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Writing a Paper that Will Get Published

Tomorrow's Research

Message Number: 

No publications, no funds; no funds, no job.


The posting below gives some excellent advice on publishing in the sciences.

It is taken from The Scientist - The News Journal of the Life

Scientist, [], 15[7]:30,

April 2, 2001 ? Copyright 2001, The Scientist, Inc. All rights

reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Technology and Teamwork

Tomorrow's Research


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Many options exist for researchers to get their name in print

By Kate Devine

Courtesy of M. Celeste Simon


The experts agree: "Publish or Perish" is still alive and well in the

research community. "The cardinal rule is, 'A scientific experiment

is not complete until the results have been published,'" notes Bob

Day, professor emeritus, department of English, University of

Delaware, and author of a book on scientific paper publishing.1 In

addition to "completing an experiment," publication in scientific

literature serves as a means to secure knowledge ownership claims and

is an efficient vehicle for communicating this knowledge.2 Bruce

Lewenstein, associate professor of communication and science and

technology studies, Cornell University, expounds, "Scientific

knowledge is a communal resource that only exists because it's

available for others to judge and affirm as important."

Other experts have a more pragmatic perspective. "Researchers publish

for economic self-interest, ... it provides visibility and is

evidence of productivity," comments Ed Huth, editor emeritus of the

Annals of Internal Medicine and author of a book on publishing in

medicine.3 Jeremy Flower-Ellis, associate professor, department for

production ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who

has taught a course on how to write and publish a scientific paper

since 1968, succinctly agrees, "No publications, no funds; no funds,

no job."

Lewenstein, who is also editor of the journal, Public Understanding

of Science, says it is important to recognize that scientists are

individuals in a large system, with personal, less altruistic reasons

for publishing. He explains that publishing is the means by which a

scientist can be rewarded. Those rewards can include recognition for

ideas; others seeking the author out for collaboration; invitations

to meetings to talk about ideas and thus, stay intellectually alive;

invitations to meetings at locations that are personally pleasurable;

recognition from deans and department heads regarding the value of

the researcher's work in the form of increased resources (i.e., lab

space and graduate students); and higher salary from those same deans

and directors when another institution tries to hire the scientist

because they value the work they see published.

Not All Journals Are Created Equal

This pressure to publish and the limited number of pages in existing

journals has contributed to a proliferation of journals, notes

Lewenstein. He adds that while there are an estimated 70,000

journals, only a few thousand are considered really important. Jeff

Skousen, professor of soil science, West Virginia University, points

out that there are varying levels of journal prestige and not every

paper qualifies for the most well-known. Top-tier journals usually

reject more than 50 percent of the papers submitted to them, and some

have rejection rates as high as 70 percent, Skousen says. These

journals are rigorously edited and require very sound science and

results that have meaning and application in the field. Other

journals have a much lower rejection rate and are not as tightly

edited, but they generally contain good research.

Third-tier journals rarely reject a paper unless the entire study is

flawed or the data are improperly interpreted. These journals are

also acceptable because they generally answer real questions and

report good science, but they often do not account for all the

variables required for a top-tier journal.

Huth agrees that as the prestige of journals goes down, the tendency

to publish whatever is legitimate goes up. "The most prestigious

journals tend to publish what is the most important in new work," he

notes. Flower-Ellis also affirms, "A paper rejected by one journal

may be slightly rehashed and submitted to another, then another, and

so on, until it eventually is accepted by a journal with a

sufficiently low threshold. Thus, because of the numerous journals

available, and the varying prestige, most people can publish their

work at some tier level." Huth points out that there may be a

trade-off to consider between how important it is to publish rapidly

and get results on the record versus how important it is to publish

in the most prestigious journal possible.

In addition to journal prestige, the author's track record can also

be a factor in publishing success. Day says, "Editors are human and,

therefore, they can be affected by past work and influenced by a name

they recognize." Presumably, "that is why ... many papers include the

names of established scientists among their authors even when the

established names may have contributed little to the work," remarks


Experience gained from previous publishing helps as well. According

to Skousen, "Scientists who publish know some of the pitfalls and

obstacles that hinder the publishing process, especially in the

top-tier journals." Daniel W. Byrne, director of biostatistics and

study design, general clinical research center, Vanderbilt University

Medical Center, however, believes it probably does not improve the

odds of acceptance very much. Instead, says Bryne, who has authored a

book on publishing medical research papers,4 once a person has

developed the skills to publish a paper, the next papers are much

easier to publish.

Criteria for Authors

While originality can be a persuasive factor, "People are still able

to get their work published even if it seems similar to previously

published work," observes Skousen. Although one may think that most

of the pertinent questions in a subject area might be answered after

long periods of testing and experimentation that does not seem to be

the case, he continues. "I'm surprised that there are not that many

new ideas in our journals today compared to past decades," he

remarks. "Sure, we get new instruments and tools that allow greater

precision or accuracy of measurement, but the ideas are not that

dissimilar, nor are the results that dissimilar after data collection

and interpretation." Flower-Ellis predicts that more and more papers

will be assessed as "valuable confirmations" rather than as "original

contributions to knowledge." Another consideration is the manuscript

topic. A hot topic "is more likely to be published than is an equally

sound paper dealing with a currently unfashionable subject," says

Flower-Ellis The scientific community does display some of the

proverbial characteristics of lemmings, in publication no less than

in choice of research area."

The criteria publishers use as measures for accepting a paper vary a

lot more than is sometimes realized, notes Lewenstein. Publication is

not a cut-and-dried process--it's infinitely variable and flexible.

In particular, "peer review" is not a simple criterion, he continues.

Some journals may send an article to three to five reviewers, and the

editors make an informed judgment by weighing all reviews. Other

journals may send an article to a single reviewer and make simple

yes/no decisions based on one review. Some journals may do a lot more

editorial work with an author, while others take manuscripts more or

less as submitted.

Although the review process can be flexible, acceptance criteria are

relatively standard. Experts consulted offer simple advice for

optimizing publishing success. Many say influential factors include

the need for clarity, originality of thought, novelty of finding,

organization, completeness, and good writing. The experts' advice may

seem evident. Skousen, however, states that the most elegant research

is usually simple and direct. According to Byrne, who published an

article last year on common reasons for manuscript rejection,5 flawed

or poorly planned study design and lack of detail in methods were the

two elements most often leading to rejection.

One life science researcher with an impressive publication history

(71 papers over 20 years with 50 of those papers since becoming a

faculty member in 1993) is M. Celeste Simon, a University of

Pennsylvania associate professor in cell and developmental biology. A

Howard Hughes Medical Institute associate investigator at Penn's

Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute, Simon's philosophy is one

for all researchers to consider, "Publishing is the currency in which

researchers deal." Kate Devine can be contacted at


1. R.A. Day, How to Write & Publish a Scientific Paper, 5th ed.,

Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1998.

2. A.G. Gross, J.E. Harmon, "What's right about scientific writing,"

The Scientist, 13[24]:20, Dec. 6, 1999.

3. E.J. Huth, Writing and Publishing in Medicine, 3rd ed.,

Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1999.

4. D. W. Byrne, Publishing Your Medical Research Paper: What They

Don't Teach You in Medical School, Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams

& Wilkins, 1997.

5. D. W. Byrne, "Common reasons for rejecting manuscripts at medical

journals: a survey of editors and peer reviewers," Science Editor,

23[2]:39-44, March-April 2000.


The Scientist 15[7]:30, Apr. 2, 2001

? Copyright 2001, The Scientist, Inc. All rights reserved.

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