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02 June, 2014

Writing for Publication (As a Grad Student)

Kate Caldwell, PhD
Recent Graduate in Disability Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago
Editorial Coordinator for the AAIDD journal Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

For the past two and half years, I have been both a graduate student in Disability Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago and the Editorial Coordinator for the journal Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD). This means that often I have students ask for advice on submitting a manuscript to an academic journal.  Submitting a manuscript to a journal can be such an intimidating process, largely because the logistics are often not well explained to grad students.  This post is an effort to shed light on what goes on behind the scenes and de-mystify the publication process a bit.  Hopefully the tips below will be useful to you going forward in your work!
Writing the Manuscript
One thing that we see a lot of when grad students submit manuscripts is that they are formatted like a student paper or thesis, not necessarily an article.  Many assume that translating a student paper into an article means shortening their work.  There is definitely more to it than that, and sometimes even seasoned professors can forget this!  Student papers are student papers and, while they may have fulfilled the requirements of the assignment they were submitted for, they usually don't work for journals and have a difficult time in review.  However, student papers can be a wonderful starting point for developing a journal article.  In doing so you should keep in mind who the audience is, what your argument is, and how to best convey that argument to the audience.  There has been considerable dialogue among qualitative methodologists about “letting the research speak for itself” and the researcher acting as a tool for sharing the voices and perspectives of the research participants.  However, that does not mean that you, as a researcher, don’t have an argument and an important voice in the process.  Sometimes it may take awhile to find the right “voice” or approach for a manuscript, but once you find one that fits, and is representative of what you want to convey about your data, everything else should come together. 
My best tip for writing a manuscript is to look at an article that you liked, one that stayed with you and made you think, “I want to write like that.”  Study that article: look at their outline and how the author structured their argument; look at how they presented their methods, data, and findings; look for their objective, purpose, argument, and the significance of their research; and finally think about what it was about this article that made you like it.  Another approach is to look at the articles that have been published recently in the journal you want to submit to for these factors.  Doing so will give you a good idea of what the editors and reviewers expect in a publishable article.  Also, make sure to read the author instructions and follow the formatting requirements thoroughly (As a bonus, the editorial assistant will love you for this!).
Finding the Right Journal
Choosing the journal you want to submit to can make or break your chances of having a manuscript accepted.  It is essential that your manuscript is a good fit with the journal’s aims and scope as well as the journal’s target audience.  If there is a poor fit, then the Editor may choose to return the manuscript before even putting it through a review.  I’ve had this happen to me several times, particularly with work in areas that are under-researched and exploratory, where there is no clear fit within existing journals.  In those instances, it’s a process of try-try-again and angling the manuscript differently so that it is more explicitly relevant to that journal’s audience.  Another factor that can affect your submission is the journal’s receptivity to graduate student work.  Many journals treat graduate student submissions the same as any other manuscript, utilizing an anonymous (often referred to using ableist language as “blind”) peer-review process.  However, I have encountered a couple of journals that disincentivize graduate students by charging a fee or putting the manuscript through a separate review process that was not completely anonymous.   Definitely check out the journal in advance and if anything is not clear you can always email the Editor to ask a question or two. 
My best advice here is to look at what the journal has published recently in terms of both topic and methodology.  For instance, some journals choose not to publish literature reviews whereas others choose not to publish meta-analyses.  Further, some journals may not have a good history of publishing research that utilizes qualitative approaches such as focus groups or participatory action research.  Or if they have, they may want that information presented in a very specific way.  Looking at what the journal has published recently will help you get an idea for how to present your own work.  If the journal isn’t a good fit, the Editor will let you know right away and it’s important not to interpret this as a rejection of your work.
Submitting Your Manuscript
First and foremost, SUBMIT IT!  I know so many people (friends, colleagues, and people I have met at conferences) who really want to submit their work, but who worry that it is not good enough and so they never submit it in the first place.  It’s never going to be perfect.  Even after an article is published there will be things you want to change, and because we are working in a field that is constantly advancing you should want to! Instead of focusing on what could have been changed or made better in a published piece think of it this way… that just means you’ll have an opportunity to write another article that builds upon your previous work.  That said, you do want to submit the best possible version of your work. 
Conversely, some graduate students make the mistake of “shopping” a manuscript around, wherein they submit an incomplete manuscript to a journal that they don’t want to publish in so that they can get feedback to improve their manuscript for submission to a different journal.  While it may sound savvy, this will actually end up working against you.  The journal is going to approach experts in the field to review your piece.  These may be future colleagues and employers so you want to put your best work forward in case you find yourself in a situation where the work you were talking about with a colleague or in a job interview sounds a lot like an interesting manuscript they reviewed once.  That conversation is going to be a lot trickier if they had a bad impression of that work.  Moreover if a manuscript that is being shopped makes it past quality control and into review, the author likely isn’t going to get the kind of feedback they are looking for.  Reviewers are volunteering their time and when they see a manuscript that is unfinished they will more often than not leave fewer, broader comments to that effect.  However, if you submit the best possible version then they are more likely to give you more specific and constructive criticism in ways that will challenge but inevitably strengthen your manuscript and future work. 
Okay so now comes the hard part… waiting.  On average it will take between 3 to 4 months for a manuscript to go through review, but in some cases it may take up to a year.  What is going on behind the scenes while you’re waiting?   The Editor and editorial staff is contacting potential reviewers and waiting for their response, contacting additional reviewers as needed (e.g. if one has to withdraw at the last second due to an emergency or conflict of interest), following up with reviewers to submit their comments, and then finally the process of making an editorial decision begins.  This last part can vary depending upon the journal.  I once submitted to a journal that convened the entire editorial board to discuss the manuscript.  Including a round of revisions, it took over a year and a half before they ended up rejecting the article, citing that it was their policy not to allow another round of revisions.  We ended up submitting the manuscript to a different journal that was a better fit for the material, but even so that submission took another year to get through review.  So yeah.  Waiting.  Ugh.  The best advice I got there was from my advisor (and a cheesy infomercial), “set it and forget it.”  Submit your manuscript and then move on to the next one.
The Decision, Revisions & Responding to Reviewers
Generally, there are four types of decisions that you will get on a manuscript: accept, accept pending revisions, revise and resubmit (R&R), and do not accept.  No one ever gets their manuscript accepted the first time around and very few ever see an “accept pending revisions.”  The majority of decisions are to “revise and resubmit.”  This is true even for senior researchers so know that you are in good company!  Also, I see a lot of authors (grad students and professors alike) who assume that an R&R is a rejection and never resubmit or submit their manuscript to a different journal.  However, in my experience, it has been worthwhile to make the revisions and resubmit to the same journal.  Be persistent.  Remember that an editor will not tell you to revise and resubmit if they don’t think it is possible to make the changes requested; otherwise the decision would simply have been “do not accept.” There are two kinds of revisions that will be asked for: major or minor revisions.  If your decision is an R&R with minor revisions then you are in a good position!  Major revisions, on the other hand, are always hard and typically require some restructuring.  In one instance, I had to cut down the number of words in a manuscript by half while trying not to lose any content.  That was a challenge.  If you receive an R&R with major revisions and don’t feel it is going to be possible to make the changes requested then consider talking to the editor about your concerns.
With regards to revising - Don’t fight it. Try to make as many of the revisions as possible, and remember that the reviewers are experts in the field.  The Editor has passed along their feedback for a reason.  You may not be able to make all of the suggested changes, and that is okay!  There may be other ways for addressing reviewers’ concerns by presenting, framing, contextualizing, or structuring the information differently.  Moreover, if it sounds like a reviewer just “isn’t getting it” or missed the point completely… they did.  This just means that point needs to be clarified or made more explicit in the manuscript.  Every time that I have responded to reviewer comments there have been one or two points where I had to give a justification for why a change was not made.  Don’t compromise your principles or your research because you feel pressure to respond to a reviewer comment.  Explain instead your well-reasoned justification for not making that change.  For example, I once received a comment from a reviewer whose specialty was not intellectual disability.  This reviewer argued that the AAIDD definition for intellectual disability that I was using was not sufficient and offered their own scale, suggesting that I use the terminology “mental retardation.”  I thanked the reviewer for highlighting the need to clarify the operational definition and took the opportunity to better explain the recent advancements in terminology (See Rosa’s Law).  Finally, I suggested that a more thorough conversation about this topic was worthwhile, but outside the scope of the current research.  It is really important to be polite and to thank the reviewers for volunteering their time to read and respond to the manuscript.  For me this is easier said than done. I have had to learn to read the reviewer comments, step away from the manuscript, vent my frustration, and then re-approach it later when I can be calm and measured in my response.  My best piece of advice here is to draft the response letter and then go through and remove all of the adjectives! Seriously, it helps. 

I sincerely hope that you all find this useful in moving forward with your work.  Graduate students and early career professionals have the potential to serve as a source of innovation in moving the field forward and advancing knowledge in intellectual and developmental disability research by providing new insights and perspectives on contemporary issues.