Degree In Sight
Getting published in a peer-reviewed journal takes the endurance and willpower of a mountain climber, says Emory University psychology professor Nadine Kaslow, PhD. Starting with the first data you collect, it can take more than five years to see your paper to publication, says Kaslow, an award-winning researcher and editor of the Journal of Family Psychology.
Along the way, you'll most likely endure ego-bruising revisions and outright rejection. Only persistent souls reach the summit — and that's true whether you're an accomplished researcher or a psychology doctoral student, Kaslow adds. She's not kidding — one paper she submitted to a prestigious psychology journal in 2009 underwent five rounds of revisions before it was published last year. Reviewers required her to re-analyze her data and drop a theoretical construct, work that took her scores of extra hours.
"If I had said, 'No, I'm not going to re-analyze the data,' that paper would not have been published … but it ended up being the journal's lead paper," she says.
The yearlong process wasn't fun, but it made her paper stronger, Kaslow says. And that, of course, is the whole point of peer review. Reviewers and editors aren't trying to make you give up, they just want to ensure your work advances the scientific literature.
Getting published also advances your career, whether you're aiming for a job in a university, private practice or corporate setting, says Wendy Rogers, PhD, editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. "Being a published author … shows writing ability, persistence, organization, and it really demonstrates your skill set," she says.
Publication credits may even help you get an internship. In the 2011 Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers match, students who had published at least one study matched to internships 86 percent of the time, compared with 78 percent for students who did not.
So, how can you boost your chances of publishing success? Here's advice from experienced editors and authors:
Laying the Groundwork
Early in your grad school career, experts advise that you:
Find a Productive Mentor
When choosing a mentor, adviser or lab to join, pull up the publication records of professors you want to work with, and make sure they're publishing new work every year, says Jessica Good, PhD. This technique helped her publish 10 papers before she graduated with a social psychology doctorate from Rutgers University. Also, make sure that your potential mentor isn't always listed as first author, but that his or her students regularly publish as first authors, too, she says. That way you can be sure your future collaborators are willing to share publication credits.
Learn from Your Collaborators
From your very first weeks in your psychology doctoral program, volunteer in your adviser's research lab, Good says. Some tasks you can take on include collecting data, checking references and proofreading. As you gain experience, take on more advanced jobs, such as literature reviews and data analysis. "Even if you have a small role in the project, see a project through from start to finish," Good says.
You'll also want to partner with senior students who are working on projects related to your research interests, says Jordan Gilleland, PhD. A 2010 clinical psychology graduate from the University of Georgia, Gilleland used such partnerships to learn how to conduct a literature review, write a successful institutional review board letter and recruit research participants. "It's nice to start by partnering with someone else because you see how each of the different pieces work prior to doing it all yourself from start to finish," she says.
Ask for Credit
If you are making substantial contributions to a colleague or adviser's research project, discuss your desire to be listed as a third or fourth author on a paper, Gilleland says. In her view, it's fair to ask for a contributing authorship slot if you actively participate in the conceptualization of the project, help design the data analysis or contribute to the actual writing of the manuscript.
It's best to raise the topic early, Gilleland says. If you're working with a fellow student, have a frank and open discussion of how you can contribute and what kind of credit you can expect. "There's no harm in asking, as long as you're asking tactfully, and with a willingness to really contribute to the project," she says.
Brainstorm Research Topics
Long before you begin your dissertation proposal, work with your adviser to find projects that you can complete in a year or two, says Amanda Kraha, an experimental psychology doctoral candidate at the University of North Texas. Such studies usually build on recent research findings and use existing data or data that can be collected quickly, she says. Such informal discussions inspired Kraha and her adviser, Adriel Boals, PhD, to conduct two rounds of surveys that led to Kraha's first publication — a study published in Obesity last year that showed that overweight college students received less financial assistance with car purchases from their parents, compared with thinner college students. Kraha's project expanded on previous work showing that overweight college students got less financial support from their parents to pay for college, compared with thinner students.
Pursue Several Projects at Once
Since it can take a long time to get a study to publication, work on several projects at different stages of development simultaneously, Good suggests. For example, if you're pursuing a longitudinal study requiring several years of data collection, also start a project using existing data or data that can gathered in a semester or two, she says. "There should always be some aspect of research that you could work on every day," Good says.
Writing and Submitting a Paper
Once you've gained some experience in helping your colleagues with their research, it's time to try for your own publication. But don't just cut and paste sections of your master's thesis or doctoral dissertation, says Rogers. Instead, pull out your strongest findings and use them as the basis for a much shorter paper. You may have to perform more analysis or even data collection to make a strong, new contribution to the research literature. "It's all about being focused and selective so that you can tell a clear story about what your results show," she says.
Pay Attention to Detail
Good research that's written up poorly won't make it into a journal's pages, says Rogers. Avoid jargon and aim for concise writing, she says. Proofread and make sure your paper adheres to the journal's submission standards — which often include following APA style. When Rogers receives a paper that doesn't follow APA style, she writes the author a note explaining that the work won't be considered until it's reformatted.
Seek Honest Feedback
Let a few people whose judgment you trust critique your paper before you submit it, says Michael Roberts, PhD, a clinical child psychology professor at the University of Kansas and editor of Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Ask your adviser or another professor in your program to evaluate the content, and get a peer to check for grammar and style mistakes, Roberts says. If you can, pick a colleague who's a particularly good writer, he adds. "Tell them, don't be nice, be my friend and help me see where I can improve this," Roberts says.
Pick the Right Journal
Read the mission statements of the journals within your field, and get familiar with the studies published in recent issues, says Anne Kazak, PhD, the editor of Health Psychology. Incoming editors of APA journals are profiled in APA's Monitor on Psychology magazine and often describe what kind of research the editors are looking for. Search for those profiles online, and tailor your work accordingly. "The fit is very important," Kazak says. For researchers looking to publish in Health Psychology, for example, that means explaining the practical implications of your work. "Go beyond telling me what you found to providing valuable insights into the implications of your work, for practice, for future research and for policy," she says.
Working with Reviewers
After you've submitted a paper for publication, chances are you'll get rejected, says Kazak. Of the 399 papers submitted to the Journal of Family Psychology last year, 76 percent were rejected, and none were accepted "as is," Kaslow says. So, if you get a "revise and resubmit" response, consider yourself lucky — it's more work on a project that you've already spent years on, but it's also an opportunity to improve your work and, perhaps, get published. At this point, be sure to:
Address Every Comment
When you receive a revise-and-resubmit letter, read it, but then step away for a day or two to collect your thoughts. Then, address all of the reviewers' points, Kazak says. "If an editor asks you to make changes, make every effort to make them," she says.
Often, reviewers ask authors for additional details on a study's methodology, Rogers says. If you get this request, make sure you provide enough details so the reader can evaluate whether your study design fits your research question and can be replicated by another scientist.
Reviewers might also offer alternative explanations for your findings, she says. In this case, you may need to run additional experiments to rule out alternative explanations, or revise your conclusions.
"You need to make sure that the conclusions are closely linked to the findings," she says.
Develop a Cover Letter
Keep track of the changes you've made, and summarize them in a one-page cover letter. Consider including a longer document laying out, in detail, how you've addressed reviewers' requests.
Pick your Battles
Chances are you'll disagree with some comments or revisions, but don't nitpick every one, Roberts says. Only argue with the most egregious errors. For example, if a reviewer misunderstood a statistical technique you used, explain that politely and consider rewriting that section to be clearer. "Do it in a diplomatic way," he says.
Practice Persistence and Patience
Sometimes, a paper is a dud. If you've submitted it to several journals and received outright rejections, it's probably time to move on to a new project. But if you're able to make the changes recommended by the reviewers, keep at it as long as your editor allows. "I'll go back and forth as many times as needed if I feel the authors are making a conscientious effort and the paper is getting better each time," Rogers says.
If getting published isn't reason enough to persevere, consider your collaborators and participants, says Paul Silvia, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of "How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Academic Writing" (2007). In addition to giving up their time to participate in your study, your participants often answered very personal questions or completed tedious tasks. You owe it to them, and to other scientists, to share your results, Silvia says.
"Sharing your results with your peers through publication, this is really why we do it in the first place," he says.