How to Write a Successful Journal Paper
By James K. Thompson, PhD, PE, INCE Bd Cert
There are no secrets to preparing an outstanding journal paper. All I can do in this article is summarize my thoughts on what makes a good paper. In the process, I may be able to provide some insights from my lessons learned. As the editor of the Noise Control Engineering Journal (NCEJ), I have some experience that will be helpful.
It is important to define what I mean by a journal paper. I mean a refereed paper—some may say reviewed or peer reviewed. Reviewing is typically a requirement of journals. The paper must be read critically by reviewers, most often three, before it can be considered for publication. There are some conferences and other professional societies that perform reviews for collections of papers or other works that are not journals. However, for the sake of this discussion, I will simply use the term “journal papers.”
In this article I am going to describe the process of preparing such a paper and provide guidance for successfully navigating the review process, working with the reviewers and the editor.
No amount of polishing or outstanding writing will overcome poor technical content. To be successfully received, a journal paper must have original and outstanding technical content. It must contain new insights or developments that are fully supported and documented. The technical content could pertain to new techniques or new applications of existing technology. It could also describe significant technical advancement. But the bottom line is that you must have a sound, well-thought-through technical contribution to your field. Make sure you have done your homework. How is your research different from or better than what others have done?
It is important that your paper be of professional quality. It must fit with the expectations of the journal and the journal editor. At a minimum, the paper must be clear and provide a logical presentation.
In most cases the paper begins with an abstract. This section must be focused and easy to read. The abstract is important. It is what people see first and may be all that people use to evaluate your paper during searches. Too many authors treat the abstract as a necessary evil that is insignificant. It is vitally important and can be very helpful for those doing literature searches.
Make sure that your paper provides a good description of goals, what was done, results, and conclusions. This sounds like it is obvious, but many papers are rejected or require major revisions because they do not provide these basic elements.
The illustrations used in your paper are important. They are a critical part of describing what you did and what you found. Clear tables, graphs, and illustrations are critical to a professional paper. Make tables and illustrations clear and easy for the reader to understand. It is important to make sure that the symbols, fonts, and lines are all easily read and clear. I cannot overemphasize this point. One of the most common comments from reviewers is that they could not understand figures or tables and that those elements need to be revised for clarity.
Be sure to credit work done by others. Leaving out an important reference or not acknowledging that you are using work done by someone else is improper and will generate a quick rejection of the paper. On the other side of the coin, avoid overemphasizing what you have done. You do not want it to seem that you are denigrating the work of others.
Conclusions are critical. They must be supported by and flow directly from the results and analysis presented. Do not make conclusions your data does not support. All reviewers would rather you be honest about the limitations of your results than speculate about what they might mean. It is important that you make real conclusions based on what your data and analysis have shown. Do not just summarize what was done. It is very disappointing to read a 10-page paper that is well written but then concludes with only a summary of what was done. It is important that you provide conclusions that define what your work means or how it can be used.
Make the paper the best you can. Have others review the completed paper before you submit it. Critical input is far better at this point than coming from reviewers. Remember that if others cannot follow the paper, you have failed. Do not depend on the reviewers to catch errors or to help polish your work. You will only cause them to dislike and possibly reject your paper.
If English is not your first language, ask someone who is better with written English than you are to review your paper. Ask them to be critical and point out how the English can be improved to make the paper better. Many journals and reviewers will refuse to review a paper if the English is too poor. When it becomes difficult to understand or to distinguish what is meant in critical sections, reviewers will simply reject the paper.
Begin by choosing a journal. You should select a journal that your paper will fit with naturally and that is widely read by those working in your field. Of course, I hope you choose NCEJ, but there may be other relevant publications for your specific research.
Familiarize yourself with the format and requirements of the journal you choose. Stick to their format. Do not violate their requirements. This is a quick way to get your paper rejected.
Write the conclusions first. This is important since all the preceding parts of the paper must support these conclusions. If you are not sure what your conclusions will be, you are not ready to write the paper.
Once you have good conclusions, make an outline. I know some of you are rolling your eyes or are saying “what a waste of time,” but an outline will help you write a better paper. It does not have to be overly detailed. Some writers will be able to put down just a few bullet points. Others will need or want a more detailed outline. Regardless, outlines are a good way to organize your thoughts and provide a road map as you work through the paper-writing process.
The basic organization of a journal paper is simple:
This has already been discussed above. Again, an abstract should summarize your work in a clear, focused, and easy-to-read manner.
In the introduction, provide an overall, but brief, description of what you are going to present in the paper and offer a literature review. There should be a statement of problem. You should describe why that problem is important (but do not try to oversell its value). What hasn’t been done before that you are addressing? Offer a critical review of what has been done before. What have other authors found? What problems have they encountered? You need to provide evidence of a review of the literature. You do not want to over-reference your own previous work. Make sure your references here and throughout the paper are relevant to what you are doing. Be sure that your literature search is comprehensive. Have you looked beyond your own specific focus area for published research related to an almost identical or an analogous problem?
The approach is the description of how you approached your problem or investigation. It should describe what you did and how you did it. It should be clear and concise. This is often a difficulty for writers. You need to provide enough information for the reader to duplicate the work—but not so much detail that the reader gets lost in minutiae. The reader should be able to repeat the model development, the analysis, the setup and conducting of experiments, the data acquisition, the data analysis, and other important aspects of your work. Where possible you should reference papers that describe the procedures you have used. Avoid repeating material already available in the literature. If you feel there are some details that are important, consider putting them in an appendix to keep from breaking the flow of the narrative.
There are many ways to present results. I will try to highlight some of the important forms.
Figures are an important part of most technical papers. They should be clear and easy to read. The reader’s eyes should be immediately drawn to the data and the effects you want to illustrate. The text associated with a figure is just as important as the data. Choose font sizes accounting for the size of the figure in the published document. Yes, in electronic format the reader can zoom in larger, but you do not want to force the reader to do this. It is best to be consistent with font sizes and text formats for all figures. This prevents the reader from wondering why the fonts changed and if he or she missed an important point. If you use variables in figures, use the same font as in the equations of the paper. This will reduce a lot of confusion.
The captions for figures are important. Figures captions should be concise. You should not try to explain the figure in the caption. Explanations belong in the text. A good caption should be easy to understand and provide a title for the figure, not an explanation of what is being presented. Don’t repeat what is in the text.
When you select the scales used on axes, remember that the reader may be comparing figures. You should use the same scales and size of figure when you anticipate the reader may make visual comparisons. If possible, you may want to put these data sets in the same figure to facilitate comparisons. Changing scales can change the look of the data. Don’t use a scale showing all the small perturbations in the data when the point is the overall trend.
The analysis component in the approach may be model analysis or experimental data analysis or a combination of both. Since you are the person most familiar with the data and the analysis performed, you must take care to provide a good explanation for the reader—one that is not overly complex or too terse for the reader to understand. Readers have not internalized the material to the extent that you have; they need to be given a clear path through all its complexity. Relate the results to the objectives of the research. Do not ignore data that does not support your hypothesis. Outliers in the data are like shining beacons to readers and reviewers—you need to address them.
Although located at the end of the paper, the conclusions make or break it. They are the most important part of the paper. The conclusions are really the purpose for writing the paper. It is important to be concise. These should not be long-winded statements. They should be short and to the point. It is your job as the author to focus the reader on the points you think are important. You must relate results back to objectives of the research. If possible, avoid repeating the text elsewhere in the paper. Taking whole sections from the abstract or the introduction is not a good idea.
It is important to be realistic with your conclusions. A new noise measurement technique is not going to solve world hunger. Note the limitations of your results and analysis, if appropriate, and describe future work that is needed.
Working with Reviewers and Editors
The typical publication process has the following major steps:
- Review (controlled by reviewers)
- Revision (controlled by authors)
- Publication (controlled by publisher)
Each step takes at least one to two months. The process takes some time, and reviewers are always busy. That is why they are good reviewers—they are actively working in the area. You must be patient.
The editor has a dual role: she or he is responsible for facilitating the publication process and making sure the journal is the best it can be. Thus, the editor facilitates and monitors the publication process from the paper submission to the final publication of the journal. He or she chooses the reviewers or assigns an associate editor. The associate editor will have experience and expertise in the paper topic. Based on the review results, the editor decides on publication.
Most publications require two or three reviews. Since reviewers are performing their duties with no compensation and on their own time, they generally take one to two months to complete reviews. The editor must balance the need to provide a speedy process for the author and consideration for the busy schedule of the reviewers.
Results of the Review
As one might imagine, the results of the review process are not always clear-cut. A few of the common results are shown below.
- Approved with minor modifications: Small changes are required to clarify a point or to fix an issue with formatting. The best course for the author is simply to make the requested changes and return the revised paper as quickly as possible.
- Approved with major modifications: In this case, there is a significant problem with the paper that needs to be corrected. It is important that the author take seriously and address carefully the concerns and issues raised by the reviewers. In this case, the editor will send the revised paper back to the reviewers so that they can determine if their concerns have been addressed. The surest way to get the paper rejected is for the author to fail to sufficiently address the modifications recommended by a reviewer. A rejection by just one of the reviewers at this stage will mean the paper is rejected by the editor.
- Rejected: The paper is not considered appropriate for publication. This may be for many reasons, which should be explained with the rejection note. The paper may cover a topic felt inappropriate for the journal. It may not be well organized, or it may not have the required technical content.
- Mixed reviews: Often the editor will get mixed reviews. With three reviewers, there may be two “approved with major modifications” results and one rejection. At this point the editor’s judgment comes into the picture. Most editors will go with “accept with major modifications” to give the author an opportunity to redeem the paper. Situations like this are why it is so important to carefully address the modifications recommended and issues raised by the reviewers. The reviewer who originally rejected the paper will be very hard to persuade to change his or her opinion.
- Accepted without revision.
Revisions if accepted. As mentioned above, it is important for the authors to be responsive to the input from the reviewers. My experience has been that many authors can feel hurt or disappointed with reviewers’ comments. This should not be the case since the reviewers’ comments are the best advice you will get for improving the paper. My suggestion, for new authors especially, is to read through the reviews and privately express (to yourself) your concerns and anger. Then put the reviews aside over the weekend or for a few days. Once you have cooled off, you will be amazed how much milder the comments will seem, and you may even be able to see that they are helpful. I have seen this procedure work successfully many times, so you may want to try it.
It is important to respond in an expeditious fashion. You do not want to lose momentum, and you do not want the editor to feel you are not going to respond. Yes, you may be busy with the next project or paper, but you must respond to get this paper published. Many papers fail to be published because the authors fail to revise and return the paper to the editor. Some journals impose time limits, beyond which the paper is dropped. Remember: The editor is giving you an opportunity. If you can, you should take advantage of it.
If rejected, what are your options? If the paper is simply inappropriate for the journal you chose, you can resubmit to another journal that is more in line with the paper’s topic. If the paper is found to have technical or organizational shortcomings, you need to address the issues pointed out by the reviewers before resubmitting to the same journal or elsewhere. Remember that the reviewer community is small. If you submit the same paper to another journal without modifications, the chances are high that one of the same reviewers will see your paper. It will then be automatically rejected, and this will not help your reputation. This happens too frequently and is a major negative for reviewers and editors.
Reviewers are not the enemy. The majority give helpful recommendations. You need to take advantage of these recommendations. Many others reading your paper would have the same comments as your reviewers. If your reviewer thinks what you have done is wrong or is not clear, so would many others who read the paper. Revisions almost always result in a better paper, for which the authors (not the reviewers) get credit. If you have doubts, go with the reviewers. This is especially true for minor points. Arguing about minor points is a good way to lose the editor’s support.
Provide the editor with list of responses to reviewers’ comments and what was changed in response to comments. Give page numbers (original submitted document and revised one, if different) and positions on the page where changes were made. Make it easy for the editor to see that you have addressed all the reviewers’ comments and concerns.
Do not change the paper elsewhere without informing the editor, and try to avoid doing so, anyway. If the editor finds that you have, it makes her or him very unhappy. This should be a converging, not diverging, process. Substantial changes that do not directly address a reviewers’ comments will necessitate a re-review and slow the publication process.
What do you do if you disagree with the reviewers’ comments? Rigid compliance to reviewers’ requests is not always required (after all, reviewers can be wrong). However, you not want to pick a fight over a minor point. Find a way of communicating your (strong) opinions gracefully. It may be that you didn’t explain things well. Even if what you did was correct, attacking reviewers, or editors, will not help. Reviewers have put a lot of effort in the process and do not respond well to comments that can be summarized as “you are a moron.” Cooperation and patience with editors and reviewers always pay off.
I hope this has provided a useful guide to developing a successful journal paper. One point that has only been lightly touched is that each paper submitted should be original work. Repeating other publications and plagiarizing, even unintentionally, are wrong and will harm your reputation. Papers should contain new and valuable information for readers. They should be well written and well organized. The review process is helpful to authors. You should take advantage of free and often good advice. Patience and tenacity are virtues in the process of getting published in refereed journals.
Much of this article is taken from the Young Professionals presentation made at multiple NOISE-CON and INTER-NOISE conferences by several different people. I would like to acknowledge the contributions of these individuals:
Keith Attenborough, Applied Acoustics and Acta Acustica
Stuart Bolton and Patricia Davies, formerly American editors of the Journal of Sound and Vibration (JSV)
Courtney B. Burroughs, formerly editor of Noise Control Engineering Journal (NCEJ)
Stephen A. Hambric, ASME, Journal of Vibrations and Acoustics (JVA)
George Maling, Noise/News International (NNI)
Ralph Muehleisen, Acoustical Society of America Proceedings of Meetings on Acoustics (POMA)