As a graduate student, Isabel Gauthier, PhD, endured just one round of reviews before the journal Perception accepted the first paper she ever submitted for publication, on orientation priming. "My adviser warned me it would likely never happen again," says Gauthier, now editor of APA's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (JEP: G)®. "He was right."
She's since learned to expect two or more cycles of rigorous revisions. But she's also learned a few tricks for making the process (almost) painless, including picking appropriate journals and appreciating the privilege of having peers improve her work.
"If science is really for you, you will learn to value and respect this process, or you will be very unhappy," she says.
gradPSYCH asked Gauthier to share her insights on the publication process to help the next generation of psychological scientists.
How do I know which journal to submit to?
Choose the journal you are writing for before you start working on the paper, or after an early first draft. If you are writing on a topic where there is a lot of prior work, find out where it's been published [and go there]. Also figure out what readers you want to reach. Do you want to make an impact in basic or applied psychology, or both? Do you want to reach only psychologists or neuroscientists, clinical psychologists and computer scientists? Pay careful attention to the journal's stated mission and be realistic about whether your paper meets it. If you are not sure if yours fits, ask the editor. A quick desk rejection is much better than waiting a long time to learn that you submitted to the wrong journal.
What are some other common mistakes authors make?
Articles are often rejected because they are unclear. Get feedback from specialists and non-specialists alike. It helps to give an oral presentation about your results to establish the take-home message.
Editors also reject articles because the study is deemed relatively unimportant, so make sure you are making the strongest claim you can support with your results.
If I want to get published, what are the most important aspects of my research for me to pay attention to?
Reviewers will call you on problems at any level, from the motivation for your work to the error bars on your figures. Cutting corners at any step of the research process will make the paper more difficult to write and the review process more complicated. So, do that power analysis, run that control condition, read that literature your advisor said may be relevant. And write to make an impact, not to get published. The best papers are not trying to meet publication threshold, but are rather aiming to produce the best work in their field.
Are there any red flags that usually lead you to reject an article?
At JEP: G, we are paying more attention to the power of experiments and we are increasingly uncomfortable with analyses on very small sample sizes. Publication of low-power studies is simply not good for the field in the long run — these studies inflate the rate of both false negatives and false positives in the literature (Ellis, 2010). Whenever possible, a study's sample size would be justified by a power analysis.
What should I do if I get rejected?
Cry. Or get angry. Go take a walk, anything to get it out of your system. But once you have calmed down, consider that [almost] every published paper had to go through this difficult process, often at more than one journal, so this is just part of your job. Make a systematic list of reviewers' concerns, and do your best to address them. Some concerns require clarifications, others require new data or analyses, and a few may require you putting your foot down to explain how you disagree with a reviewer and why. This last case should be relatively rare, but cannot be avoided. Avoid sounding defensive, paranoid or arrogant. Ask neutral friends to read your rebuttal letter and, whenever possible, acknowledge in the paper itself that there are other interpretations for your results.
How important is my paper's title?
You may want to be known for cute and catchy titles, but in the end, a clear and informative title will be the best way for other scientists to find your work. I have never seen a paper be rejected because of its title, although I have seen cases where authors are asked to change it.
Are there any other steps I can take to improve my paper's chances of acceptance?
Write a short and enthusiastic cover letter. It should not repeat your abstract or be directed at specialists. This is your chance to convince the editor that your work is exciting and important. In plain words, it's your elevator pitch.
Ellis, P.D. (2010). The essential guide to effect sizes: An introduction to statistical power, meta-analysis and the interpretation of research results. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.