Chapter One: Experiences from my first academic publication
I’ll be honest when I first started writing my PhD thesis I couldn’t even comprehend publishing from it. I was told many times by many people that publishing is the crux of academic research, but I didn’t see how I could find the time to undergo my research study, complete my thesis and find time to publish as well. There was also a healthy dose of self-doubt in the mix. Was my work was good enough to be published? Would anyone actually be interested in what I had to say? Looking back I think this view came from a lack of understanding of the process and perhaps a fear of the unknown.
Things changed when I was made aware of a relevant call for papers for a special issue journal. The call was passed onto me sometime towards the end of my second year of study. During this time I was busy collecting and analysing my data, but I could see the undeniable connection of the call to my work, so I decided to throw caution out the window and submit an article.
At this point I was very close to my data so the paper came together almost miraculously quickly. I already had enough literature to support my study plus good support from my supervisors. I decided to interpret my data under a different lens to my thesis to draw on a different perspective. This gave the work new life to me and also gave me a greater understanding of the data as a whole. It took a few weeks to pull everything together and like a true researcher I submitted it on the day of the deadline.
Submission process and peer review
I submitted through the online portal by following the links from the journal’s website (I highly recommend that you follow the publisher’s guidelines which include formatting and referencing styles).
I’ve published enough since to know that sometimes going through the peer review process can be tough, annoying and even slightly painful. Luckily the first time I submitted something the reviewing process was fairly low maintenance and moved quickly. With another paper I submitted I had to wait around six months before I heard anything back in the first instance. So it’s important to know that the publishing process can take time and there can sometimes be a lot of back and forth between reviewers and authors. Although this can be frustrating I have come to realise that reviewers volunteer their services for free so I am always grateful that they take the time to do this.
It’s common to have two or more reviewers assessing the work separately and the majority of the time the peer review process is done blind, which means neither reviewer nor author will know who each other are. It’s well known within the academic research community that reviewers will sometimes use this authority to be particularly harsh towards the author’s work, but the majority of the time comments are constructive and should be accepted with good grace.
I’ve had a few papers outright rejected from journals. This has happened when I really didn’t have the best understanding of the journal’s output or when they didn’t think the standard of the paper was good enough (sometimes they were right). So I’ve had a few knock-backs but not as many as I initially expected. I learned from this that rejection isn’t actually that big of a deal, it’s healthy, part of the process, and more often than not can make you and your work stronger. It doesn’t mean that your work isn’t good; it just means that things may need to be reworked or looked at from a different angle. Sometimes the work just isn’t right for them, so I would advise to simply approach someone else and don’t give up.
Having work rejected has actually made me really good at problem solving, as I’ve been able to look at what can be improved and know better for next time. So I would advise anyone in this position to go back to the paper, take the feedback on board, and either rewrite aspects and/or look for a different journal. I once had a rejection from a journal who didn’t like a paper at all and then we’ve sent the same paper to another (higher rated) journal who loved it.
The acceptance of my article came a few months later when I was well into my third year. Like many PhD students when they get to that point, I was tired and stressed. Having my work accepted for the first time was awesome. It really felt like I was putting something out there, something real, and it made all the hard work seem worth it.
The reviewers recommended that my paper would be published subject to minor corrections, but I was assured by my supervisors that this was standard practice. So I enthusiastically made the corrections as quickly as I could then resubmitted. The paper was published just before the end of my study.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that publishing from my thesis made my PhD viva examination any easier, but it certainly helped to give me the confidence in my own work and allowed me to demonstrate a tangible validation from the research community.
Publishing has made me a better researcher and has helped me to develop other skills, it has helped me to hone my problem solving abilities and work collaboratively with others. It also gave me the boost I needed to get to the end of my PhD and it showed me that I could achieve things that I once never considered would be possible.
What I would do differently
Although publishing is incredibly important to build an academic career, I think it’s also worth mentioning that I feel there are still many faults with academic publishing and it is by no means perfect. But things have moved on so much in the last few years and there are so many options now available to help us make the right choices of where we should publish our work.
Now whenever I choose to publish I always check the journals Open Access policy by searching Sherpa Romeo. This is because I want to ensure sure that my work is REF eligible and most importantly that it can be accessed by everyone. This was a lesson I learned after my PhD when I discovered that the majority of papers I needed to access (including my own!) were behind expensive paywalls. Making sure that your work is Open Access (whether that is gold or green) ensures that people outside of the University system can benefit from your work and can ultimately have a bigger impact. If you are unsure of this process I encourage you to ask the research support services in your university library for advice.
So finally, I’m hoping that by sharing some of my experiences of academic publishing has demystified some of the process for anyone looking to also take this path, encourages the right choices in terms of accessibility of your work, and most importantly to never doubt your ability.