Publishing your undergraduate dissertation or master’s research is often the ticket to the next stage of your career. Career aside, being a published academic is a pretty awesome personal achievement. After my first research project, I knew I wanted to publish my findings, but academic publishing seemed like a black box. It was a total mystery to me, but with a lot of effort and going in circles, I finally got my first manuscript accepted in Proceedings of the Royal Society, B. I now have a number of scientific publications under my belt, and really enjoy the writing process — so much so, I am now a freelance academic proofreader and editor.
So, how exactly do you get your research project published? Here’s a short guide on how to get started, based on my experience as a coral biologist and academic editor.
Things to consider before we jump in
Some undergraduate and master’s projects won’t be strong enough for publication. Your grade will give you some idea about the suitability for publication, and your supervisor should be able to give you more guidance. I strongly suggest you ask your supervisor about publishing before you start re-working your thesis for publication.
Something else to ask your supervisor is whether or not there are funds to cover publishing fees. Academic publishing often costs A LOT of money, especially if your article will be Open Access (the new gold standard), so make sure there are funds available. You may have to apply for your own funding, or apply to journals for fee waivers (though this is usually after or at submission).
Remember, writing your first academic paper is hard. Even if your dissertation or thesis was written in publication format and with a journal in mind, you will likely have to do a lot of tweaking and re-writing before it is ready to submit. You have never done this before, so expect a steep learning curve and many (many) draft versions (label them clearly!). It’s a process, so be kind to yourself.
A note about journal choice
Selecting your first-choice journal to submit your paper to is really important, but it is also really hard, especially if this is your first venture into research. You will likely have received some guidance from your supervisor, and of course all of the authors need to agree. Note I wrote “first choice journal”. This is because there is a (quite high) chance that your manuscript won’t be accepted for publication the first time you submit it, so it is good to have a Top 3 list. How to get your Top 3?
Try answering these questions:
· What do the people who would want to read your research, study?
· Is your research highly specific to a certain subject, generally relevant to a wider subject area or perhaps somewhere in-between?
· Is your research highly impactful (will it revolutionise a field, or create one?), or is it an incremental contribution to a field?
· Is your research enough for a full Research Article or more of a small study better suited to a Note?
· Which journals come up multiple times in your reference section?
You might now have an idea of the type of journal that your work is suitable for, e.g. a general biology or topic-specific journal, and what kind of Impact Factor you could aim for.
Never heard of Impact Factors? Welcome to the world of academia! Everything is measured so we can be ranked (sigh). Impact Factor is supposed to indicate how impactful a journal is, and is based the number of citations published articles get per year. The general rule of thumb is that the higher the impact factor, the better the journal and the more likely your article is to be read and cited. General journals tend to have the highest impact factors (e.g. Nature and Science). In theory you want to aim for a high impact factor, but you also need to be realistic — typically, the higher the impact, the harder to get published. Your supervisor will likely weigh-in here.
OK, let’s get on to the writing!
Quick steps to get started (especially if you are demotivated)
In a copy of your dissertation or thesis:
- Format your title page.
The first page of your manuscript should include:
· Title. Usually with capitalisation only on the first word and names.
· Author list. You are probably first author and your lead supervisor last.
· List the institutional affiliations of all authors.
· Corresponding author name and email address.
2. Format your document.
Ensure your manuscript is clear and easy to read. Different journals have slightly different specifications for this. If you have chosen your journal, check Author Guidelines on their website for how to format your manuscript. If you haven’t confirmed your first-choice journal, it is a good idea to format your document as follows:
· Select a standard, easy-to-read font, like Arial, Calibri or Times New Roman.
· Select double line spacing.
· Select continuous line numbering.
· Number your pages.
· Keep margins at about 2.5cm.
· Move all figures and tables to the end of your document, or put them in a separate file.
· Check you have headings as follows: Abstract, Keywords, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, Acknowledgements, References. (This is typical for scientific articles, though required headings and structure do vary among subjects and journals).
Ok, now you have the basic format and structure, let’s get started with editing.
Writing for publication, a few steps to get started
You can still tighten-up your writing for submission even if you don’t know where you are sending your manuscript yet.
1. Read articles. To get you going, and especially if you can’t yet face re-reading your own work, read articles from journals that you think might be suitable for your research. It is particularly helpful to find an article that has some similarities to your own, such as it reports an experiment or tests a similar hypothesis. As you read, consider what kind of information the authors provide in each section, how the papers are structured, and the types of phrases used.
2. Read and quick-edit your dissertation. Yep, now is the time to look at your work again. I recommend reading your work out loud and edit as you go. If you work in Microsoft Word, use Track Changes. This will show your progress, which helps motivation, and gives you the chance to change things back. You might be amazed at what you find. It’s ok to find typo’s and weird phrasing. You’ve done your dissertation, now you are looking to publish. Make changes and highlight things you are not certain of or where information is missing. Once you’ve done a complete read through, try answering these questions in as few words as possible:
i. What is the research question?
ii. What is/are the main finding(s)?
iii. Why are your findings important, why should someone care?
3. Ensure information in the right place. Now you have remembered what your dissertation was about and the key points (answers to the questions above), it is time to make sure everything is where it should be. Your article should be easy for the reader to follow. This means you need to make sure you give the reader the right information in the right place, and guide them through your research. You’ve likely spent time on this for your dissertation, but it is easy for information to sneak into the wrong section. Here is a super quick guide to what goes in each section:
Abstract: Background information, methods summary, results summary and main conclusions. (Often written last).
Introduction: The information the reader needs in order to understand what your study is about, why it is important and what question(s) or knowledge gap you are addressing.
Methods: How you did the work, including statistics. Keep this short and informative by citing papers that used the same methods.
Results: Describe your findings. Refer sequentially to figures and tables in the text, describing what they show with the help of statistics. Do not interpret findings here.
Discussion: Interpret and discuss your findings in the context of relevant literature. Highlight main conclusions and their importance/relevance to the field.
4. Whittle! It’s time to cut-down that word count and ensure your writing is concise and informative. There will be a lot of interesting information that you learned while doing your research. That’s brilliant and absolutely part of a successful learning journey, but it doesn’t necessarily all need to go into your dissertation. As you re-read your manuscript (again) consider how much detail you need to provide — often a short synopsis and a solid, well-placed citation will be appropriate. Examine sentence structure and phrasing. Is your writing long-winded and if so, can you edit it to say the same thing with fewer words?
5. Check your citations. I often find that students will use a handful of papers that generally cover their subject area, and cite them over and over again in their dissertations. This could be entirely appropriate, however, often it isn’t. You should try to find the best citation for the point you are making or the information you are presenting. To do so, you should go back to the original research, not just cite a paper that mentioned something similar in the introduction. As an editor and scientist, it is a bit of a red flag if the reference list doesn’t have citations older than 10 years — where are the papers that laid the foundation of the field?
6. Figures and tables. Journals often have very specific requirements for figures and tables, so make sure you check the guidelines on their website. Most journals require figures and tables to be submitted as separate files, and not within the manuscript text. Check that everything is legible and in a consistent font and font size. Remove titles and white space, and ensure the legends are informative. Are any of your figures superfluous to the main point(s) of your article? Could they be deleted or moved to a supplementary section?
7. About keywords. Keywords are used to help search engines and readers find your paper and know what it is about. If your paper can be found easily, more people will read it and the more citation it will accrue over time. Citations are, unfortunately, important since everything in academia is measured and ranked (the dreaded H-Index). Keywords are almost an extension of the title, so don’t waste them by repeating words. Search engines will “see” both. A good way to think of excellent keywords is to think about what you would type into google scholar to find your paper, or similar papers. What words would you use?
8. Get help. We all struggle to move papers along to the submission point. Asking for help is absolutely OK, and I firmly believe we need to normalise this more in academia. Of course, your co-authors are also responsible for the quality of the publication, so it is important that they are part of the process. You are more likely to get quick, constructive feedback from supervisors and co-authors if you send them a high-quality draft. Swapping manuscripts with your course-mates, asking a friend to read a draft or getting professional feedback are all valid ways to improve manuscript drafts. In the process, you’ll learn more about academic writing and hone your skills.
Submitting your manuscript
After several iterations with the input from your co-authors, perhaps you are sensing you may be close to being ready to submit. Now is the time to double check the Author Guidelines for the chosen journal and ensure your document is formatted correctly and proofread. You will need to write a cover letter to the journal’s editor. Your cover letter is an important document; you need to pique the editor’s interest in your article, explaining why it is so wonderful and why it will be of interest to lots of readers.
To actually submit your article, if you are the corresponding author, you will need to register on the author portal for the journal, and follow the steps to up-load your documents. You will probably need to enter the details of all of the co-authors, and might be asked for Orcid numbers, which are unique identity codes that link publications to academic’s names. You might also be asked to suggest up to 5 reviewers, so have a few people in mind who you think know the subject area and will give a fair review.
There is a lot to learn about academic writing and publishing. I’ve only skimmed the surface here, but I hope I have demystified the process a little for you and given you some steps to get started. Remember, writing is a process and academic writing is a skill that takes time to develop. Be kind to yourself, get help when you need it and good luck!