The Other Side of the Publishing Veil: Insights from an Associate Editor

Geoffrey Silvera, PhD, is the the Associate Editor of Patient Experience Journal and a professor of health administration at Auburn University.

We have all heard the expression, “Publish or Perish.” This adage makes me cringe every time I hear it. Though it’s hard to question its veracity, as a scholar, I find it inhibits our transformational ability to contribute knowledge. I offer an alternative, “Publish and Thrive,” which recognizes both our transactional needs to publish as well as our unique ability to develop new ideas and information. Scholars would be wise to note that, success in publishing is not random, though it can feel that way at times.

As the Associate Editor of Patient Experience Journal, I oversee all submissions to the journal and the double-blind peer-review process. Although most of what makes manuscripts successful occurs prior to submission, the back end of a journal submission is somewhat of a mystery to most submitting authors. Through this blog, I hope to alleviate the academic publishing process by providing the perspective of the publisher. Hopefully, these insights can demystify the publishing process and improve authors’ publishing experiences.

Here is a quick break down of what generally happens after you hit the “submit” button. First, an editor (usually an associate editor) will review an author’s submission for completeness (e.g., did the author upload all the necessary files?), along with a review to ensure all formatting requirements are met. Next, the associate editor will “read” the manuscript. This “read” can vary quite a bit in comprehensiveness. Some editors will read the entire manuscript (rare), some will skim the paper’s major sections (most common), and some will read the abstract only (not as rare as we’d hope). Based on this initial read, the editor will decide whether to send your submission to peer reviewers. This decision will principally be based on whether the editor believes your manuscript will make a significant contribution to the primary topic areas of the journal.

Does This Manuscript Make a Significant Contribution?

A significant contribution refers to whether the manuscript offers new andimportant information germane to the field. The need to produce research that is new is of the utmost importance and helps us avoid instances of plagiarism. Plagiarism is, of course, a threat to academic scholars’ reputations and careers, but for publishers, this is a “nuclear-level” threat to a journal’s credibility. Therefore, presenting a manuscript that violates the “original work” clause is grounds for a quick rejection. As for the degree to which a contribution is considered important, the perception of this can be quite subjective. Arguably, the perceived importance of a contribution is what determines a manuscript’s ability to be published and the prestige of the journal that will eventually publish the manuscript. But, there are strategies to ensure that the importance of your contribution is not missed by potential publishers:

  • Know thy target
  • Know thyself
  • Prepare to submit

Know thy target: The sooner in the research process that authors can target a journal for submission, the better. Authors often believe this strategy forces them to put all their eggs in one basket. However, targeting a journal early in the research process offers several benefits for authors. First, it helps authors orient their contribution to existing conversations in the literature around their study’s central concepts and research questions. From an editor’s perspective, a good example of when authors are submitting to the wrong journal is when the target journal is absent from the reference sections. Manuscripts should reference directly one or several published articles from the target journal and these references should be central to the arguments made in the manuscript. Furthermore, journal targeting is the best way to identify the appropriate audience for the manuscript, which can also aid in the writing process as it can determine the writing style and voice and in some instances section headings that are necessary for publication in the target journal. In addition, knowing the target outlet early in the drafting process allows authors to prepare their manuscripts with the appropriate reference style and formatting for the journal from the onset of the manuscript preparation process. Finally, the principal advantage of identifying a target journal is that it can aid in avoiding the constant revisions and reformatting necessary when submitting your manuscripts to multiple journals in a hopeful, yet frenzied, search for its acceptance. There are no guarantees that the editors will accept the manuscript if authors decide to journal target, but doing so will guarantee that authors have made their strongest case for publication.

An additional step that authors, especially the risk averse, can take is to contact the journal directly. A simple email to a potential target journal editor early in the writing process can save time and heartache. By contacting editors directly, authors can avoid wasted time and effort submitting to journals in which the editors do not see a fit between the manuscript and their audience. Authors need only include a brief abstract to gauge whether the research is something the journal might find interesting, and, if not, which journals they might suggest as potential outlets for your work. Editors would much prefer to help authors find a publication outlet based on an abstract than through the rejection of a manuscript.

Know thyself: Many common pitfalls of the publishing process can be avoided through self-awareness. Authors should be intellectually honest about the significance of their contribution and the degree to which it will affect future practice and scholarship. The best source of self-awareness is wisdom borne of experience. However, it is difficult to know what you do not know. So, another strategy to get an honest review of your manuscript is to have a frank conversation among your research team about its merits and its limitations. In addition, authors should not have journal peer-reviewers be the first people outside of the research team to read the entire manuscript. Authors can, and should, ask a respected scholar to provide a “friendly review” of the manuscript, in which they can ask for honest feedback and recommended publication outlets.

Prepare to Submit: The most common lament of journal editors is the time and effort spent on manuscripts that ignore style and formatting guidelines. Authors should heed these guidelines if they wish to make a good first impression with editors. By submitting manuscripts that look and read like published articles in the target journal, authors set themselves up for success. Using the familiar formatting and tone can help make the case to peer reviewers as well. Established reviewers have possibly the greatest influence on the publication decision. Many journals will accept or even ask authors to recommend reviewers. Authors should use this to their advantage by recommending reviewers who are either well-established scholars with work related to the manuscript’s central concepts and research questions, reviewers who are associate editors of the target journal, or, ideally, reviewers who are both. Even when recommended reviewers are not able to review, they can help the editors find knowledgeable reviewers by suggesting other subject matter experts. Rather than leave it to chance, take the time to identify scholars who would be good peer-reviewers of your work.

Once you get to publishing, the hard work is already done. You know something that the rest of the world has yet to learn. Hopefully, using these strategies to demonstrate the importance and novelty of your paper can help make your publishing process smoother, and, through this peek beyond the veil, authors will feel more equipped to publish and thrive.