do this in a timely fashion because, although unlikely, they can still revoke your submission. So again, keep the editor pleased.
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