How to Publish a Research Paper

How to Publish a Research Paper
Published on November 6, 2021

The process of publishing a research paper can be intimidating and confusing, especially for first-time authors. This article provides a simple step-by-step guide with tips for each stage of publication, starting when the author has completed a first draft of the paper.

Step 1: Find a Journal 

The first step in getting any paper published is to find an appropriate journal. The ideal journal for a paper will help deliver a paper into the hands of the target audience. The target audience may include other scholars who are researching the same topic, those in an adjacent field, or the general public. It is important to consider both who and how many people read a journal. A journal may target exactly the right audience, but if the audience consists of five people, it still may be a less effective choice than a journal that has a slightly less relevant audience of thousands of people.

Questions to ask to find the right journal:

  • Who is the target audience?
  • Which journals fit the scope of the manuscript?
  • Does the manuscript match those typically published by the journal?
  • What are high-impact journals that are relevant to the manuscript?
  • How much of the manuscript must be changed to fit the journal?
  • Which journals are open-access and which follow the traditional subscription-based model?

One way to identify journals with the right scope is to begin by looking at the reference section of your manuscript. Journals are likely to publish manuscripts on topics they have already published papers about. The format and style of your paper is also likely to match those of your reference section. In addition, authors of cited papers are a key part of the target audience, and they are likely to read journals they have published in.

Another way to identify journals with the right scope is to use a journal finder. This type of journal finder can not only help with identifying the scope of journals, but also the journal rankings and impact factors. Additionally, journals will put out special issues which target specific topics. Because journal editors need to fill a certain number of slots with relevant papers, special issues can provide an opportunity for newer authors to get published in journals with high impact factors. Overall, editors accept or reject papers based on how many papers they get and how much space they have for a certain issue.

It is also important to make sure that your paper has a similar format to those published by the journal. Some journals publish short single studies, others publish multi-study experiments. Some journals publish theoretical results while others focus on more practical applications.

Because a research paper can be actively under review at only one journal at a time, it is important to prioritize which journals to apply to first. One strategy is to first identify journals with the right scope (i.e., focused on the right topic) and then rank them based on their impact factor (i.e., how many people the journal typically reaches with its articles). The manuscript can be sent first to journals with the highest impact factors, which are typically more prestigious and selective. If the paper is rejected, authors can seek the next highest journal on the list, repeating until the paper is accepted. Although this method is likely to include many rejections, it increases the chance that the paper is published in the best journal possible within the paper’s scope, thereby reaching the most members of the target audience. 

Another factor to consider is the business model of the journal. Broadly, there are two types of models: subscription and open access. In the traditional subscription model, publishers monetize their articles behind paywalls. One can usually only see the abstract of the article and must pay a fee in order to access the full article. Universities typically pay these publishers a large fee so that their faculty and students can access their articles at any time. For most subscription publishers, you must sign over the copyright of the final article to the publisher. This means that the publisher has the exclusive legal right to the final article and you are not allowed to share or distribute the article. 

Open access journals allow authors to retain the copyright of their final article. These journals will get the right to host your final article, but it can be shared, reused, or adapted by anyone as long as they give credit to the original authors. As these journals do not make money via subscriptions, they typically charge a publication fee, or they may be funded and subsidized by a larger organization. Meanwhile, many subscription publishers will also allow you to pay an exorbitant fee, usually in the thousands of dollars, to make your article open access. 

Other factors to consider are how long it typically takes for an article to be published, whether there are fees for publishing papers, and whether a journal is trustworthy. Certain high-quality journals (e.g., American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy) charge a fee to deter low-quality submissions. Some outlets publish almost every manuscript without a peer-review. Some of them are free like SSRN, and some of them charge a fee. However, they do not evaluate the manuscript rigorously or do any serious review on it. Such outlets publish many low-quality papers, and it can be hard to distinguish between good and bad papers in those outlets.

“Predatory publishing” refers to the exploitative business model in which journals charge a fee for publication but do not rigorously evaluate or peer-review manuscripts. These journals have become more common in the era of open access publication. There are many helpful resources so you can be sure you are publishing your article in a reputable journal.

 

Step 2: Prepare and Submit the Article

Once a journal has been selected, the next step is to prepare the article for submission. Each journal has specific formatting requirements, which may vary based on what kind of manuscript is being submitted (e.g., review, commentary, report, peer-reviewed research manuscript). It is important to note that journals have different expectations for how tables, figures, and supplementary materials should be submitted. This information is typically available on the journal website, often with templates available for Word or LaTeX.

In order to submit a manuscript, most journals require authors to register for a portal on their website and designate a corresponding author for each submission. Once a manuscript has been submitted, the journal may respond and request some fixes for formatting errors or page limits. Once the manuscript has been submitted in an acceptable format, the next step is to await the editor's decision. 

 

Step 3: Wait to Hear Back

When an article is submitted to a journal, the editor will decide whether or not they want to send the paper to reviewers. A desk rejection occurs if the editor rejects your paper before sending it out to the reviewers. If your paper is sent out to reviewers, there are a few possible outcomes you may receive: rejection, revision and resubmit (major revision), conditional acceptance (minor revision), or acceptance.

There is no set time when you can expect to hear back from the journal. Different journals go through the review process at different rates. It is not uncommon to have to wait more than six months for a response.

 

Desk Rejection

A desk rejection happens when a paper is rejected before it has left the editor’s desk, i.e., without being sent out to external reviewers. Often this is due to a lack of fit to the journal’s scope, an insufficient contribution, or some major flaw in the manuscript. A desk rejection is typically the fastest kind of response and may happen after a couple of weeks. If you receive a desk rejection, the next steps are to address the criticism, improve your manuscript, and submit your manuscript to another journal.

You usually will not be informed if your manuscript is sent out to reviewers. Thus, if you do not hear back from the editor within a few months, it usually means that the manuscript has been sent out to reviewers. Because reviewers usually do not receive any credit or recognition for their work, they do not have much incentive to work or respond quickly. Thus, if the manuscript is sent to reviewers, it may take several months to get a response. 

Once all of the reviewers have responded, the editor will consider all of their feedback and make a final decision. Ultimately, the editor has total control, and the reviewer comments are treated as suggestions. Editors may override the reviewers, and reject manuscripts even if the reviewers want the manuscript published. They may also decide to exclude some reviewers or their comments. 

 

Rejection

A rejection means that, after looking at reviewer feedback, the editor has decided not to accept the manuscript. This is a final decision and indicates that the editor feels that this specific paper is not a good fit for the journal. After receiving a rejection, the next step is to seek another journal to publish the paper.

 

Revise & Resubmit (Major Revision)

Papers are only rarely accepted without revisions. Instead, many manuscript authors receive a “Revise and Resubmit”, also known as a major revision, which is somewhere between an acceptance and a rejection. The editor has identified significant issues with the manuscript but there is still hope for publication. In this case, the author should take the opportunity to improve the manuscript. Often revisions are significant; in some cases, they require re-analysis of data or even collection of new data.

Journals will frequently give you a list of documents that need to be submitted with the revision. Usually, you will need to include a respectful letter to the editor thanking them and the journal for their work. You will also need to submit a document with all the reviewer’s comments and how you addressed their concerns in your paper. Sometimes you will need to submit two copies of your manuscript, one before the changes were made and one with all the changes highlighted.

 

Conditional Acceptance (Minor Revision)

After you have properly addressed all the major revisions you may receive a “Conditional Acceptance”, meaning that there are minor issues that need to be addressed before your manuscript can be published. The changes you need to do on your manuscript are usually smaller in scope here: grammatical and formatting changes, rewriting confusing paragraphs and adding more references where needed.

Your manuscript may go through multiple rounds of conditional acceptance, as reviewers may find more minor issues that need to be addressed. Also, you may have different reviewers after each revision, as reviewers can opt out even after previously reviewing your paper.

 

Acceptance

Once all the reviewers and the editor are satisfied with your manuscript, you will receive an acceptance letter. Typically, you will have to prepare additional files and your final draft in a specific format for publication, and this can be different from what you did during the review process. If you are applying to a subscription-based journal you will also need to sign over the copyright for the final, published paper to the journal.

The time between when your paper is accepted and when your paper is actually published is variable, as editors need to fill space for each issue. It is not uncommon for your paper to be published over a year after the final acceptance.


 

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2021, Philip Placek & Daniel Armani, "How to Publish a Research Paper," PaperScore.

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