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For The Record - Lessons for Young Scholars Seeking to Publish

by Gary Natriello - 1996

At the recent meetings of the American Educational Research Association I had the opportunity to engage in a number of sessions and conversations regarding the editorial processes of academic journals and the implications of those processes for authors seeking to have their papers published. I learned just how little scholars at the beginning of their careers know about the operations of journals. Moreover, I realized that I myself knew very little about such operations until I became an editor. Because the decisions made by journal editors have serious implications for academic careers, it is important that scholars understand how the editorial process works, the conditions under which editors labor, and the ways in which decisions are made regarding publication. There are no doubt differences among journals and editors in the way decisions regarding publication are made. Nonetheless, drawing on my own experiences as an editor of the American Educational Research Journal (AERJ) and now the Teachers College Record, I can offer some general lessons for authors seeking publication outlets for their work. Because the implications of journal editorial processes for authors really pertain to ways to apply things they have already learned, I have divided these lessons into three groups: lessons learned in kindergarten, lessons learned in the eighth grade, and lessons learned in graduate school.

Lessons Learned in Kindergarten
The lessons learned in kindergarten are all related to social behaviors that will maximize the chances of publication. These lessons are the most basic and perhaps the most important, though they are often not practiced.

Politeness Counts
Most authors interact with editors through written correspondence. Such letters are typically formulaic when a paper is first submitted: "Dear Editor, I have enclosed a paper on X that I hope you will consider for publication in . . ." Later, when an editor and an author exchange correspondence over a particular manuscript and its shortcomings, the exchange becomes more specific. It is extremely important in all of these written communications that authors show simple courtesy to editors. Editors are often in a position of communicating disappointing news. Although some are quite skillful in doing this, there is often no way to talk about weaknesses in someone’s work that is painless for the author. Despite the difficulty of hearing bad news, authors who wish to have their work published would do well to remain civil throughout the exchange. This seems like an obvious lesson, and in my experience the vast majority of authors are quite refined in their dealings with editors. Nevertheless, there is perhaps nothing more likely to scuttle the chances of an article eventually being accepted for publication than an author responding to an editor in a fit of pique. Letters that include such phrases as "the clear ideology espoused by the selected reviewers" and "your knowledge of the area of research in which my paper makes a contribution seems limited" are unlikely to lead to the outcomes desired by authors even if the charges leveled are justified.

Although most authors are content to communicate with editors in writing, there are always a few who take to the phone to state their positions more forcefully to an editor. This is almost always a mistake. Authors troubled by a set of reviews and a letter from an editor will generally be able to present a more thoughtful and dispassionate defense of their work in writing. Even when an author simply wishes to ask a question about a comment made about a paper, it is generally better to write to the editor so that he or she has an opportunity to review the manuscript and the comments before answering the question.

Some authors appear to believe that repeated conversations with editors will enhance the chances of their paper being published. Such authors call to ask if a topic is appropriate, call to see where the paper is in the review process and if it can be hurried along, and then call to discuss the reviewers’ comments and the editor’s letter. The first kind of call is sometimes useful for an author if the question about the appropriateness of an article is not one that the author could answer for himself or herself by simply reading the journal. Unless the kind of paper proposed is clearly out-of-bounds for a journal (e.g., Would you be willing to consider a manuscript that runs about 100 pages?), editors are likely to encourage the submission since it is difficult to know if papers are appropriate without seeing them. Authors could save themselves the phone call and simply send the paper.

The second kind of phone call, checking to see if the review process has been completed or if it can be hurried along, is also usually not worth the author’s time. As long as an author has received confirmation from a journal that a paper has been received, there is little to be gained from calling an editor during the review process. It is surprising to young scholars that the review process takes as long as it does. Many peer-reviewed journals take from three to six months to have a paper reviewed and a decision communicated to the author; most strive to minimize this time. The review process takes time for a number of reasons. First, although papers arrive every day or so at the most successful journals, it may take some time before an initial screening is completed and reviewers are assigned. Second, once reviewers are identified, one or more of them may decline and so new reviewers will have to be identified. Third, even after the paper is sent to reviewers with the instruction to return the review in three or four weeks, reviewers may not get to the paper for a month or so. It may take several reminders from the journal editorial office before a reviewer returns a review. Some reviewers never return reviews. Authors understandably become impatient with the process, but editors know that there is little they can do to speed things up as long as we all rely on the generosity of volunteers to review papers. When an author calls an editor to encourage a speedy review process, there is typically nothing an editor can do that will really move things along. Finding new reviewers may only slow the review process further. In short, making the editor aware of your impatience will do little to hasten the reviews. If the reviews have been completed and are awaiting the editor’s attention, a call is still unlikely to be useful since editors typically work with material in the order it has been received or the reviews have been completed. Of course, if there is some reason to believe that a paper has been misplaced (for example, if the review has taken more than six months) a call may be in order.

As an editor I have always been sensitive to authors’ interests in a timely review of their work. To allow authors to monitor the review process without calling the editorial office, I have instituted a manuscript tracking table on our World Wide Web site. Authors can determine whether the manuscript has cleared the internal review, how long it has been in the hands of reviewers, and if it is at the editor’s desk.

The third type of phone call from an author to an editor, made to discuss the reviewers’ comments and the editor’s letter, is also not generally useful for the author. Even if the author is seeking clarification, a written inquiry will be more helpful and it will leave a written record of any agreements reached between the author and the editor about how to respond to problems in a manuscript.

Finally, it is never useful for an author to enter into heated arguments with editors. I have been involved in such disputes as both an author and an editor, and I can report from firsthand experience that the editor always wins.

Persistence Pays
Nothing stated above under politeness should be interpreted as discouraging authors from being persistent in support of their work. A key factor distinguishing work of equal quality that is published from that which is not is the persistence of the author. At most major journals the vast majority of all papers eventually published have undergone substantial revisions from the first draft submitted. At a recent meeting of journal editors there was wide consensus that only rarely is an article published as first submitted. Of the nearly 600 manuscripts submitted during my three years as an editor of AERJ, only one was published without revisions. It is important that young scholars understand that when an editor asks an author to make substantial revisions to a paper and resubmit it for consideration, the editor usually believes that the paper can be put into publishable form. An analysis of the papers submitted during one year of my tenure as an editor of AERJ revealed that only one-half of those authors asked to revise and resubmit a paper actually submitted a revised paper. Of the papers resubmitted, about one-half were eventually published. Once you have been asked to revise and resubmit a paper by an editor, the odds of eventual publication are substantially greater than they were at the first submission. Young scholars might want to consider this when they are tempted to take such a paper to another journal or stop trying to publish it entirely.

Listening Skills are Important
It is difficult for most of us to receive criticism of our work. Thus, authors should make a special effort to listen to the comments of reviewers and editors when they receive them. It is important to read the comments a number of times to make certain that you understand them fully. The points raised by reviewers may not be difficult to understand, but the review may have been assembled quickly, and it may require careful attention. It is probably a good idea to read the comments at different times after you have accepted the fact that reviewers found problems with the paper.

Authors should also pay serious attention to the editor’s letter. In the letter to the author the editor will often provide additional guidance for the author, sometimes explaining the points raised by the reviewers, sometimes telling the author which criticisms are the most important. The letter from the editor is also important for what it does not say. Since editors depend on the good will of reviewers, they may not always be direct in their rejection of reviewers’ advice. Editors will often indicate which changes suggested by the reviewers are essential in a revision prior to publication; the omission of a point raised by a reviewer may be an editor’s signal that the criticism is not important in a revision.

Learn to Take Criticism Well
Once an author fully understands the criticisms being made of a paper, it is just as important to be open to those criticisms. Since responding to the critical comments of reviewers and editors in revising a paper often involves substantial additional work on the part of authors, there is a temptation to reject the advice as unjustified. However, if authors fully appreciate that a request to revise and resubmit a paper puts them well down the path to possible publication, they should be more willing to invest the additional effort.

Authors always have the option of rejecting some of the advice of editors and reviewers in revising a paper. If you think that a particular request for a revision is ill advised, you should construct a case for rejecting it and make it clear in a letter to the editor why you have not taken it into account in the revision. There can be a number of bases for rejecting a criticism. Some may involve major aspects of a paper such as perspectives or approaches that simply cannot be addressed in the context of a particular study. Others may involve very specific details such as analysis techniques suggested by reviewers that cannot be performed on the available data.

The letter to the editor that accompanies the revised manuscript provides an opportunity for an author to explain fully just how the suggestions growing out of the review process have been taken into account. The more this letter demonstrates a good-faith attempt to address the comments of reviewers and the editor, the more difficult it will be for reviewers and editors to continue to reject the paper. This does not guarantee acceptance for publication, but it substantially enhances the chances of a paper’s being accepted.

These lessons from kindergarten having to do with the nature of the interactions between authors and editors highlight the fact that getting an article published is a social process; authors are seeking broader public acceptance and distribution for their work. The first step in getting such acceptance is interacting in an acceptable way with an editor and reviewers.

Lessons Learned in the Eighth Grade
The first set of lessons pertained to the interactions between authors and editors. The lessons in this second set pertain to the basic mechanics of putting together a paper to submit to a journal. For the most part, these lessons have to do with basic writing skills typically learned by the end of grammar school.

Follow Directions
All journals publish directions for contributors. Such directions include the style requirements of the journal, the number of copies that should be sent, and additional requirements such as the length of abstracts. At the Teachers College Record these requirements may be found at our World Wide Web site. Such requirements are usually clear and relatively easy to follow. Nonetheless, each year we receive a substantial number of submissions that ignore the guidelines. This results in delays as we have to contact authors and ask them to resubmit their materials or submit additional materials in conformity with our specifications. Successful journals receive hundreds of submissions each year; the standard requirements for authors enable journals to process manuscripts more quickly. When authors ignore the directions for submitting papers they are likely to delay the review process substantially.

The Basics Are Important
The basic requirements for any publishable article include the fundamentals of writing. This means that things such as spelling, sentence structure, and paragraph construction require careful attention from authors. Reviewers become irritated when authors submit papers that ignore the basic elements of good writing. Some reviewers take lack of attention to these details as an indication that an author and his or her work are not serious. Careless writing is sometimes the difference between a request to revise and resubmit and a total rejection. Interesting ideas and elegant research designs cannot overcome the disadvantages of poor writing.

Organization is More Important
Editors and reviewers are looking for papers for which the rewards of reading exceed the effort required to make one’s way through the paper. The rewards of reading a paper are connected to the substance of the work and its relevance to important issues and problems. The effort required to negotiate a paper is often connected to the organization of the paper. Poorly organized papers require much more effort from the readers. By the time an author is preparing a paper for publication it is usually too late to enhance the substance of the work. However, authors can always refine the organization of the paper to make it more accessible to reviewers and readers.

Share Your Work
Perhaps the best advice for any author seeking to have a paper published is to share that paper with colleagues prior to sending it to a journal. Some authors share it with colleagues at their home institution; others deliver a version of the paper at a professional conference. The very brave may even share a paper with a spouse or significant other. Showing an early draft to others is the best way to speed up the publication process since such initial readings often identify major problems that escape the notice of authors who have been immersed in the preparation of a manuscript.

These lessons from eighth grade seem rudimentary, and they would be if all papers submitted to journals showed evidence of observing them. Conquering these basic details prior to submitting a paper to a journal will speed the review process and increase the chances of publication.

Lessons Learned in Graduate School
The social skills from kindergarten and the basic writing skills from eighth grade will carry an author a long way down the path to publication. The final steps along that path can be smoothed with some final lessons related to the nature of research-based knowledge learned in graduate school.

Match the Style of Work to the Journal
In graduate school we typically encounter many types of scholarly work, and we learn that different scholars work in different styles. Such stylistic differences ordinarily include differences in the manner in which the results of scholarly work are presented. In seeking an outlet for a paper it is necessary to understand the kind of work that a journal tends to publish. For example, if all of the articles in the last four issues of a journal are based on laboratory experiments, you may want to find another journal for your intensive case study.

Part of understanding the kind of articles likely to be accepted by a particular journal is understanding the characteristic format of an article in the journal. For some journals the format takes a rather traditional cast that includes sections such as "Introduction," "Review of Related Research," "Method," "Results," and "Discussion." For other journals the format is more fluid. Reviewing articles in recent issues of a journal will quickly reveal such format preferences.

In addition to reviewing recent articles that have appeared in a journal, there are several other ways to determine stylistic and substantive preferences. Editors will often include a statement of their interests in the first issue of their term. I included such a statement in the Fall 1995 issue of the Record. Editors may add other statements from time to time. Knowing about the work of the editor and about the work of members of the editorial board will also tell you something about the kind of work that may be welcome at a journal.

Although it may be tempting to challenge a journal editor to publish something that departs from past patterns, it is best to take on such challenges later in one’s career. Unless you enjoy swimming upstream, matching the style of a journal to the style of your work is the best way to see your work published.

Be Conservative; Editors Will Be
Young scholars are often interested in presenting ideas and findings that challenge prevailing views and trends in the field. Indeed, the entry of new generations of scholars into a field is a primary means of overturning established thinking. However, editors and reviewers are to some extent the custodians of a field’s traditions. Since journals are the official records of a field, those involved in reviewing articles tend to be quite skeptical about new claims that represent substantial departures from widely accepted views.

Reviewers Disagree
Most journals seek multiple reviews of the articles submitted. This allows for the possibility that reviewers will disagree about a paper. Such disagreements are actually quite common, particularly in fields where the norms of scholarship are in flux. Authors should be prepared to receive conflicting assessments of their papers and look to the comments of editors to reconcile them. Even in those cases where an editor takes the position of the most critical reviewer, authors should be consoled by the fact that others in the field might attach more value to their work. Although disagreements among reviewers may give an author hope that a paper will find a readership in the field eventually, such disagreements are usually not grounds for challenging an editor’s negative decision. Editors have the final word, and they have information that the author does not have, such as the identity of the reviewers. Editors may accept the criticisms of certain reviewers over others on a particular aspect of a paper because they know the reviewer to be the best qualified to offer the criticism.

Editors Make Mistakes After all is said and done, despite their best efforts, editors do make mistakes in responding to submitted papers. Sometimes papers with serious flaws do get published, and sometimes papers deserving of an audience are rejected. Once an author has made the best case to an editor without success, the most useful course of action is to move on to another journal. Established scholars often have a series of journals in mind for any one paper; if a paper is rejected at their first choice, they simply send the paper to the next one on the list. It is generally better to have a paper published somewhere than to engage in a protracted dispute that is unlikely to lead to publication in a particular journal.

The health of journals and of fields of scholarship depends on the entry of young scholars. I hope that these lessons are useful and encourage such scholars to pursue publication in refereed journals, particularly the Teachers College Record.

- G.N.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 97 Number 4, 1996, p. 509-517
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1415, Date Accessed: 3/14/2022 5:29:26 AM

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About the Author
  • Gary Natriello
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    Gary Natriello is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and the editor of the Teachers College Record.
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