Wednesday 11 December 2013

Strategic Approaches to Getting Published

Prof Sally Sheldon opened last week's Early Career Researcher Network meeting by exhorting the audience to think strategically about publication. It was easy, she suggested, to be flattered by invitations to write chapters. But these can divert you and eat up your limited time. Try to keep in mind the direction in which you want your research to develop, and what publications will help to build your profile. 'Everyone should have a publication strategy, and should review it every year or two,' she said.

Balanced Publication Portfolio

ECRs should try and develop a balanced publication portfolio. You don't always need to be targeting top journals, and sometimes you need to balance several factors:
  • Audience: who do you want to appeal to? Should you be thinking beyond your narrow disciplinary boundaries, or focussing more intensively on it?
  • Impact: do you want the findings of your research to be felt outside of academia?
  • Career Progression: will the publication help in the development of a strong CV?
  • REF: will the publication be a strong, positive contribution to your discipline?
  • Timing: do you need to get something out quickly, or work longer on a discipline-changing piece of research?
  • Co-authorship: would co-authorship help or hinder your publication record?
  • Open Access: will be increasingly important for the REF, but is it worth considering to help with your citations?

What Do Publishers Look for?

Richard Hart, Chief Executive of Hart Publishing, took over to talk about his experience as an academic publisher. In his 30 years in publishing he has seen a decline in traditional monographs. From a high in the 1980s when more than 2000 were published annually, the market has slumped so that now a tenth of that number are produced. Monographs are seen as esoteric and small scale, and in many disciplines journals are favoured.

Generally, publishers are interested in text books, or books used for professional or scholarly reference. A proposal now needs to offer a touch of brilliance, or something that might be of interest to either a broader readership, or a specific (and long term) niche. 

If you do want to write a monograph, it has to be for the right reasons: you need to have a passion for the subject, and this needs to be reflected in your proposal. Your first monograph can be career defining, and it pays to get it right. You shouldn't do it as a way of making money.

Revising your Thesis

Many ECRs assume that their theses will transfer easily into a commercially produced book. This is often based on their examiner's comments, but it is a rarity for theses to make the transition. If you are considering it, you need to:
  • think about the methodology section. You don't need a long, detailed explanation here. This was for the examiners. The average reader won't be interested;
  • similarly, strengthen your introduction and conclusion;
  • cut out repetitious linkages;
  • if your research is unorthodox, decide on your message, and emphasise it throughout;
  • update it, and add new chapters;
  • consider making the title 'Google-friendly', so that it is descriptive of the research and will be easily found on the internet;
  • find an appropriate publisher, who has published in your area, produces good quality books, and that your colleagues would recommend;
  • above all, the publisher is concerned about commercial viability. Is your research something that would appeal broadly or long term?
Thus, for a book proposal you should:
  • describe your book in 300-400 words;
  • explain your methodology;
  • give a critical literature review, to show that you understand the field, and how your research differs from what has gone before;
  • include a detailed table of contents, a brief CV, and a sample chapter;
  • if it's a thesis, include the examiner's report, and explain any plans to revise it;
  • and finally, an estimate of when you will finish writing it.
When the publishers receive the proposal, they will initially evaluate it. This is very brief - a matter of minutes - and what they're looking for is whether it is something that excites them. If it does, they will send it for peer review, and you will be given the opportunity to respond to any comments that come back from this. Approximately 20% of proposals get through to peer review. If they do go ahead and publish, you should expect roughly 3-5% of royalties.

Choosing the Right Journals

For the final part of the session, Prof Mick Tuite (Biosciences) outlined what defines a 'good' journal, and how you can increase your chances of being published in them.

The idea of 'high impact' journals goes back to the fifties. It's a somewhat controversial system, and is based on the average number of citations over a two-five year period. The system is open to abuse, and varies widely between disciplines. However, it is still seen as a rough and ready indicator of esteem. 

Mick began by showing a video made by Karin Dumstrei, Senior Editor at EMBO Journal.

In it, she highlights five tips to getting your paper published:
  • Choose a project that excites you;
  • Tell a good story;
  • Select the right journal;
  • Avoid the three 'don'ts', namely: dont' overstate your case, ignore others, or hold back data;
  • Be responsible with your data - i.e. say what you see rather than what you want to see.
Mick added to this by saying that high impact journals tend to have a broader audience, so you need to:
  • avoid jargon;
  • concentrate on the message;
  • write shorter articles (eg Science articles are generally 3-4 pages);
  • avoid too much detail. Additional data can be provided in 'supplementary material'.
Whilst all articles need to overcome a number of significant hurdles, Mick highlighted the importance of a good covering letter. These have become key, as they summarise why your article is right for the journal you're targetting. Take time to get this right. Keep it succinct, but explain the novelty and importance of your research, and why you are approaching that journal in particular.

Mick finished by outlining six tips:
  • Title: make it engaging but keep it short, and avoid technical terms;
  • Story: structure your article round a good, cohesive, logical 'story';
  • Step Change: emphasis what makes your research important. Talk about 'step changes' rather than 'incremental progresssions';
  • Cover Letter: 'sell' your article;
  • Feedback: get as much critical evaluation as possible;
  • Rejection: never take no for an answer.
This final point was echoed by all the speakers. Rejection is an inevitable part of the process. Don't be discouraged, but take on board comments and criticism and keep trying.

All the slides from the session will be available on the Grants Factory SharePoint site shortly.


  1. Hi Phil - may I suggest a Christmas themed RF say based on the 12 Days of Christmas? Just a thought, might raise a chuckle or two! :-)
    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks Taylor! Good idea. I had thought about doing a lookalike competition, based around RCUK chief execs hiding behind santa beards. I haven't quite got it together though, and time's running out...