Academic journals: tips for the submission process

by Simon F. Davies
@SFD85

Publishing articles in academic journals is essential for any PhD student hoping for a career in higher education, but doing so can be a difficult and stressful process. The following are a set of tips, not on researching or writing articles for journals, but on the submission process itself, which can be daunting and surprisingly complicated. The majority of journals nowadays have dedicated submission websites; these streamline the process, but they can be confusing on first use.

A little about my background: I completed my PhD in 2012; since 2010 I’ve been Assistant to the Editor for Renaissance Studies, the journal of the Society for Renaissance Studies, an interdisciplinary journal covering all aspects the early modern period. My role means I’m the first person to see new submissions and the last person to see accepted articles before they get sent on to the publisher. Over that time I’ve seen submitting authors make the same mistakes over and over again, mistakes which are very easily rectified. The following are all based on real cases.
Plan your time and publish as early as possible. A general tip to start off with: remember that the peer review process takes a long time, and you should always expect to be asked to revise your essay; very few papers are published on first submission. Revised papers will usually be reviewed as well. Journals (especially top journals) will often also have a backlog of accepted articles, which means that it will be a further length of time until your article is actually published, once it is accepted (although these days journals often publish early-access versions of papers online, and these are fully citable). The whole process is a lengthy one (often up to two years from submission to publication), and you should begin it as early on as you can in your PhD.
Choose the journal before making your final edits. Don’t write your article first and then find a journal to submit it to. This is mostly a matter of not having to do your referencing twice: journals often have very specific style guidelines which you will need to comply with, especially for referencing, so you might as well follow their guidelines the first time round. This will almost always include, in addition, a minimum or maximum word limit, so the length of your article will also depend on where you hope to see your article published. Obviously the intellectual reasons for selecting a particular journal are paramount, but don’t neglect practical aspects, and do your research into these early on in the process. On that note…
Stick to the word limit. I am consistently amazed how frequently authors ignore our journal’s clearly stated word limit. This will include notes. If your article simply must be extra-long, and simply must be published in this one specific journal, then contact the editor before submitting to see if they might be OK with it. But there will usually be a different journal with a different word limit that you can submit to instead.
The word limit will include any revisions you may be asked to make. Therefore it’s probably a good idea to aim significantly under the word count on first submission, so that you have space to expand, which you will invariably be asked to do. The majority of submissions require revision before publication, and these very often go along the lines of ‘say more about…’. If you are asked to revise, don’t take it personally: it’s almost always valuable advice on how to make your article even better.
 Submit an article, not a chapter. Articles should be self-contained pieces of work in intellectual terms, of course, but there are also practical considerations here: ‘articles’ which read ‘In this chapter I will…’, and files with names like ‘chapter7.docx’ do not look promising. The people who work for journals are academics too, and can spot such things.
Always follow all instructions closely. This should sort of go without saying, but authors don’t always do it, for whatever reason. Each journal will have specific ways of doing things, and they’ve chosen them for a reason – you are trying to get them to publish your work, so you should do what they tell you. (Seriously – I’ve used all the bold, underlining, all caps, red lettering etc. in my submission instructions that I possibly can, and people still ignore them.)
Anonymise your article. In all cases. You don’t need to do anything fancy; just delete all instances of your name. This includes any references to work you have forthcoming or which is otherwise unpublished (such as your thesis), which can also identify you as the author.
Include a cover letter, even if you don’t have to. This will often be an optional field in electronic submission sites, but it looks better, and it’s more polite, to include a letter. It doesn’t have to say much; just confirm that you’re not submitting the article elsewhere, and that you’d very much like to publish in journal X (perhaps offering a reason, though it’s not by any means mandatory).
Find out the editor’s name. Again, not compulsory, but it looks like better if you take the time to address the editor(s) personally.
Submit your article in editable format. This means don’t submit a .pdf: you will have to submit an editable version if your article is eventually accepted (or how will it be typeset?), so you might as well do so from the beginning. The software electronic submission sites use is usually configured to work best with editable files, so these will be much easier on the editor and the reviewers. (Unless you are specifically asked for a .pdf, of course.)
Images: if your article includes images, you will need to be prepared to stump up the cost for high-resolution versions, and to sort out permissions to publish. However, you don’t have to see to this prior to submission: only pay for images when you know your article is going to be published. Low-resolution versions of your images are perfectly acceptable for the purposes of review. Obtaining permission to publish and sorting out reproduction fees can take a very long time, but don’t worry, journals are aware of this and will be willing to wait.
If you have any questions, don’t be afraid to ask. But make sure you’ve read all relevant instructions, and try to find an admin contact, rather than emailing the editor. Contact details can be found on the journal’s main website (often separate from the submission website, if there is one).
Remember: journals want to publish articles! They rely on submissions to continue in existence. The journal submission process can seem like a hostile environment, and peer reviewers can all too often be unnecessarily cruel, but don’t let this fool you into thinking that journals are looking to reject your work. The opposite is the case: editors will do all they can to see that your article is published.
Good luck!
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