The four P's of publishing

One of the first things most PhD students and early career academics want to know is how to get their papers published, preferably in a good journal. Although I don’t pretend to be the world’s greatest expert on this, I have published nearly eighty peer-reviewed articles in just over 20 years, many of which in the top journals in my field.

So here’s my take on what is important to get your article published. For ease of recollection I have taken a leaf from my colleagues in Marketing and have come up with the four P’s of publishing: perform, practice, participate, and persist.

Perform: submit the best paper you can

Obviously the first condition to get your paper published in a good journal is that the paper itself is good. Top journals have very high standards with regard to theory development, research methods, and writing style.

perform

Recognise your own limitations and be prepared to improve them through research training. Don’t think that after your PhD you never need to take another class again. We all need continuous professional development. However, sometimes even professional development can’t help; we all have our strengths and weaknesses. So if theory building isn’t your strength, but doing empirical work is, collaborate with others that have complementary skills.

Finally get to know the journal you are submitting to. You need to ensure that your paper is the best paper it can be for that particular journal. Otherwise you’ll just get a desk-reject. And remember: don’t ever submit to a journal without checking whether it publishes articles on your topic at all.

Practice and see feedback as a gift

Just like any activity you will only get better at publishing with practice. Start playing the publication game when you are a student and try to learn as much as possible from your supervisor. In general, see developmental feedback on your work as a gift that helps you to improve. Too many academics mistake constructive feedback for critique or even discrimination and become very defensive/argumentative.

There are many ways to get feedback on your paper. First of all, ask your colleagues to be a “friendly reviewer” and offer the same service in return. This means they read the paper as a reviewer would, but try to help you as much as possible. Don’t rely on colleagues who just tell you: “great paper, there is a typo on page 5”. Nice though it might be to hear your paper is perfect, this is hardly ever true, it just means your colleagues can’t be bothered to spend time providing proper feedback.

feedback

Sending your paper off to conferences is also a good way to get feedback. Make sure though you submit to the top conferences in your field. With those conferences you can generally count on at least one rigorous review and if you are lucky you get several. Minor conferences often accept papers with no or only minimal reviewing. Don't count too much on getting substantive feedback after your presentation, it's very hit and miss. In most cases you would be lucky to get one sensible comment; that's why good written conference reviews are so important. The presentations are still important from a networking perspective though (see below).

Finally, getting your paper rejected might be reinterpreted as a golden opportunity for useful feedback: you get to know what real reviewers think about the paper. This also means that you should never send out a rejected paper to another journal without making revisions first. Although some feedback might be journal specific, inappropriate, or simply impossible to address, there will always be some comments that are useful.

Participate in academic networks

You don’t have to be the world’s greatest networker or an exuberant extrovert. I am certainly not; quite the reverse in fact. However, do get out there and create your own academic networks. If you don’t know where to start, just volunteer! Volunteers are always needed: volunteer to review for a conference or journals, volunteer to participate in committees, volunteer to organise symposia or workshops.

Networking will certainly not get a mediocre paper accepted, but it may make it easier for a good paper to get a chance. The top journals in my field only accept 5-10% of the papers submitted. So when an editor is in two minds about whether or not to offer the authors a chance to revise & resubmit, it can’t hurt if they have positive associations with your name. After all, it is only human to have more confidence in people you know.

networking

Despite the advent of social media, in my view the best networking is still done face-to-face. So whenever you have a chance, go to conferences. But make sure you prepare. Decide who you want to meet beforehand, don’t just hang out with your friends. Try to meet someone new every time, and ask for introductions if necessary.

Also make sure you prepare your research brief – a short summary about your research – in different versions. Aim to have at least three versions:

  • the 10-second elevator sound bite; it has to be short as you don’t want to be half-way when you reach the right floor.
  • the 1-minute coffee line version for when you are waiting in the same queue at Starbucks; can be expanded to the reception version depending on the length of the queue.
  • the 2-3 minute reception version for when someone is really interested; any versions longer than this are probably only suited for sit-down dinners with like-minded academics.

But most of all: Persist, Persist, Persist

If there is one characteristic that distinguishes successful academics from the less successful ones it is persistence. Don't give up! Remember that rejection is part of an academic’s daily life; if you would give up after a rejection you wouldn’t get very far. So get over rejection quickly and don’t take it personal; rejection might simply mean the journal wasn’t the right outlet for your paper.

dontgiveup

Use whatever is right for you to get the rejection out of your system: wine, chocolate, a night out, moaning to colleagues, writing an angry response (but don’t send it!). Then just wait for a couple of days, read the rejection letter again - it will seem much more reasonable once you have cooled down - and revise the paper as soon as you can for another journal

And don't think senior academics don’t get rejections. My 2002 paper in Strategic Management Journal was rejected at three journals before it was accepted at SMJ, my 2001 Journal of Organizational Behavior paper about referencing errors was desk-rejected (“doesn’t fit the journal’s mission”) at nearly a dozen journals. Over time you will get better at targeting your papers to the right journals; my “hit rate” has certainly improved. However, even in the last 3 years I have still received nearly a dozen rejections.

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