Once you’ve decided where you want to send an article for publication, you might be wondering what to do next. You will need to prepare the article for publication and send it to one and only one journal. Do not send your article to multiple journals and see what shakes out. This is considered unethical because reviewing articles takes a lot of time and finding reviewers is hard, so if a journal is going to invest in that, they want to know that you will be publishing with them in the end. Also, as you’ll see here, submitting an article takes time and formatting your paper multiple times is an unnecessary waste of time if your top journal is interested in it.
To submit a paper, you will need to do the following steps, which I’ll explain in more detail below.
- Format your article based on the journal’s formatting guidelines
- Write a letter to the journal editor
- Tackle the journal’s website and upload your paper
- Hear back and take in the feedback
- Depending on the feedback, revise and resubmit to the same journal or revise and send to another journal (returning to point 1 above).
What’s one of the most potentially annoying things about submitting an article is that once you have put in all the time writing and researching and reading and revising over and over again, is learning that you have to reformat a lot to match the particularities of the journal. This is especially annoying when you’re all excited to hit submit and then realize that you need to go through the whole thing because you used footnotes instead of in-text citations, or something else that can take hours to adjust. A good idea is to have in mind to whom you plan to submit your paper so that you can format according to their guidelines from the start. However, this is not always possible and articles often end up different from how they start.
To find what the guidelines are, go to the website for the journal and find a link for something that says “submission guidelines” or “instructions for authors” or something like that. You might need to do some poking around to find it.
In the end, among many journals, formatting rules generally include any or all of the following guidelines:
- word count–usually somewhere around 8,000 words or 25-35 pages. Some journals include references and tables in the count, others don’t. If your paper is much longer than that, you probably have something irrelevant or tangential that doesn’t need to be there. In the words of (apparently) Arthur Quiller-Couch, get comfortable with the idea that you may have to “murder your darlings.”
- citation styles–this can mean following APA vs. MLA vs. Chicago vs. whatever million other styles someone will decide to come up with for who knows what reason. Generally, disciplines follow similar style practices with humanities and law preferring footnotes, social sciences in-text citations, and health or medicine using endnotes; but this is somewhat of a gross generalization. Regardless of the particular style guide used, there will be instructions on how to do both citations and the final reference list (including whether to call said list “references” or “works cited” or something else).
- You need a title page and every journal seems to suggest different points of information on their own title pages. Also, some will want the title page in a separate document from the body of the rest of the paper and others want everything in one file.
- There will also be guidelines about how to format tables, illustrations, or any other graphics.
- Formatting can also include font and font size, but also a hundred other annoyingly particular rules about how to use italics or automatic numbering. Here is an example from the Journal of International Migration and Integration:
- Manuscripts should be submitted in Word.
- Use a normal, plain font (e.g., 10-point Times Roman) for text.
- Use italics for emphasis.
- Use the automatic page numbering function to number the pages.
- Do not use field functions.
- Use tab stops or other commands for indents, not the space bar.
- Use the table function, not spreadsheets, to make tables.
- Use the equation editor or MathType for equations.
- Save your file in docx format (Word 2007 or higher) or doc format (older Word versions).
- Please use no more than three levels of displayed headings.
- Abbreviations should be defined at first mention and used consistently thereafter.
- You need an abstract–these are usually somewhere between 150-300 words.
- Keywords, usually 4-6 (but I never know if a two word key word counts as 1 or 2 keywords. Is “social stratification” one or two? You will often find out in the online system later and sometimes, you will pick some for your title page only to go into an online system that has pre-determined key words from which you are forced to choose, which means you then need to go back to your title page and make it match the online system (see, I told you this can be annoying!).
- You might need to make a variety of “declarations” that you were ethical, if you have conflicts of interest, about data transparency, if there was funding, how consent was given, or even about how much and which parts of the paper were written by each co-author.
After you have the paper all ready to go, I always write a letter to the editor of the journal. I learned from a friend who is the editor of a journal that this is NOT common practice but that it helps improve success rates. There’s something about getting a polite letter that puts editors in a positive mood about your paper. My goal in writing these is to help the editor pull out the main ideas and to sort of sell the paper. I usually write letters something along the lines of this:
Dear Dr. Editor’sLastName,
I am writing to submit the attached paper “Name of Paper,” (on behalf of Joe Schmoe and my other co-authors if applicable). We believe that our paper would be an excellent fit for your journals as it addresses the central question of _________________________________, which is likely to be of high interest to your readers.
We examine ___(research question)___, using ______(method/data)_______. We find ____(punch line of the research) _____. This is important for ___(theory, policy, empirical finding)___ and addressing ____(the gap in the literature)_____. The findings of this research will be of interest to ____(what group of potential readers)___.
Overall, we are confident that our work is a rigorous analysis, addressing a central question, that has the potential to make important contributions to the field (or be more specific about your own work). We hope you will agree (which I always add b/c I never know how to end a letter.
Professor Von Schnoogenschnoggle (the name my sister and I always gave to any adult looking doll with glasses as children)
Once you have your paper formatted and your letter (preferably printed on letterhead and scanned with your signature on it), you will then need to tackle the journal’s website which can feel like a whole job in itself.
To submit an article, find the link that says something like “submit your manuscript” and go carefully through all of the instructions. Sometimes you have to register your email with the website before you can even get to the part where you would start the process of submitting an article. You will spend what feels like an eternity filling little boxes with information about your paper. (There are times where I wish I could put a line on my CV just for filling out all these little boxes!)
Occasionally, the system requests are different from the guidelines that were in the .pdf. If you discover this at 4:45, just as you thought you were going to be able to hit submit before catching the bus home to make dinner for your family, you may first need to scream into a pillow. After pulling yourself together and ordering a pizza, go back and fix the paper to match the online system, because you’re more likely to be stopped from moving forward with the box filling if you deviate from those steps.
finally, as the sun sets and you still have enough time to catch the last rush hour bus, you will be able to hit submit (only to find that it doesn’t work, you missed something, or the scanned letter was submitted upside down). Fix all of those things, hit review the .pdf submission, save it, and then hit submit again. This time you will probably get an email sent to you immediately telling you that your paper was submitted successfully.
You may feel the most amazing excitement and I encourage using your bus ride home to post something about it on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or wherever you are social, especially if this is your first one. Go ahead, celebrate, you did something major!
What can be most challenging in the beginning is then waiting. Do not expect to hear anything for months if you are lucky. Usually if you hear within a week or two , generally this means they “desk rejected” the paper. In other words, the paper was rejected from the editor’s desk, and was not sent out for review. I have had papers where I got desk rejected within an hour, I think, because my paper was outside the scope of what they published. They usually make this decision by looking at the title and abstract and not reading the whole thing, so try not to take it personally, but just find another journal and try again.
If the editor thinks that your paper is within the scope (or realm) of the kinds of things that they might publish and there’s something interesting about the paper or particularly good on methods, they will send out the paper for review. This means they will find 2-3 people in your discipline who will read the paper and provide feedback to the editor about whether the paper is done well, has solid methods, and what kind of contribution it might make to the literature.
Once the editor gets back all of the reviews (usually within 3-6 weeks, though there’s always one that takes forever), the editor makes a decision about what to do and will send you an email with a summary of the issues of the paper, all of the reviewers’ reviews, and one of the following decisions:
- revise and resubmit
- accept with minor revisions
Number 1 is probably the most common result, depending on the journal. This can be a real bummer but should not be read as a clear sign that your paper is not worth publishing. Generally speaking, my understanding is that editors try to assess if you could do the suggested revisions within 6 weeks. If there is a LOT that needs to be overhauled, they won’t want to clog their docket with a lot of papers that are going to have an uncertain future, so they reject them.
Number 2–revise and resubmit is the more common good news result–this is where they give you 6 weeks to address the concerns of the reviewers and send it back, typically with a letter explaining what you did to address all of their concerns. They will then send your paper back to the reviewers and decide again if the paper should be published.
Note that a revise and resubmit is not the same as “accept with major revisions;” making all of the revisions does not guarantee publication. I reviewed a paper a number of years ago, twice, that got rejected in the end. I felt badly for them but the revisions had not improved the paper enough to be honest. I also had to go through three rounds of revisions that were sent back to reviewers for a paper in a top tier journal, and they ended up getting a fourth reviewer because they wanted to be sure, since the topic was somewhat controversial. Number 3 is very uncommon, especially at the top journals (mostly because as a reviewer, you always feel like a loser if you can’t figure out something to criticize about the paper you’re reviewing).
Depending on the feedback, revise and resubmit to the same journal or revise and send to another journal (returning to point 1 above). If you got a reject, don’t be too discouraged. The good news is that you were just given feedback from three experts in the field, that you can use to revise your paper and send it to another journal. That said, read the feedback carefully, sometimes it’s better to cut your losses and start a whole new project, though probably not usually. If you see the words “fatal flaw” from more than one reviewer, I would recommend scrapping the project instead of endlessly trying to fix a paper that is never going to work. As always, seek advice and guidance from someone with more experience who can help guide you if you’re thinking about the viability of a paper, but don’t just give up from one rejection. One of my proudest publications was rejected ten times before finding a home in a journal!