With journal submissions increasing year on year, editors review a huge number of research papers, so it is important for your manuscript to stand out for the right reasons. This is an overview of the different factors to consider when writing your research papers and submitting them to journals.
Thinking about writing up your research is crucial at the study-design stage, before you set sample sizes, select your methods, consider your analyses and request relevant approvals. Things to consider include:
- Is your study telling the ‘whole story’?
- Is there anything missing from your study design that referees might ask for?
- What is different and unique about your study?
- What guidelines should your research conform to and do you need to seek any permissions or approvals (e.g. ethical approval)?
- How many papers will you write from the study and which journals might you send them to?
Selecting a large enough sample size is crucial as no matter how good your paper is, if you have a sample size that is too small to produce significant results, you will find it difficult to publish your findings. Sound methodology is another important aspect of study design. If you are using non-standard methods, you will need to justify them to the referees and editors. You should get feedback from your colleagues to help identify aspects that you might have overlooked; it can help you to avoid mistakes that are difficult to correct once the study is underway.
Resources for authors
There are many free resources available online that give you guidance on study design, paper writing and journal submission:
- ARRIVE guidelines1 and checklist2
- CONSORT statement3
- International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recommendations (formerly known as the ‘Uniform requirements for manuscripts’)4
- EASE Toolkit for Authors5
- The EASE Guidelines for Authors and Translators of Scientific Articles to be Published in English6 is published in over 20 different languages
- Equator Network7 has links to many useful resources, including the STROBE statement,8 STROBE checklists9 and STARD initiative10
Writing up research
Editors look for concisely written, interesting papers that have a clear message. They want to understand what you’ve done, why, what you found and what it means in the context of other work. They also want to know the weaknesses, the future directions and applications of your research. Editors like a complete story, so be wary of trying to publish several papers out of one study – publishing one or two high impact papers is preferable to several lower impact papers.
A few further points to consider:
- Display items should be relevant, useful, well put together, and easy to read and understand
- Figures should have accompanying legends that are detailed enough for the figure to stand-alone without referencing the paper
- Discussion section should be interesting, engaging, discuss limitations and outline future directions
- The abstract/summary should be logically structured and concise, highlighting the key aspects of the study and most interesting outcomes
- All published work referred to in the paper should be cited in the reference list, which should be up to date and listed citations must be complete
Get as much feedback as possible from friends and colleagues before submitting your paper. Most journals operate a strict triage system and papers need to ‘stand out’ for the right reasons just to be selected for peer review.
Selecting a journal
Selecting your target journal is an important step; it is a good idea to list candidate journals. In addition to a journal’s impact factor, there are many different metrics used to assess journal impact. Journals indexed in PubMed and listed in Thompson ISI will have a wider reach than those not listed. Remember that newly launched journals will have a time lag of a few years before they are eligible for PubMed indexing or Thompson ISI listing; so if a journal does not have an impact factor or is not indexed in PubMed now, it might be in a few years. If you are considering submitting to a new journal, check whether it has any related journals and what their reputation is, and whether it has a well-known publisher and also see who is on the editorial board.
Additionally, investigate factors such as page charges, publication fees, open access publishing options (and their relative cost), availability of altmetrics data, and whether a journal will archive papers in PubMed Central following the embargo period.
Criteria for selecting a journal
- Journal scope – is your paper relevant to the journal scope?
- Journal audience – is the journal audience appropriate (national or international, general with a broad scope or specialist with a narrow scope)?
- Journal visibility – is the publication listed in Thompson ISI and indexed in PubMed? Does it have a social medial presence?
- Journal impact and reputation – the impact a journal has is not just based on its impact factor but also on its reputation in the scientific/medical community.
- Journal turnaround times – how quick is the peer-review process and how long does it take for an article to be published after acceptance?
- Open access publishing options and costs, and publication charges – does the journal have a page charge?
Submitting to a journal
Before submitting your manuscript, check the journal guidelines and format the paper correctly; check word counts and gather any relevant forms or additional items. Some journals have submission checklists, which can be helpful points of reference.
Use the abstract or summary to ‘sell’ your paper, but do not ‘oversell’ your findings. It is usually the only thing that a referee will see when deciding whether to review your paper, so highlight the important and interesting aspects of your work in a clear and concise way.
Also, ensure that all the relevant permissions and approvals are in place, including copyright permission and check that sections of text are not copied – most journals use plagiarism software to check text against previously published articles. Double-check your paper and remove any notes to your co-authors; you do not want to repeat the infamous mistake made by Culumber et al.11 “Should we cite the crappy Gabor paper here?”. Most manuscript submission websites allow you to review a manuscript pdf to ensure the files are correct and appear in the right order.
You should list contributions made by each author to the study, and any competing or conflicting interests. Journals have criteria for what constitutes an author and when it is more appropriate to list a contributor in the acknowledgements section. Many journals will ask you to suggest suitable referees to peer review your paper, but avoid suggesting anyone who is a friend, colleague or someone you have worked with. If your study is multidisciplinary or in a subject area that has few experts, it can be difficult for journals to identify referees and doing so could speed up the peer-review process. You should avoid requesting that certain individuals are excluded as reviewers. If you feel strongly that particular people should not be considered as referees, you will need to explain why.
Some journals request a submission letter be included with the manuscript; this is an opportunity to explain to the editors and referees why your research is both interesting and important. It is best to keep these letters short and informative.
Handling revisions and rejection
If your paper has been peer reviewed, comments from the referees will likely be sent to you along with the editor’s decision. You may be invited to revise your paper, or you might receive a decision of rejection or acceptance. Before you make any revisions, consider whether they are appropriate for your paper – if you choose not to address a comment, it is important to explain why.
The revisions stage is also an opportunity to check the writing style, grammar and improve your figures and tables. Check whether any relevant studies have been published that did not make it into the first version of the paper, and update your manuscript accordingly. Most journals only give you one chance to make major revisions, so the paper must be in the best shape possible when it is resubmitted and it should be accompanied by a clear rebuttal letter. The rebuttal letter should contain all the comments made by the referees and editors (preferably numbered) with a response inserted below each original comment.
Revised papers will often be reassessed by the same referees that scrutinised the original, and they might feel further changes are required or that the initial comments have not been addressed fully. Some revisions might be too extensive to undertake. In this case, you could submit elsewhere or you might need to undertake further experiments before resubmitting your paper. It is worth discussing your options with the editorial office before making a final decision to withdraw a paper.
If your paper is rejected and you have the referee reports, try to revise the paper in line with any appropriate comments before submitting it elsewhere to improve your chances of acceptance by another journal. The same referees might also be invited to review the paper by a different journal, and it is important that they see an improvement in the manuscript. If your paper is rejected before peer review, it is rare that you will receive detailed comments. If you feel strongly that the decision to reject your paper is wrong, you can appeal. Appeals rarely lead to a change in the decision but will prompt the editor(s) to look at the paper again.
Accepted, what next?
Once your paper is accepted, many journals employ copy-editors to edit papers before publication; you might be sent queries or requests for more information or new versions of figure files. You should respond to these quickly to ensure publication is not delayed. All journals should give you the opportunity to check the proofs of your paper before final publication. This is an important stage and although, ordinarily, only small changes can be made, it is your last chance to make amendments. After this, changes need to be submitted and published as errata or corrigenda.
Once your paper is available online, do what you can to promote it; this can include posting on Facebook or Twitter. Many journals have live altmetric data available on published papers so you can track the social media presence of your research. If there is any press activity planned relating to your paper, it is worth contacting the journal’s editorial office as they might be able to coordinate efforts and promote the paper and any related press releases on their own websites and those of the journal’s publisher. Getting the ‘word out’ is important to drive full-text downloads and increase the likelihood of citations.
While this is not a complete list of what to consider when writing and publishing research, I hope you find these tips useful. Writing as a scientist who has worked in the editorial offices of scientific and medical journals for the last 15 years, I encourage you to contact editorial offices with any questions relating to the journal or your submissions. The editorial office is there to help you, and as editors, we want to give authors a good experience and help you to present your research in the best possible way.
Alexandra M Hay, Journals Manager, BSI
Kilkenny C, et al. (2010), Improving Bioscience Research Reporting: The ARRIVE Guidelines for Reporting Animal Research. PLOS Biol., 8: e1000412. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000412
Kilkenny C, et al. (2010), The ARRIVE Guidelines Checklist. Animal research: reporting in vivo experiments. http://bit.ly/1y3zLHq
Schulz K.F. et al. (2010), CONSORT 2010 Statement: updated guidelines for reporting parallel group randomised trials. BMJ, 340:c332. www.consort-statement.org
ICMJE recommendations for the conduct, reporting, editing and publication of scholarly work in medical journals (updated December 2014). www.icmje.org/recommendations
EASE Toolkit for Authors. www.ease.org.uk/publications/ease-toolkit-authors
The ‘EASE Guidelines for Authors and Translators of Scientific Articles to be Published in English’. www.ease.org.uk/publications/author-guidelines
Equator Network. www.equator-network.org
Von Elm E. et al. (2007), The STrengthening the Reporting of Observations Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) statement: guidelines for reporting observational studies. PLoS Medicine, 16: 4(10): e296
STROBE statement website www.strobe-statement.org.
Bossuyt P.M. et al. (2003), Towards complete and accurate reporting of studies of diagnostic accuracy: the STARD initiative. Standards for Reporting of Diagnostic Accuracy. BMJ, 326:41–44. www.equator-network.org/reporting-guidelines/stard
Culumber Z.W. et al. (2014),Variation in melanism and female preference in proximate but ecologically distinct environments. Ethology, 120: 1090–1100