How NOT to get published in an academic journal

Some things to consider when attempting to publish your research

I’ve been a peer reviewer for articles submitted to the Journal of EAP (JEAP) for a number of years now and in the past year, I’ve collaborated with Sarah Brewer, current Chair of BALEAP, as guest editor of a special issue to celebrate 50 years of BALEAP and 21 years of JEAP. Reviewing articles can be frustrating work because authors who submit them don’t seem to understand how to tailor their submission to the requirements of the journal editors and its readers. They write for themselves and not for an academic audience. Below I’ll list some of the issues I’ve had with article submissions:

‘I’ll just submit and get some feedback’ – this is extremely unkind to journal reviewers who do their work voluntarily and usually have to fit reviewing around their busy day jobs. JEAP wants to encourage new researchers to publish, and has established a Researching EAP Practice strand as a stepping stone to more rigorous studies with larger datasets. However, submitting a draft you think isn’t publishable just to get feedback is impolite. The journal reviewer is not like a supervisor. Their feedback is intended to bring your work to publishable standard but they have to see that the potential already exists in your draft.   

Photo by Eva Darron on Unsplash

‘My supervisor wants me to publish my PhD research in an academic journal’ – this leads to a confusion of genres. My friend and co-author Jenifer Spencer has a nice metaphor for the difference between PhD theses and academic articles. Both are like a journey but a PhD is a train journey: plenty of time to look out the window and take in different aspects of the view along the way. Academic articles are like plane journeys, focused on the destination. The researcher has to select only the most innovative findings that make a contribution to an ongoing research conversation in the journal. There is not space in an article to include detailed literature reviews or methodology sections or all the results found in a PhD thesis. Instead the purpose of these sections is to provide evidence that there is a gap in the research field and that the study has been carried out rigorously.

Following on from this lack of understanding of the requirements of the article research genre, I’ve reviewed submissions that the author labels as ‘essay’, essentially a review of literature relating to a topic. This is not a genre that you would find in a research journal and perhaps it is worth exploring why. An essay (derived from essai in French) is a test, a learning genre. Essays are set to enable students to show what they know about particular aspects of an academic subject. The questions posed are convergent as there is an expected yes/no answer. The answer may lie along a scale, to what extent yes/no, but it comes to a closed conclusion. Literature reviews in research articles in contrast are divergent. They establish what is not yet known, which the researcher hopes to explore. The conclusion will not be closed but open, providing innovative insights that lead to the need for further research. The conclusion to an essay gives the author’s viewpoint on a closed question. The conclusion to a research article gives the authors claim to new knowledge, which moves understanding forward. It is true that many research journals publish reviews of the literature that can look like essays. However, these are usually commissioned from active and established members of the research community, not new authors, and they are also divergent, opening up avenues for further research.

As well as a lack of understanding of the appropriate research genres, new researchers sometimes fail to establish a conversation with the journal they are submitting to. They may have been turned down by their original choice of journal and simply submit their article unchanged to another one. If this practice were employed in applying for a job, it would mean submitting a generic CV without tailoring it to the particular position you are targeting, usually resulting in a failure to get the job. The editors want to see authors contributing to a research conversation in their journal so it is important to analyze what has already been published in the journal in your area and show how your research keeps that conversation going.

Finally, new authors often treat their audience as a teacher or supervisor because that is who they are used to writing for. They fail to understand that JEAP readers are critical readers with no time to waste on papers that don’t deliver innovative contributions. I wrote an earlier post about reading academic articles efficiently and new authors should keep in mind this efficient reader when they write. Critical readers need a review of ALL the literature to be cited in a paper at the beginning. They do not want to see new literature cited in a discussion. These readers want the author to build a picture of the current research field so they can decide if they agree with this. They will then use this argument to challenge the author’s subsequent claims. The literature review and discussion sections of an article should be capable of being read together – without the methods and results – to see if the author has established a coherent claim. In summary:

  • Be clear about the research orientation and requirements of the journal you’re targeting
  • Try to find research conversations within the journal that you can join
  • Locate your study within the relevant literature so your reader can recognize the conversation you want to join
  • Create an argument for a critical reader to justify doing the research and doing it in a particular way
  • Define the concepts underpinning the research so the reader can check if they agree with your definitions
  • Be clear about the contribution you can make so you don’t waste the reader’s time

I would also strongly recommend Luker (2010), which I found extremely helpful when setting out on my own research journey.

References

Luker, Kristin (2010) Salsa Dancing Into the Social Sciences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

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