Understanding academic publishing: Tips for emerging scholars
Marie Yeo, Willy A Renandya & Supong Tangkiengsirisin
This viewpoint article addresses the growing interest of early-career academics to publish in mainstream journals. This article begins by discussing the rise of predatory publishing. It then highlights the dangers of publishing in predatory journals and identifies some “red flags” that authors can look out for to avoid such journals. The article then offers hints on how to increase the chances of acceptance in mainstream journals and how to get started as a researcher and author. It is hoped that this article will help early-career academics to “flourish” as they embark on their publication journey.
INTRODUCTION TO ACADEMIC PUBLISHING
The rise of predatory publishers
As Paltridge (2020) notes, the ease of digital publication has led to the rise of predatory journals. Also labelled as “junk journals”, “fake journals”, and “bogus journals”, such journals are primarily profit-driven and engage in activities such as spamming potential authors with invitations to submit articles, accepting articles without subjecting them to rigorous peer-review and charging a fee for publication (Author 2, 2014a, 2014b). Hyland (2016) explains that the massively lucrative nature of academic publishing has spawned the growth of a “parallel trade of unsavoury ‘predatory’ publishers which charge high fees to authors and waive quality control” (p. 151).
Unfortunately, despite repeated warnings of the danger of publishing in predatory journals, some early career academics continue to fall prey to these journals. Some make a genuine mistake of publishing with these journals due perhaps to lack of awareness of these unsavoury practices or their limited publication experience, while others publish their work with the full knowledge that they are publishing in a fake journal. Some in the latter group include doctoral students who need to publish in a journal as part of their graduation requirements or early-career academics who need to publish for contract renewal or promotion. Since publishing in a mainstream journal can take a much longer period of time, and it is much more difficult to get an article accepted, predatory journals, which usually promise a quick turnaround time and a guarantee of publication, offer an attractive option. Unfortunately, young academics who either fall prey to such journals or choose this expedient path may not be aware of the reputational damage and professional consequences of their decision, hence one of the purposes of this article to raise awareness about how to avoid predatory publishers.
Differences between Predatory Publishers and Mainstream Publishers
Mainstream journals refer to those that are indexed in highly-regarded databases such as the World of Science (WoS) or SCOPUS (Chavvaro et al. 2017). Such journals are often the preferred or even mandatory publication venues for academics because of institutional requirements for performance appraisal and promotion (Paltridge, 2020).
The digitization of most aspects of the academic publishing process has made it easier for predatory publishers to present a legitimate front. As Paltridge (2020) notes, most journals use a digital platform to manage the entire publication process, from submission to final publication. By sending invitation emails which seemingly originate from an institutional email address or utilising online manuscript submission systems, a predatory journal may offer an appearance of legitimacy that could easily seduce doctoral students or early-career academics desperate to publish.
Some “red flags” that authors should look out for are shown in the table below. Information about the editorial and review board, review process, turnaround time, rejection rate, scope, payment terms, and solicitation may offer an indication of the journal’s academic standing and legitimacy.
The explosion in academic publishing, fuelled by the unrelenting need and desire of academics to publish, has prompted many of the more responsible publishers, journals, and institutions involved in curating and disseminating academic research to publicize their expectations and requirements transparently to the public. In the same vein, we believe that some of the current practices related to academic publishing are questionable. It is, therefore, important to guide early-career academics by providing information about how to select credible journals and how to increase their chances of publication.
HINTS ON HOW TO INCREASE CHANCES OF PUBLISHING IN MAINSTREAM JOURNALS
Finding out about the journal
The decision about which journal to submit a manuscript to is crucial, yet little is known about how authors make this decision. As Hyland (2016) states, “It is not always clear to novice researchers that they may have to invest almost as much energy into researching the journals in their field as they will to writing the paper itself” (p.198). Considerations such as the prestige of a journal, rejection rates, turnaround time, and word length are often at the forefront in the decision-making process. While the esteem of the journal might be the primary concern for established authors, for novice researchers, it is not always the case that the higher ranked the journal, the better it is as a venue for their submissions.
One of the most common reasons for rejection is that there is a poor fit between a submitted manuscript and the mission, vision, and scope of the journal. What this means is that the topic of the manuscript falls outside these areas. For example, if an author has just completed his or her PhD thesis that involves an in-depth analysis of classroom discourse using a highly complex theoretical construct and sends a manuscript based on the thesis to a practice-oriented journal (e.g., the ELT Journal, OUP), it will receive an immediate rejection. This does not mean that the manuscript is of low quality or poorly written, but it is because the particular journal publishes more practical and classroom-oriented research papers that have more direct and relevant pedagogical implications.
Another common reason for rejection is that a manuscript does not follow the journal’s guidelines. This may seem trivial but a particular journal has its preferred writing guidelines, e.g., length, format, referencing style, and research ethics requirements. Failure to adhere to these guidelines can result in an immediate rejection, which means that the manuscript will be returned without undergoing the usual review process by the journal reviewers. Authors are therefore strongly encouraged to visit the journal’s website to familiarize themselves with its vision, mission, scope and also submission requirements.
Below is some of the most useful advice authors should follow when visiting the journals’ websites:
- Authors should read the stated mission, vision and scope of the journal: They need to find out if the journal publishes research-focused or practice-oriented papers. Careful reading of this information would help them become more familiar with the type of papers that get published in the journal. The information provided here would also give them an idea about the rejection rate of the journal.
- Authors should look at the author guidelines: This section provides a long list of information about how to write a manuscript. Relevant information includes the expected length of the manuscript, number of words in the title, referencing style, in-text citations, where to put tables and appendices, how to anonymize works cited in , the policy about the use of inclusive language, and submission categories (e.g., full-length research article, short review article, or short communication) just to mention a few. Many journals even provide sample articles or free sample issues so that authors can look at models to guide them when they write.
- Authors should pay attention to the submission guidelines: This section provides information about how manuscripts are to be submitted. Some journals accept email submission of a manuscript but most mainstream journals (e.g., RELC Journal, System, TESOL Journal) require online submission via a journal management system such as ScholarOne or Editorial Manager. These are web-based journal submission platforms that track the status of submissions, i.e., under review, rejected, accepted with major or minor revisions, first revision, second revision, accepted.
As well as investing time in researching and writing about the topic, authors need to familiarize themselves with journals “to ensure that their paper reaches the right audience in the right way” (Hyland, 2020: 198). By doing this, they can at least increase their chances of at least getting past the first hurdle in the review process.
Understanding the review process
Despite growing concerns about the value and quality of peer reviewing, the Committee for Publishing Ethics or COPE underscores the pivotal part it plays in ensuring the integrity of scholarly publishing (see COPE guidelines) . Recognised as the “cornerstone of accreditation” in academic publishing (Hyland, 2020:161), peer review is accepted to make a positive impact on the quality of publication (Ware, 2011). The peer review process described by Elsevier is typical of the process adopted by most mainstream academic journals. A common practice among many Q1 journals in the field of Language and Linguistics is that of “double blind review”, where a manuscript is reviewed by at least two reviewers who do not know the identity of the author (“blind”). This practice is perceived to be of greater objectivity and fairness.
The review process used by mainstream journals is extremely rigorous, accounting for the turnaround time in decision-making compared to that of bogus journals. First, submissions are typically screened by an administrative assistant whose task it is to check that the submission meets the journal and author guidelines. Submissions that are too long, not properly anonymized, or fail to meet the referencing and formatting guidelines may be returned to the author. Also, if the manuscript registers a very high similarity score on automated plagiarism checking software, they tend to be immediately “unsubmitted”, and authors will usually be told what the problem is.
Manuscripts that meet this initial stage of screening will then go to the desk of an editor, who will assess their overall fit and general academic quality. An editor may do a “desk reject” at this point. This initial decision is normally made within a week. If the manuscript is assessed to be of interest to the journal, the editor will assign it to several peer reviewers. Depending on the journal’s policy, the manuscript may be subject to single-, double or even triple-blind peer review.
Peer reviewers are typically asked to complete the review within a specific amount of time, usually 30 days. After the reviews are sent back to the assigning editor, he or she uses the information in the reviews to reach a decision about whether to reject the manuscript outright, ask for major or minor revisions, or accept the manuscript in its current form. Typically, a manuscript goes through several rounds of revision before being accepted for publication. Once it is accepted for publication, it then goes into the production process, which may include typesetting, copyediting, and final proofreading by the author before being published, first, online, and later in a print issue.
While the process may seem straightforward, in practice, journal editors often have difficulty getting peer reviewers for articles Peer reviewers are typically fellow researchers and writers who are identified by the editor to have the necessary background and expertise to evaluate the quality of the manuscript and to make a recommendation about its suitability for publication. Increasingly, however, the burgeoning number of journals has led to more peer reviewers being needed and, in some cases, editors relying on reviewers who are less qualified or even getting students to do peer reviews (Hyland 2016). Prospective authors can look at a journal’s list of reviewers to have confidence about the value of the peer review process.
Having a good understanding of the peer review process can help authors to navigate the process more successfully. For example, to avoid having a manuscript “unsubmitted” within days of submission, an author needs to adhere strictly to the journal’s guidelines. There is little point in submitting a manuscript that exceeds the stipulated word count or is incorrectly formatted on the off-chance that it will get through the initial stages of submission.
In addition, an author who is aware of the role of the reviewers (or, better still, have had the experience of being a reviewer) will realise that when reviewers ask for revisions, the author should try to address the reviewers’ concerns or, at the very least, explain politely and clearly why he or she may not agree with the reviewers’ point of view, hence justifying the decision not to make the requested revision.
When submitting a revision, it is also very helpful for the author to include an explanation note to each reviewer (without revealing the author’s identity) listing the reviewer’s comments and explaining how he or she has addressed them, as this will make it easier for the reviewers to check and approve the revision. Finally, authors need to be appreciative of the fact that most peer reviewers are busy academics themselves with heavy teaching and research obligations. Most volunteer their time and services as peer reviewers without receiving any payment or even recognition, so it is necessary for authors to be patient, especially if they hope to receive a useful and detailed review.
Although the peer review process may seem daunting, early-career researchers are, in fact, the greatest beneficiaries of the peer review process as it offers them valuable feedback to improve the quality of their submissions and initiates them into the processes and practices associated with academic publishing.
As discussed above, there are steps that early career researchers can take to increase the chances of getting their manuscripts accepted to mainstream journals. However, before even reaching that stage, all authors – novice and experienced alike – must grapple with the demands of research and writing amidst many other more pressing responsibilities, such as teaching and administration. In the following section is some advice on how to get started in academic publishing.
Getting started in academic publishing
To ensure the right fit and to be aware of the reviewing process, early-career researchers may consider the following advice on journal selection and author practices:
- Aim low. Early-career researchers should find good journals with lower rejection rates. Once they have had successful experiences with these journals, they can then send their manuscripts to higher profile, higher impact journals. Moorhouse (2020 June 6 personal communication) shares his experiences of how he got started in publishing: “I really learned (and I’m continuing to learn) to write by starting small and writing short articles, experiencing the reviewer process, and getting the sense of success when the articles are published”.
- Go for generalist journals first. These are journals that publish a wider range of topics involving applied linguistics or TESOL. The ELT Journal (OUP), for example, accepts submissions on practically any topic related to second or foreign language teaching. Once early-career researchers have developed a certain level of expertise in a topic area, they can consider sending their manuscripts to a niche journal that publishes a specific topic area within ELT Examples of such journals are Journal of Writing Response and Journal of Pragmatics. Other things being equal, niche journals have more stringent acceptance criteria because the reviewers tend to have highly specialized knowledge and expect submissions to meet their standards.
- Go for a journal that is the best fit for the manuscript. If the manuscript is pedagogical, then the author should find a practice-oriented journal (e.g., English Teaching Forum); if it is an academic paper, the author should consider a more research-oriented journal (e.g., Language Learning or System).
- Avoid publishing in predatory journals. Some of the most obvious characteristics of these journals have been discussed earlier. Early-career researchers could also ask their colleagues or their professional community for more advice.
- Consider publishing in special issues. Special issues attract a smaller number of submissions, which may increase the acceptance rate of your submission.
- Consider publishing in newer journals. Such journals tend to be more lenient in their review process compared to the more established ones. As newer journals receive fewer submissions, a manuscript tends to compete with a smaller number of submissions.
- Consider writing shorter papers. Shorter papers are less challenging to write and publish. Mainstream journals, such as the RELC Journal, accept shorter article types, e.g., Review articles (3,000 words), Innovations in Practice reports (3,000 words), and book or technology reviews (1,000 words). The highly-prestigious Journal of Second Language Writing accepts submissions of Short Communication (3,500 – 4,500 words) and to its Forum section (2,500 – 3,500 words).
- Be aware of important issues regarding researching and publishing. Early-career researchers should ensure they conduct research responsibly and ethically and write their papers without intentional or accidental plagiarism (Renck Jalongo and Saracho, 2016). They should also avoid ubmitting their manuscripts to two or more journals simultaneously. If the journals become aware of this practice, they will withdraw the published articles or immediately reject the manuscripts.
- Consider co-authoring with a more experienced author. Author 1 and Lewis (2019) found that besides pragmatic academic benefits that can be derived from co-authoring, the most important of which is arguably having an extrinsic source of motivation to complete the task, co-authors also derive significant affective gains such as opportunities to mentor and be mentored.
- Be mentally ready for rejections. While rejection is an unpleasant experience, authors need to take it in stride and learn from it. Good journals usually give objective and detailed comments for rejection. Authors can use these as a basis for improving on the quality of their submission. Tips such as having a “cooling off” period (Goh, 2020) between receiving the decision and reading the comments are practical and may protect the emotional and psychological needs of authors.
While many doctoral students and early-career researchers regard publishing with some amount of dread, likely imprinted upon them by the “publish or perish” aphorism, it is perhaps healthier to re-envision their perceptions with these three perspectives.
First, instead of viewing rejection as something to be avoided at all cost, which may even prevent novice authors from starting to write and taking the risk of submitting an article to a journal, as an early-career scholar stated: “Rejection is a like a good friend’ (Mongkolhutti, 2020). Hyland (2016) notes that “most papers eventually find a home in a journal somewhere” and describes peer review as a “mechanism for deciding where a paper is published rather than whether it is published” (p. 164). Therefore, the reviewers’ comments in a rejection can be used to improve the manuscript so that it can be resubmitted and eventually accepted elsewhere.
Secondly, it may be useful to view publishing as “a part of the game, not the end of the game”. Mongkolhutti (2020) appropriately suggests that in order to be successful, early-career researchers need to know the rules of the game, play by these rules, and practise the skills of researching and writing regularly without giving up.
Finally, while the saying “publish or perish” has become synonymous with the pressure of academic life, it is not healthy for researchers in our field and the academic arena in general to impose and perpetuate this attitude. Early-career academics, in particular, should be entering the field with positivity and optimism. Instead of “publish or perish”, individuals, institutions, journals, and publishers should work together to promote an attitude of “publish and flourish” (Goh 2020).
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