Degree In Sight

Pages flipping in a book

If there is a single key to a successful career as an academic or research psychologist, it's publish, publish and then publish some more. However, shepherding an article past the journal editors and peer reviewers at the gate can be daunting, says John Serences, a fifth-year cognitive psychology graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"Getting through the rejections-repeated rejections-is the hardest part," says Serences. "You just have to have faith you will eventually get something in." 

In addition to cultivating optimism, graduate students seeking publication must design a good experiment that begins to answer some burning question in their field and then write it up clearly and convincingly, says Alan Kazdin, PhD, a psychology professor at Yale University.

"The way to have a good article is good thinking-there are no other secrets to getting published," Kazdin says. And while there may be no magic formula for producing a thoughtful-and publishable-paper, Kazdin and others offer the following tips.


Many students believe that an experiment is worth doing just because it hasn't been done before, says Kazdin. However, in the introduction, the author must persuade readers that the study addresses an important question or significantly advances psychologists' understanding of some larger topic, he notes.

"The goal of the author is to make that reader salivate and want to know that answer," says Kazdin. Also, he says, papers with introductions that merely review the literature often get rejected. A discussion of other studies should illuminate the necessity of the paper, not just show that the author knows how to use PsycINFO, Kazdin notes.


All too often, a paper's experiment does not answer the question posed in the introduction, says Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes editor Nicholas John Mackintosh, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge in England.

"A good experiment has ruled out possible interpretations of its results other than the one the author is arguing for," he says. "The only way to do that is to have a large number of different control groups, each one of which can rule out a possible alternative explanation."


Keep track of what journals repeatedly come up in your literature review, says William Stoops, a fourth-year psychology graduate student specializing in human behavioral pharmacology at the University of Kentucky who has nine published papers to his name. The editors of those journals may be particularly interested in your topic, he says.

It's also a good idea for students to have a publication in mind when they write up experiments-and to read recent issues to determine the typical makeup of accepted articles, says Stoops.

"Some journals prefer lengthy discussions, and others want most of the detail in the results," he says.


It's fine to be excited about your numbers, says Kazdin, but don't exaggerate their implications.

Instead, make sure that the discussion section returns to the question asked at the beginning of the paper-and proves that the experiment has answered that riddle, he says. Furthermore, when discussing larger implications, make sure to also mention how future research can reach that point, Kazdin notes.


Typos, unclear wording and grammatical errors can be more easily caught by someone with a fresh pair of eyes than by the author who has read the paper a thousand times, says Mackintosh, who suggests that young authors ask their peers and advisers to review their papers. Many students even e-mail psychologists they have never met, but who have expertise on the subject, and ask them for advice, he says.


Journal editors usually accept articles under the condition that the author make substantial revisions, such as analyzing the results in a different way or running more experiments, says Mackintosh.

Think of this revision time as an opportunity to make your study even better, adds Kazdin.

"Most reviewers give a very careful reading-more than most people will ever give that article," he says. "It is in the author's best interest to incorporate as many of their suggestions as possible."

Approaching criticism constructively can be one of the hardest parts of the publication process, according to Stoops, especially after months of hard work. However, in his experience, perseverance pays off.

"Once I got my first acceptance, I thought 'Hey, I can do this. It's not impossible,'" he says.

 For more information on preparing a manuscript for publication, visit APA Guide for Authors.

"The way to have a good article is good thinking-there are no other secrets to getting published."

Alan Kazdin
Yale University