Having no publications to my name and only nebulous drafts of several (hopefully) publishable papers, I am not an expert on how to get published. This is why I attended a student workshop on this very topic at the 2018 ASLO summer meeting in Victoria, BC. In this workshop a panel of editors in chief of several L&O publications shared what they look for in a well-crafted scientific article.
Before you start writing
The first piece of advice from the experts was consulting two publications – “Writing Science” by Joshua Schimel and “The Science of Scientific Writing” by George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan.
The panel recommended that authorship be discussed early and often between you and your colleagues. Navigating the question of authorship within the power dynamics of advisor-student relationships can be difficult. One clever piece of advice the panel gave was to send out an author contribution statement to everyone interested in co-authoring, and have them initial next to their contributions. Author contribution statements are now required by many journals and templates can be found online. These statements lay out all parts of the research process, from conception and design to data analysis and writing, and have the initials of the authors that contributed to each part. If someone is trying to jump on a paper you did all the work for, they will hopefully get the hint when they have nowhere to initial. The opposite may also be true. If you work tangentially with a group or individual but do not make substantive contributions to their research, politely decline if they offer to add you as a co-author to their paper. Finally, any paper with your name on it should have your seal (or orca?) of approval. You should always be aware of and be able to stand behind the conclusions made in a paper you have co-authored.
Should your title be a question? No, apparently. Make your title short and subject focused: and no colons.
While some of the panel members said they don’t mind 1st person for other parts of a paper, they all agreed the abstract should always be in 3rd person. The last sentence of your abstract should be the context of your work within the broader literature. Never end your abstract or discussion with “more work is needed” – though on a personal note I have seen this innumerable times so 🤷♀️. Your abstract is the first thing reviewers will see so don’t bury the lead and make it good, they might be more inclined to review it quickly.
Reviewers & Rejection
When you submit a paper, it will first go to the editor. It may be axed there. This rejection without review is kind of a “it’s not you it’s me” from the journal. What you have submitted might not fit the scope of the journal. For example, if your work falls into the ‘applied science’ category it probably isn’t going to get into an L&O publication, but it might be a good fit for a different journal. Your paper might also not qualify as a “least publishable unit”, aka the smallest amount of scientific discovery that merits its own publication. Ouch. The panel recommended taking flat out rejection as a good thing, it prevents you from wasting time making major revisions. I say, as much to myself as anyone reading this, don’t tie your self-worth to your writing (or presentations, experimental designs, etc.). If you are questioning if your paper falls within the scope of a journal, ask the editor in a polite email with a well-crafted title and abstract included.
If your work isn’t chucked out, it will be sent to reviewers. According to the panel, you should never pass up the opportunity to suggest reviewers and never suggest people you know well. Look at your references, these are the best people to review your paper. Consider people outside your home country, especially if you live in the US, as well as upcoming scientists in your field (ie. your peers). If there is someone you don’t want reviewing your paper mention this in the cover letter of your paper submission. The cover letter will only ever be seen by the editor. If there is someone in your field that you feel would reject your paper for personal rather than merit-based reasons, include a brief (respectful) explanation in the cover letter.
According to the experts, once you get your paper back you must address every line change. Either make the changes and confirm that you made them, or explain why a change wasn’t made. One panel member recommended making a checklist and showing a positive response to every critique, including a short explanation for everything. If your reviewers have conflicting critiques contact the editor for guidance. If major revisions are requested DO NOT pull your paper out of consideration and resubmit to a lower impact journal. You may end up with the same reviewers (#awkward), and in general this tactic is just bad news. If you notice an error in any portion of your data analysis, conclusions, etc. while your paper is in review contact the editor and explain the situation. Though probably a “much easier said than done” situation, according to the panel, it is far better to be open and honest about mistakes before your paper is published.
Publishing a paper can cost a bunch of money. The panelists recommended becoming a member of a society (like ASLO) and publishing in society journals (L&O), which offer member discounts. Becoming a member of a society usually costs money, but there are often student and early career rates.