Why Write a Journal Paper?
By James K. Thompson, PhD, PE, INCE Bd. Cert.
In July 2017 I took on the role of editor of the Noise Control Engineering Journal (NCEJ). In contacting people who had written papers for the NOISE-CON and INTER-NOISE conferences about preparing a paper for NCEJ, I discovered a large number had not considered writing a paper for a journal. This realization made me think about why people should write journal papers. What follows is a discussion about the reasons for writing a journal paper, which I hope provides some insights as to why it is important. I think the general principles are relevant to a wide range of fields and publications.
It is important to define what I mean by a journal paper. I mean a refereed paper—some may say reviewed. This is typically a requirement of journals. The paper must be reviewed 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 arrangements that are not journals. However, for the sake of this discussion, I will simply use the term journal papers.
I will begin by assuming the reader has published a conference paper at NOISE-CON, INTER-NOISE, or some other conference. Generally, these papers are short, four to six pages long, and deal with one specific topic or issue. They are not subjected to a detailed technical review. In most cases, only the abstract is scanned to see that the proposed paper is relevant to the conference.
A journal paper (as defined above) receives a thorough technical review by two or more reviewers and is judged on its technical contribution and long-term reference value. Therefore, the journal paper is more rigorous and more comprehensive. This typically results in a longer—maybe ten pages or more—publication with a literature search, a presentation that clearly demonstrates an addition or refinement to previous work in the field, and conclusions that provide a clear context for the contributions made. The journal paper is generally more comprehensive. Where the conference paper may describe a set of findings, the journal paper describes the findings with the validation done and a comparison to previous work or theories.
It should be clear that the journal paper represents a significant step from the conference paper. It is more difficult to prepare and must undergo a rigorous review process. However, it is an important part of a researcher’s career. The record of significant work as documented in journal papers is a fundamental credential.
So, why would someone want to take on this challenge? That is the issue I will try to address in this article.
Building a record of research. This is the most common reason for writing a technical paper. Researchers are doing investigations and for many reasons they need a record of journal publications to demonstrate the quality and magnitude of their work. This is necessary for researchers working in academia, institutions, government labs, and elsewhere.
Many people I have spoken with indicated they have not considered a journal publication because they are not pursuing an academic career and are not evaluated by how many journal publications they produce. This may be true, but if you plan to do research, others will use your publication record to judge your accomplishments. Having worked in academia, industry, and the government, I have seen many variations in the importance attributed to journal publications by different organizations. The one constant I have seen is that every time I have applied for a new research position, one of the questions asked was “Can we see your list of journal publications?” Even in organizations where publications are not encouraged, the number of journal publications may be a criterion in hiring and promotion. Some may call it “résumé building,” but having a record of journal publications is important if you plan to pursue a career in research or technical development.
Professional communication. From a professional perspective, the ideal reason for writing a journal paper is to disseminate information—to make the noise control community aware of the outstanding work you have done and your impactful results. The journal paper allows you to be more comprehensive in the presentation of your work and provides the added value that the paper is reviewed by your peers. The review process ensures that the work has not been published previously, that it is original, that it is technically correct, that it is presented in a logical manner, and that it has long-term technical value. By publishing a journal paper, you communicate your work with a stamp of approval by the review process. The journal paper provides the scope to demonstrate what you have done and lends authority to a detailed presentation of your work. For these reasons, journal publications have been an important part of scholarship in the academic world for a few hundred years.
Confirming or refuting other work. Not only may you want to make others aware of your work, but you may want to use a journal publication to confirm or refute the work of someone else. If someone has published research that you disagree with or that you feel missed important issues, the best way to refute this work is with a journal publication. A conference paper may not carry enough weight. Having a reviewed paper that clearly demonstrates limitations or problems with previous work is persuasive and the professional way to deal with such issues.
Validation of work. In some instances, journal publications with the validation of a review process are important for others to use your work. Some standards and regulating agencies require journal (refereed) publications before making new or modifying existing standards or regulations. In one government agency in which I worked, my team developed new noise control methods. Another agency would then write or modify rules to make the use of these controls part of regulations. The other agency would not even begin to write the new rules until there were journal publications on the controls we had developed to assure their technical validity.
Required for position. Some positions require journal publications. As noted above, academic positions are one example. At some universities a published journal paper is a requirement for a degree. In other organizations journal publications may be necessary for advancement to certain positions.
Coalescing your work. This may be a surprising reason to write a journal publication for some. However, I have found, and many researchers have told me, that one of the best ways to summarize your work and put together a compilation of a research program or multiple related programs is to prepare a journal paper. The process of preparing the paper forces you to summarize what has been done and prioritize the specific accomplishments. Often, researchers discover new implications or new ways to define the implications of their work in this process. The fact that it results in a journal publication is a bonus. Often, graduate students do not realize the implications or impact of their work until they begin to prepare a journal publication and are forced to look at their work in a broader context.
Ego. This cannot be left out. Some people write journal papers because they want their work recognized or to have a record of their accomplishments. Some of the other reasons noted above may also apply, but often there is a component of personal satisfaction in telling the world what you have done and knowing there will be a record maintained in a journal volume. Yes, conferences have proceedings of their papers, but they are not refereed and are often hard to obtain if you did not attend the conference. Journal papers are well documented and easily obtained through libraries and online. There is nothing wrong with having some ego invested in preparing a journal paper. This is often the case. The review process will insure that your paper has real technical merit and is not just an exercise in self-promotion.
Does This Pertain to You?
You may be questioning whether the above reasons pertain to you or whether it is worth the effort to go through the process of preparing a journal paper. It certainly is more work than writing a conference paper. To provide broader context and more technical content, you will have to do more work. In most cases, there are a combination of reasons that motivate one to write a journal paper. Each person has different motivations and there are different motivators for specific publications. As noted above, a record of journal publications is an important credential for a researcher. However, there are many reasons and combinations of reasons. In looking at the above list of reasons, you may consider how they pertain to you.
Obviously, I would not be writing this article if I did not think journal publications are important. They are the primary means of technical communication in noise control engineering and many other fields. The way I look at it is that conference papers provide interesting new information or ideas, and journal papers provide new paths to follow. You just cannot provide enough information or validation in most conference papers.
With instant communications, blogs, social media, and virtual conferences, the journal paper may seem out of date. However, none of these means of communication provides a means to thoroughly document your work with a rigorous technical review to assure its validity. In many instances, conference proceedings are only available to conference attendees or hard to find when searching for relevant information on a topic.
There is still no better way to thoroughly communicate your research findings and no better way to provide a long-term reference. Clearly a paper is not a paper, but an electronic record. However, the essential value of having a permanent record that is comprehensive and technically reviewed remains. In some ways the value may have increased as the amount of information and disinformation grows. With modern search engines, a researcher can search everything published on a topic in every journal in seconds.
You should consider whether your work should be permanently documented. My experience is that many engineers feel their work is not sufficient to warrant a journal paper. This may be the opposite of the ego motivation noted above. If you have done good work and can thoroughly explain new controls, new measurement methods, new methods of analysis, or novel applications of these, you should prepare a journal paper. If what you have done is not new or a novel application, the review process will let you know and probably help you to understand where you could redirect your efforts. Having feedback from the review process can be enlightening and help you to understand your work in a boarder context.
I want to deal with a few common comments and questions I have heard when discussing writing journal papers.
- “My organization does not encourage writing papers. I only write conference papers so that I can attend conferences. I would have to write a journal paper on my own time and my company would not see any value in it.”
These concerns and variations on this theme are common. I understand these comments. One of my first employers discouraged writing papers for fear that trade secrets would be leaked. I still worked on my own time to write conference papers and journal papers. I often had to fight protracted battles with management and the legal department to get these published. Many years later when I decided to seek a new employer, I found the value of this work. I got comments from interviewers that went something like this: “We know how difficult this was with your former employer. They probably were not happy about all the publications. When did you find time to do this work? This is outstanding. You clearly know how to do world class research.”
In other instances, technical people from our customers asked to have meetings with me specifically because of these publications. The publications had established my expertise and our customers wanted to learn from me.
- “It is too difficult to publish a journal paper. You must go through the review process and the people doing the reviews are negative and do not understand our work. I know my work is good. I do not need a review process to validate it. It is a lot of work and no one looks at these journals anyway.”
There is no doubt that writing a journal paper is significantly more effort than preparing a conference paper. However, if you thoroughly understand your work, the level of effort is not unreasonable. A good journal paper is worth some work and the effort can result in significant benefit. I have seen important journal papers done in a week by a motivated researcher. However, that is probably the minimum time possible.
Too many researchers see the reviewers as the enemy. They are not. In most cases they will do all they can to help the author to improve the paper and make it worthy of publication. I can honestly say that I have never had a reviewer comment that did not help me to improve my papers. Most reviewers are very knowledgeable in the field in which they are reviewing and can provide useful insights. Some of their comments and suggestions may bruise a few egos, but they are generally very helpful. If you can demonstrate that a reviewer is mistaken or has missed an important point, the editor can and will step in to deal with such cases. In my experience, these are few and far between.
Writing a quality journal paper does take work. However, it is not as bad as it first seems. For those who know their topic and are diligent, it can be a rewarding process. As noted above, journal papers have gained importance with modern Internet search engines and can be retrieved by researchers worldwide. Journal publications are truly important.
There are many reasons why you should be writing journal papers. The combination of reasons that fits your circumstances is up to you to determine. Whether for ego or to lay the groundwork for regulations, writing a journal paper is a fundamental part of documenting your research and providing a long-term reference for others. While conference papers are good for publicizing new ideas or findings, they are not sufficient to provide complete documentation and long-term reference value. Taking the next step to publishing journal papers is a major part of a researcher’s career.
Some readers may be saying, “I am not sure journal papers are critical for me. I am working for an organization that does not highly value such publications or I am not sure I want to be a researcher—I am perfectly happy working in my engineering team.” I would caution you not to look at your current employer as your employer for life. Also, don’t think of researchers as those working in ivory towers. Some of the best research in noise control is done by those working as consultants or product development teams to solve tough control, measurement, or simulation problems. Many might not call themselves researchers, but what they are doing is fundamental to the field of noise control.
The bottom line is to think about the work you are doing or have done. Could it provide value to others? Would it be good to document what you have discovered or accomplished? Maybe a journal paper would be a great way to combine several smaller projects into a broader set of conclusions or directions for others. Think about writing a journal paper and follow through.
I cannot close without encouraging you to go to the NCEJ website: https://inceusa.org/publications/noise-control-engineering-journal/ to see our instructions for authors and examine our recent papers to see what you can do. If you have questions or would like to discuss a possible paper, feel free to contact me at EditorNCEJ@inceusa.org.