Publishing Scientific Research

Sarah here –

This post will focus on something that can be a little confusing if you’re not a researching scientist and that is how we publish our research!

So we’re going to start this with assuming that we already have a scientific study that has been written down. A paper generally follows this pattern: an introduction of what your study is about and why it matters, background information to help the reader learn a bit about the broader material that your study fits in with, methods and materials (i.e., how you did your study and what did you use to do it?), the results of your study, the discussion of your results (i.e., what do your results mean?), the conclusions (summary of your results and their meaning along with any future work that might rely on this specific paper), acknowledgments (i.e., thanking people who helped you collect data, supported you during this process with helpful comments, or anyone who helped pay for your research), and references (i.e., the other published papers that you cited in your article that helped explain related information or gave credibility to the types of methods you used, etc.

So, now that we have ourselves an awesome study, let’s get it published! Should be pretty straightforward, right? Well….not exactly. There are a lot of steps to publishing. Some papers can be published relatively quickly (a few months) whereas others can easily take longer!

Step One: Choose a journal

There are a bunch of journals that publish scientific papers. In general, you should choose a journal that requires peer-review (more on this process later). All reputable science journals require your paper to be read by a number of scientists (usually two or three) in your field to make sure your paper will be a good contribution to science. Second, you should choose a journal that publishes papers similar to the one you wrote. What that means is that not all journals publish the same things. Some journals specialize (e.g., The Journal of Paleontology publishes papers that focus on paleontology), whereas other journals, like Nature, will publish all types of science papers that they think their readers will find interesting. In my most recent publication, I chose the Journal of Paleontology. Once a journal is chosen, you have to format your paper to the journal standards using the correct font/font size, reference style, etc. Every journal has its own format and most journals won’t agree to read your paper unless it’s largely formatted correctly.

Step Two. Submit!

This takes place via an online platform and can take a little bit of time (an hour or two, usually). You upload: your text for the paper, any images you have for the paper, tables, data, and explanations of the data. You also upload a cover letter explaining to the editors of the journal why your paper belongs in their journal (e.g., this paper is of similar interest to readers that your other paper, published last year, was). You are often asked to suggest reviewers to read your paper. This is because you, the author, probably know more experts in your field (in my case, echinoderm paleontology and evolution) than the editors do. It really helps them when you can suggest a few reviewers (usually between two and four).

Step Three. Editor’s decision!

The editor will read your cover letter and your paper and decide if it’s a good fit for their journal. If it is a good fit, they will send your paper out to a few reviewers, specialists that can comment on the analyses you used, the validity of your conclusions, and whether it’s significant enough for publication.

Step Four. The reviews!

Peer reviewers have a set amount of time to read and comment on your paper (usually two weeks to a month). Peer reviewers are generally not paid for their work-it’s something called “academic service”. Usually, people who publish papers expect to review one or two papers for each one that they publish. The reviews will have a mixture of positive, neutral, and negative comments. They’re focused on strengthening your paper, so you might see comments on making certain sentences more straightforward, making images higher resolution so features can be seen, or comments that require more work (e.g., a reviewer might think you need to run different analyses to be considered for publication). Overall, comments should be helpful (not cruel) and they should be about the paper NOT the author (e.g., “this paragraph needs restructuring to make the point clearer”, as opposed to “the author didn’t write this paragraph clearly”).
Each peer reviewer will mark your paper as one of the following: “accepted with no revisions”; “accepted with minor revisions”; “accepted with major revisions”; “revise and resubmit”; and “not publishable in this journal”. Major revisions usually means running new analyses or rewriting large portions of text. Just because a paper isn’t accepted doesn’t make it bad, either. It may very well mean that the reviewers felt that it didn’t belong in that particular journal! Usually, the editor will take the decisions of the peer reviewers and make a final decision on whether the paper will be accepted.

My most recent paper was accepted with minor revisions-I had to rephrase some of my conclusions and reviewers had me strengthen some of my arguments by using data from other recently published papers. All in all, peer review is a very important step towards making your paper better!

This is a before and after look at one of my most recent peer-reviewed papers, published in Palaeontology. On the left is the paper that I submitted to the journal and on the right is the final, copyedited, and typeset version.

Step Five. Revising.

Very, very few papers are rated as “accepted without revisions”. Usually, reviewers point out a few things, at least, that could make your paper stronger. For most journals, you have to “respond” to these. Meaning, you take the comment by the reviewer and state that you agree with the change or disagree and provide your reasons why. In my personal papers, this could range from “this sentence isn’t clear-rewrite” and I would respond with “Yes, I see how this could be unclear. I’ve rephrased to XXX”. Or, a reviewer might say, “I disagree with this interpretation based on X. This should be revised to say Y”. I could respond with “I disagree with the reviewer’s interpretation and here’s the evidence to back up my claim”. I could amend the text in my paper to strengthen my argument and provide more evidence for my claim, too.

Step Six. Are we done yet? Well….no. Not yet.

Once you get the reviews and make all of the edits, you have to go back to step two: submit! Once you do this, the editor will determine if the changes you have made are sufficient or if it needs to go through a secondary round of peer review (in which case, please return to step four!) Once the editor has decided your paper is acceptable for publication, the editor will make sure your paper conforms to all journal standards and there are no glaring issues (e.g., you forgot to label your scale bar or forgot to put a reference for an in-text citation).

Step Seven. Proofs!

Copyeditors have the job to go through your paper line-by-line, word-by-word to make sure everything is grammatically correct, properly cited, and has no typos. They’ll send you a copy of your paper in the proper format-with all of the images set on the page, looking just how it will look printed in the journal or online. Your job is to go through the paper carefully to make sure you don’t see any extra mistakes or typos.

Step Eight. Celebrate!

Your paper will be published online very soon. Great work!

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