Submitting an article to a journal: helpful hints

By Konstantin Sheiko, PhD University of Wollongong in History and International Relations, AWC consultant

The amount of global data increases threefold annually. Academic publications are an integral part of this “data accumulation snowball” effect: around two million articles get published every year. Currently, China and the US are the leading centers of the world’s academic publication activity.

From www.scimagojr.com

Fun fact: China has recorded an astounding 3,000% increase in its annual volume of academic output since the start of the 21th century!

At some point in the near future an exponential increase in the overall volume of published data worldwide can be anticipated when South and Central Americas and Africa join the “publish or perish” academic race.

This blog deals with the range of vagaries that beset the experienced and novice academics alike when they attempt to publish articles that fall under a general definition of “original research,” or academic pieces consisting of full introduction, methods, results, and discussion sections. As a rule, we strive to publish our research in the best and most reputable journals in our respective disciplines. The “Publish or Perish” principle has become a double edge sword, whereby we witness a remarkable increase in the number of academic publications across the world alongside with the deteriorating quality of research, appearance of a new phenomenon of “predatory journals,” and erosion of academic review quality. This approach puts an additional pressure not only on academics in terms of their research output quantity and quality, but also on journal editorial boards and reviewers who are often overwhelmed with a torrent of the incoming data.

Once the article is submitted for review, the journal’s editors and reviewers scrutinize its academic content and the style of writing. Editors can accept, accept with revisions, or reject a manuscript on the reviewers’ recommendation. A reviewer carefully studies an article applying a generic set of academic standards including, but not limited to originality of the research conducted, relationship to academic literature, methodology, results, further implications for research, practice and/or society, and quality of communication/clarity of expression.

Prominent journals often feature “technical editors” who can outright reject a manuscript (the so-called “desk rejections”). These editors are well-trained and experienced professionals who literally storm through a submitted paper. They briefly check the article’s abstract, introduction, and conclusion plus the list of references — the whole process might take about ten minutes only!

Note: Statistically, high-impact journals accept less than 10 % of the articles submitted. One paper in five does not follow the style and format requirements of the target journal. Between 30% and 50% of articles submitted to journals are rejected before they reach the peer-review stage.

By Ketut Subiyanto: Pexels
  • Flawed/shallow methodology section: the methods are not adequately described, i.e. too little information about methods is given, or the methodology includes serious flaws.
  • The manuscript does not fall within the aims, scope, and/or language of the journal (manuscript is sent to the wrong journal).
  • The manuscript does not have a reasonable chance of being able to satisfy the target journal’s publishing expectations, or it appeals to a narrow segment of the journal’s audience.
  • The research topic is of little significance.
  • The title and/or abstract must be altered.
  • Ethical issues: plagiarism, prior publication of the research data or a part of it.
  • The research does not provide sufficient background and include all relevant references.
  • Content does not provide new information, or the topic is too narrow and reports a single, unique experience. The results are not clearly presented, or the manuscript does not make a point.
  • The research design is not appropriate, i.e. important contributions to the topic are missing or out-of-date references are used. Conversely, the author has relied too heavily on the literature.
  • The conclusions are not supported by the results if the research objective is not in line with the aims and scope of the target journal.
  • The standard of writing is too low (a paper is rejected because of poor writing).

Note: it is a myth that articles are mainly rejected because of the poor expression/ language. Aspiring authors should conduct their research ethically and professionally, following the rules of the game and excelling at implementing article genre features and journal requirements.

  • Literature Review: making too short or too long, including irrelevant/outdated sources or not enough primary sources.
  • Originality of the research: failing to make a sufficient contribution to the field of study.
  • Clarity of expression: failing to elucidate the essence of research/argument.
  • Method and/or Methodology: missing links between theory and hypotheses.
  • Future implications: failing to demonstrate the relevance of your research; make sure it has “legs” and can “walk,” i.e. clearly spell out implications for further research and studies.
  • Conflating the article’s abstract with introduction: it is expressly forbidden to copy/paste introduction as your abstract. Abstract is the essence of your entire argument, and introduction sets up a story/relevant background for a research piece.
  • Heavy reliance on the Russian academic expertise at the expense of international scholarship.

Our very own “domestic” HSE articles’ rejection sample kindly provided to us by our colleagues supports these conclusions. Out of twenty-five rejected articles:

  • one paper failed as a result of the “desk rejection”
  • two academics sent their articles to “wrong” journals
  • seven had insufficient/low quality literature reviews
  • seven lacked clarity of expression aspect
  • eight were rejected on the method and/or methodology grounds.

Bear in mind that these are common mistakes for researchers worldwide. For example, results of content analysis of 373 referees’ reports of manuscripts submitted to 35 hospitality and tourism journals identified the following most common areas where referees found fault with manuscripts: methodology (74% of papers), failure to elucidate significance effectively (60%), poor writing style (58%), and a weak literature review (50%). The study concluded that communication problems were more common than technical flaws.

Note: Two problems that are especially unfortunate for authors and potential readers alike are failing to revise and resubmit a manuscript after the initial peer review and never preparing a full manuscript in the first place, after presentation of the work in an abstract form.

Taking into account the complex nature of academic publishing, we recommend several simple techniques that might be helpful to any aspiring academic writer:

  • Conducting a thorough search in your field looking for similar research/publications in your discipline/field of study. We want to avoid repetition at all costs since the purpose of any research is adding to the existing body of knowledge, not only replicating it.
  • Meticulously following the journal requirements and specifications.
  • Conducting multiple rounds of critical re-reading, editing, and proofreading. We all have our individual styles/approaches to academic writing; however, as a rule, one round of proofreading won’t suffice.
  • Sharing a manuscript with colleagues for feedback.
  • Writing a well-worded and effective cover letter to editors, stating why your research fits the journal and its readership.
  • Conducting separate research to find the “right” journal for you. One way of doing it is analyzing from which journal you have most of the references.

Choosing the right journal and meticulously following their routine might help to avoid the editors’/reviewers’ rejection. Elsevier provides an innovative Journal Finder search facility on its website. Authors enter the article title, a brief abstract and the field of research to get a list of the most appropriate journals for their article. Besides, an author may want to check a list of the following criteria:

  • knowing the type of the research you would like to publish
  • checking the references to find a journal of interest
  • investigating the journal’s aims and scope
  • reading the journal’s Guide for Authors
  • checking the journal’s performance for review and publication timelines
  • submitting your paper to only one journal at a time.
  • Crafting a title: the title should summarize the main theme of the article and reflect your contribution to the theory. Note that brevity is important: long, complex titles usually suit monographs and book chapters, not a research article.
  • The article’s abstract reflects the key problem and theory, method used, data set, key findings, limitations, and implications for theory and practice. As a rule, the abstract ranges from 150 to 250 words maximum: it must be concise in form and voluminous in its meaning, encompassing the aim and scope of the study. Usually, it follows the structure of your article.
  • Attaching a cover letter, one needs to outline the main theme of the paper, demonstrate its novelty and justify the relevance of the manuscript to the target journal. Do not write more than half a page, and avoid copying and pasting the article’s abstract for it summarizes the essence of your argument and its contribution to the discipline.

Researching, writing, and then submitting an article is a long and arduous process. We have selected and presented to you a range of simple but effective techniques and strategies that might be helpful when preparing a manuscript for submission. Good luck!

The Academic Writing Center at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, provides writing support to everyone involved in research.

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