Publishing academic research is often seen as the ‘bread and butter’ of academic life. Many academics are judged on their research output by the articles that they publish and the journals that they publish their work in. In this post, by articles I mean research articles which are original pieces of research and by journals I mean publications which publish academic work periodically and bring together a number of different articles in each issue.
The world of publishing in academic journals is something that can seem quite ordinary to the academic, but it is a complex process and I wanted to write this post to dispel some common myths about publishing in academic journals.
As a relatively junior researcher completing my PhD, becoming a published academic was something that really excited me (it’s sad I know), it would mean that I had conducted important research and the field not only recognised the work itself but recognised the importance of my work.
Authorship is key
The first thing that I didn’t truly appreciate until I started publishing was that authorship is key. The academic community speak of first and last authors. The name kind of means what it says on the tin – the person in first position on the authors list on the article and the person in last position on the list of authors on the article. The person in first position is typically the researcher who has done the majority of the work. Being first author also means that the publication will be referred to by the authors surname and then et al., (this translates to “and others”) when it is cited in academic texts. The last author is typically taken by the most senior person on the project and everyone else fits in the middle and this is discussed by the authorship team. As you can imagine, this can make for heated discussions and really tricky conversations. Whilst authorship on any publication is great, first and last authors are considered the ‘best’ spots in academic publications. In some cases first or last authorship can be shared if authors contributed equally.
Choosing a journal
In order to publish academic research, the choice of which journal to publish in is critical. Researchers and publication authors are often judged on the impact factor of the journal. The impact factor is scientometric index which indicates the yearly average number of citations that articles published in the last two years in that journal received. In general, the higher the impact factor the better. However, there are many problems with impact factors. The impact factor varies depending on the research field and particularly the size of the research field. If, for example there are not many people working in a particular area of research, the publication is less likely to be cited by others. In addition, some articles published in journals with high impact factors are not reproducible which is a huge issue for scientific research.
It is now widely recognised that impact factors are not a good way to judge academic output and scientists have tried for decades to come up with a better alternative to impact factors, but there is not an easy solution to this problem. The notion of impact factors is heavily ingrained within the academic community and getting people to think differently about research output is challenging.
In addition to reputable journals which publish high quality science ‘predatory journals’ exist. Predatory journals typically publish low quality or sometimes fake science and they have very few quality control mechanisms in place. I regularly receive emails from these types of journals asking me to write on topics which I have absolutely no expertise in. I see these as phishing emails that are probably sent to thousands of potential contributors on the off chance that someone may reply. While I can filter these requests into my junk email, it becomes tiring and predatory journals are a blight on the academic community. Junior or early career researchers are particularly susceptible to these types of journals and predatory journals add a large quantity of low quality research into the community and this is a big problem in terms of filtering out the low quality research and trusting academic research in general.
As an author, once you have found the perfect journal to submit your publication to, you’ll have to format the publication according to the guidance of the journal. I confess this can be a time-consuming and frustrating process. I still don’t understand why journals can’t all have the same formatting guidelines, but there we are!
Once the publication has been submitted to the journal, it will be sent out for peer review. The peer review process is the corner stone of academic publishing, two (or sometimes more) experts within the field will read your publication and comment on it and then send their review to the editor for consideration. On some (very rare) occasions the article will be accepted for publication without any changes – this is incredibly rare and practically never heard of. On other occasions the decision may be ‘minor revisions’ and the reviewers will suggested changes that could be made to the article that would make it suitable for publication. Major revisions require much more work and finally, the decision we all dread, a flat rejection could happen.
Peer review is undoubtedly a really important process for academic publishing. But it is worth remembering that academics are still people and they will still miss things. Plus, these are people who typically already have huge workloads and volunteer their time for free to review manuscripts alongside all of their other work.
Authors do not receive any payment for publishing their work in academic journals
I have to confess that when I had my first academic publication accepted for publication I sent my Mum a copy. I think she was a little confused by it all (and who can blame her), her first comment was “Do you get any royalties?” This is probably one of the most common misconceptions that I come across when I talk to people about academic publishing; the answer is that authors do not receive any royalties or money for publishing. While you could argue that publications can support promotion applications, authors do not receive any direct payment at all. In fact, authors, or more commonly their employers or funders, typically have to pay a fee to the journal to publish their work.
Most journals make their money by people paying for subscriptions, but this means that important scientific research is sometimes hidden behind a paywall (THIS IS BAD!). To counter the problems with paywalls many funders and academic institutions will fund open access charges so that access to the research is freely available. Open access costs are not cheap and are typically thousands of pounds; some journals also charge additional fees for colour images.
The future of academic publishing
Academic publishing is complicated and please challenge any academics that speak to you about academic publishing and assume that you know what it means. The language that academic publications are written in is challenging, and it must be acknowledged that the main audience is other academics. As a lover of science communication and public engagement it upsets me that people may not be able to access research, either because it is hidden behind a paywall, or because it is written in language that only a small number of people will be able to understand. Some journals have moved to asking authors to write lay summaries of their articles so that they are easier to understand, but this is by no means the norm.
Academic publications are designed with a particular type of audience in mind and I accept that, but that thinking always brings me back to the importance of public engagement and science communication. The vast majority of research is either funded by the tax payer or designed to benefit the world in some way. For those reasons I believe that we need other ways of communicating research, alongside academic journals.