...get published

This describes which journal to choose, which suggested (or dispreferred?) reviewers to mention, an example cover letter, how to read the submission system, when to contact the editorial office about your submission, and how to respond to reviewers.
I currently serve as Associate Editor of the journal Language & Speech. However, the statements below do not reflect the official opinion of Language & Speech nor any other journal I ever edited or reviewed for. They merely describe my personal experiences with submitting, reviewing, and editing papers, so take them with a grain of salt…

What journal do I pick?

Nowadays, with Twitter, Psyarxiv, and Google Scholar, what journal a paper appears in has become a lot less important. Your peers will see it online no matter where it is published. Moreover, science as a whole is moving towards valuing the impact of an article on its own merits rather than weighing its value by the impact factor of the journal it appeared in. Still, in general, one can say that the broader the interest and audience of the journal, the more prestigious it is considered, and the harder it is to get a paper accepted (think Nature vs. Language and Speech, for instance). That said, the story is a little different for open access journals of broad interest. Even though these journals have papers from a wide range of disciplines, it is - at least in my experience - easier to get into these than their non-open broad-interest counterparts, hurting their prestige a bit.

As speech researchers, we are livin’ on the edge… of the fields of experimental psychology, neurobiology, and the speech sciences. Consequently, we need to consider journals from differents fields. Is your experimental study more appealing and relevant to a psychology crowd, or to hardcore phoneticians, or nutty neuroscientists? Also remember there is no single perfect journal for your study; in fact, in all likelihood you may have to go through several before seeing it in print. Here are some things to consider…

Consider a journal’s prestige because that will influence your chances of getting in.

Consider the journal’s values, for instance in terms of open access and open data.

Consider the implications of your study: some papers simply fit better in a specialist journal than in one of broad interest.

Consider your CV: it’s probably better if your CV lists publications in different journals from different fields compared to only publishing in a single specialist journal.

Consider journal-specific criteria and guidelines, such as what article types do they have (Regular Article vs. Brief Reports), what word limits do they have, etc.

Finally, before submitting check whether your institution has an agreement with the target journal about open access fees. Many academic institutions will have signed contracts with publishers, waiving open access fees for their employees. However, often certain conditions apply, such as applying only to first-authors, or to authors with an institute email address. Make sure you know about these conditions before submitting as whatever details you submit will decide whether or not your paper falls under those institutional agreements.

Submitting your paper

Most journals work with an online submission system, such as Manuscript Central. Go to the website of your journal of interest, search for ‘Submit your paper here’ or something similar, and create an account with the system.

It helps if you create your account carefully because many of your account’s details will carry over to your submissions. For instance, add your ORCID number to your account so your ORCID iD will automatically appear on your publications. Use your institute email address so your institute will pay the open access fees.

Then create a new submission, which typically involves…

  • …selecting an article type

    Is this a Regular Article (most experimental studies are) or a Review Paper (without new empirical data)? Or is it a Brief Report (check out the journal guidelines) or even a Registered Report (pre-registered study in an open repository, like OSF)?

  • …copying some manuscript details

    Copy the title, abstract, keywords, etc. into the relevant boxes. Note that most submission systems are simple text only, so formatting in the title or abstract may get lost. Make sure you enter these details only when the manuscript is in its definitive form. You don’t want to have a different title in the system vs. in the manuscript itself. This is particularly relevant for keywords. Some journals allow you to select keywords yourself (see journal guidelines for how many and what character to use to separate different keywords) but sometimes they ask you to select from a dropdown menu. If the latter, you want to make sure you don’t have different keywords in the manuscript.

  • …ticking a few boxes

    No, we did not submit this paper anywhere else; yes, we adhered to all relevant ethical requirements and guidelines; no, we do not have any conflicts of interest.

  • …uploading all relevant files

    Upload your manuscript (.docx), any supplementary information (.pdf), raw figure files (.eps or .pdf), and a cover letter (.pdf). Check with the journal what file format to use. If possible, use vector-based formats like .eps and .pdf for figures because they look nicer in print. However, because Word doesn’t like these formats, I do use .png or .jpg images inside the manuscript’s Word document. Cover letters are stemming from the olden days when they were used to include ’not published elsewhere’-statements, author contact details, etc., but nowaways these details live inside the submission system. Still, it’s nice to have one, especially to highlight the importance, novelty, and main take-away messages from the paper. For broad-interest journals with lots of desk rejections, the cover letter is important; you’ll really need to sell your study.

Download a cover letter template here.

Sometimes journals ask you to upload a “PDF for reviewers”. This is identical to the main manuscript, except that it is in .pdf format and has all figures and tables in the text. In the olden days, APA guidelines asked you to place figures only at the end of the manuscript, presumably for copyediting reasons. Their positions in the main text were then identified by the authors by including short “Insert Figure 1 about here” boxes. However, this is a real pain for readers, and reviewers in particular (and everyone else too, really…), because this means you need to flip back and forth between main text and figures to understand the results. It’s much easier and more effective if you place figures in text. Even if journal guidelines still ask you to place figures at the end of the manuscript, I usually just put them in text anyway and wait for an editorial assistant to call me out…
  • …adding suggested reviewers

    Sometimes this is mandatory, sometimes this is optional. If optional, it’s fine to leave it open but it can help speed up the review process. It is not uncommon for editors to have to invite >20 reviewers before finally finding two who accept, so giving the editor a hand doesn’t hurt. How to select them? Often these are people whose work you cite in the paper. However, it’s probably better not to go for the big fish, as these people typically already receive many review requests and are more likely to decline. Why not consider selecting a postdoc from their lab? Why not consider diversity and gender balance in your suggested reviewers? Note, by the way, that it is uncommon to suggest reviewers who have not yet obtained a PhD. Also do not suggest researchers you’ve worked with in the past.

Some editorial boards are critical of suggested reviewers because of scams in the past. There have been cases when authors created fake online profiles of “Dr. A.B.C. Smith”, linked abcsmith@university.com to their own email inbox, and then suggested Dr. Smith as a possible reviewer, … well, you get the idea. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to provide a few suggestions (unless explicitly asked not to, of course); it’s the editor’s job to simply be careful in their review invitations.
  • …add dispreferred reviewers

    This is optional; they’re left empty in most cases. I have never filled these out myself and honestly I do not even know how most editors will use this information. Will they invite them anyway to get a different perspective on the paper, or will they honor the authors’ request not to invite them? Even if you have a name in mind for this category, I guess you can still leave this box empty because chances are slim that the editor will specifically invite that person anyway.

  • …clicking [SUBMIT]!

    Fingers crossed! Wait at least 3 months before contacting the editorial office about any updates (don’t use the editor’s personal email address). Be curteous and kindly ask whether they can inform you about your manuscript’s current status. They’ll likely inform you that they’re waiting for one reviewer to get back to them, and if you’re lucky they may give you an indication of when they expect all reviews to be in. The submission system itself usually also tells you what the status of your submission is, but these labels (like “With Editor”, “Under Review”, “Waiting for Editorial Decision”) usually do not tell you very much. Your paper can be “Under Review” the moment the first reviewer accepts, but then the editor may have considerable trouble finding the second one, who knows…?!?

Reviews are in! Now what?

It’s a random Friday afternoon, you’re just about to close your laptop for the weekend, when you see this email appear in your inbox, with the obscure subject “Decision on XYZ-01234”. What do you do? Do you open it immediately, do you leave it be for the weekend, do you forward it to your supervisors without opening?

I probably have never read a decision letter and felt delighted afterwards. Here’s a project you’ve spent years of your time on and now these anonymous strangers get to shoot at it! Do you really want the reviews to spoil your weekend? Why not leave it for now and book a timeslot in your agenda to carefully read it in full?

After the first read, it can really take some mental effort to take a deep breath and think about the reviews in a constructive manner. It may help to ask your supervisors and/or co-authors – who may have had the pleasure of receiving reviews more often than you have – for their opinions and perspectives. Forward the entire decision letter to them asap and schedule a meeting to go through it together, and in the meanwhile let the general impression sink in. Take some distance, there’s no real rush; leave it be for a while, take a few days to consider different perspectives. Keep in mind that ‘major revisions’ does not mean ’this study has major flaws’ but is in practice the standard status of any manuscript sent back for revisions. In fact, in my (by now 12-year-long) academic career, I’ve received a ‘minor revisions’ decision only once. All in all, this may help to avoid becoming grumpy and defensive, to put things into perspective, and adopt a constructive mindset.

How to respond? Well, on a practical level, copy the entire decision letter into a new document. Then paste ***RESPONSE #1*** beneath the first comment, ***RESPONSE #2*** below the second, etc. Then go through the document and write down how you’d like to respond to individual comments. This can be really informal at first (“Need to look up refs”) but it helps to get an idea of how much work needs to be done. Also create a copy of the original manuscript, rename it, and start Track Changes to keep track of what’s been changed (useful for you and useful for co-authors).

Tips n tricks:

  • Number your responses. This makes it easier to refer back to points already addressed earlier. Do not respond “Please see our earlier response above” but be specific: “Please see our Response #9”
  • Use ‘fields’ in Word. Instead of manually typing from 1 to 134, copy the same statement including a field below each comment, and hit CTRL-A and then F9 to automatically update the fields.
  • Use a different font or color for your responses so it is immediately clear what was the original comment and what is your response. Note however that some journals do not allow you to upload a ‘Response to reviewers’ document but instead ask you to copy your responses into a plain text box. This will remove any formatting, so also use *** or ### to mark your responses.
  • Look up a paper in a journal with open reviews (e.g., recent papers in eLife, Royal Society Open Science, Nature Communications). You’ll be able to see how others have dealt with critical comments and still managed to get their paper published!
  • Make your reviewers’ life easy: add page numbers to every response that involved changes in the manuscript. Tip: initially use something easily findable, like #pagenumber, and only replace these with the actual page numbers at the very end, right before you resubmit.
  • Also: keep it snappy. Don’t respond to single-line comments with pages-and-pages of words. Also don’t spend too many words thanking reviewers at the beginning of each and every response. Instead, keep it efficient. Jump straight into the issue without further ado. Reviewers, when receiving your rebuttal, will want to know how you handled their questions and critiques; they don’t want to have to wade through lines and lines of (sometimes feigned) gratitude.
  • Your responses to substantial comments are best also included (likely in a trimmed down version) in the manuscript. Remember that, for most journals, the reviews aren’t open. This means that the points raised by the reviewers and your responses to them aren’t accessible to other readers. Still, they may have the same questions or concerns as your reviewers. Therefore, aim for an accurate and complete published record in which you explicitly acknowledge critical perspectives (“An anonymous reviewer mentioned that…”) and your responses to them (“However, we should point out that…”).
  • Give your reviewers the benefit of the doubt. Try to see the whole reviewing entreprise as something collaborative (…we’re all in this together to make it the best possible paper) instead of something competitive (…how can we make the author’s life as difficult as possible?). These annoying and troublesome strangers actually voluntarily invested a few hours if not days reading and thinking about your paper. Imagine them receiving your responses after several months have gone by, not exactly remembering what was wrong with the manuscript and why, only to find multiple ’no-thank-you’s from you. Even if you are entirely correct, this would already annoy even the most constructive of reviewers. Take them seriously and show you’ve given their comments considerable thought.
  • In the unlikely event you receive comments that are outright disrespectful, don’t respond in the same tone of voice. Be polite, courteous, and constructive; that way you will likely change the tone of the discussion. At the same time, you demonstrate to the editor – who in the end is the one who makes the final decision on your submission – that you have considered the criticism seriously and have responded in a mature manner, winning them over to your side.
  • In the likely event you receive particularly useful and insightful comments, do feel free to explicitly express your gratitude (e.g., “We found this comment particularly insightful because XYZ”). However, don’t overdo it. Only include a handful of these thank-you-notes and why not try to distribute them equally across all reviewers, not to upset anyone…
  • If after reading and re-reading and discussing the reviews with your co-authors, some comment remains unclear to you, do get in touch with the editor to ask for clarification. Do not ask “if we only do ABC and not XYZ, will you then accept our paper?”. Rather, “we do not fully understand this comment about ABC because XYZ. Could you please clarify what criticism this comment raises?”. Do not get in touch with reviewers directly if you know their identity.
  • Finally, if your paper is reviewed but rejected by the editor, do revise your manuscript before sending it out to another journal. Don’t simply send out the old manuscript to a new journal; it could be the new journal happens to invite (some of) the same reviewers as before. But even if they don’t, the initial reviewers may see the paper out in print in another journal some day, still including some of the same mistakes or misinterpretations they pointed out initially. Again, take their comments seriously, revise, and then resubmit.

Happy publishing!