Want to be a successful academic? It’s all about getting published

Publishing is part of the academic game, says Mike Smith, so you’d better get good at it 

September 28, 2017
Man grabbing papers
Source: iStock

Whether we like it or not, published research remains one of the significant benchmarks by which academics are measured. So from the perspective of science and the social sciences, how does the postdoctoral researcher (or temporary lecturer) go about achieving this? I want to focus on three linked areas that are based around work, publication selection and writing.

First, work – and to paraphrase the words of one of the research professors on my first day of employment:

  • Free up as much of your time as possible in and out of work for writing up your PhD research;
  • Network extensively: find out those people in your research area and get to know them and, in particular, get to know those who you can trust and potentially work with. They are the valuable colleagues with whom you could end up spending a lifetime collaborating;
  • Don’t ever volunteer for anything.

That final point might make some people choke a little. But take it on board. And if you have to pick anything up, be strategic about it so that it can help you (think research committee, rather than timetabling). From a cynical perspective, no one else is looking out for you and everyone will be trying to divest themselves of responsibility at the earliest opportunity. That may or may not be the case, but be warned.

OK, you now have time and space to write up your work. First, and usually in conjunction with co-authors, you need to select a journal. The quality of your work will be judged on how many citations you garner (you keep a track of this using services such as ResearcherID, right?) and the quality of journal you publish in. Journals have a pecking order and you want to be picking a good one. So, think about the following:

  • Impact factor: this remains the de facto metric of choice for universities and governments and will therefore have a bearing on where you send a manuscript;
  • Audience: you know which manuscripts you read and where they are published. You are their audience, so think about who your audience is. Your paper will have a “flavour” to it. Some papers are destined for the highest profile that you can muster, other papers you hope will reach those who will read them and use them;
  • Rejection rates: not all journals operate equally and most have restrictions on the quantity that they can publish. For example, Nature rejects more than 90 per cent of papers submitted, while an anonymous middle-tier journal in the geosciences rejects a third at submission and a third after review. It’s a trade-off between how likely you are to get accepted in a high-ranking journal and the pain and time invested in getting rejected.

After successfully defending your PhD, writing the paper for publication might seem like the easy part. It isn’t. Such tasks are long, hard and painful, but the rewards are potentially high. Remember that you are competing with everyone else submitting to your target journal for limited publication space. You’ve got to do everything that you can to maximise your chances. These include:

  • Networks: linked to the point above, establish wide networks so that potential editors and reviewers are already aware of your name before they review your manuscript (in a good way!). Particularly when you are unsure of your target journal, or where you want to seek affirmation of your topic, contacting the editor prior to submission is good practice;
  • Submission: read the submission guidelines carefully, make notes, then re-read them. Don’t do as one of my students did and submit to the wrong section necessitating lengthy review, rejection and then resubmission to the correct section. It pays dividends to make sure there is no possible administrative reason to reject your manuscript;
  • Research design: your experimental set-up is everything. I usually look at this first when reviewing a manuscript. If it is not logical and carefully planned, I reject. Good science is about having an appropriate methodology for investigation. Anything that can unjustifiably compromise that position is not worthy of acceptance. I’ll say it again – you must get your research design correct;
  • English: like it or not, English is the language of the academe. A well-written, clear and concise manuscript will be a breath of fresh air to reviewers. If you can manage beautiful prose, so much the better.

A strong publication record is a significant boost to your CV, so make the best use of your time and resources to further that as much as you can. Successful completion of a PhD shows that you are the world’s foremost expert in that particular topic area – tell the world about your research so that others can find out about it and build on it in the future.

Be honest, be ethical and produce the best possible research that you can, but remember that publishing is part of the game and you are competing against everyone else in your subject area. A strong foundation of publications will provide the springboard that you need to get ahead in academia.

Mike J. Smith is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Maps.

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Reader's comments (3)

This article paints a pretty gloomy picture of what it takes to make a successful career in science. But it’s just the way the game works, isn’t it? Well, thank goodness there are those who think differently, and are advocating reform in the way that research and researchers are evaluated. For an entirely different and (in the view of this reader) more constructive approach to scholarship see this recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education - http://www.chronicle.com/article/Rethinking-the-Scientific/241361. To create a more vibrant and collaborative scientific enterprise, these four mid-career academics argue that "Established scientists who attain positions of influence have an additional responsibility to expand the criteria that are used to recruit students, award degrees and prizes, and hire and promote faculty.” The contrast with the backward-looking piece in THE is striking.
When I first saw this, I assumed it was supposed to be satirical. Sadly it is not. "Impact factor: this remains the de facto metric of choice for universities and governments.." No!! Please don't perpetuate this kind of thing. Research needs to free itself from this kind of reductive, bean counting approach. Have you never heard of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment? I suggest to take a look http://www.ascb.org/dora/ Best practice is absolutely to eschew overuse of metrics (especially metrics as flawed as the Impact Factor!) and the obsession with glamour journal brands. ResearcherID? Seriously? Does anyone still use that? ORCID superseded it some time ago and now has almost 4m researchers signed up. I'm genuinely surprised that the THE let this article through. It sounds like it was written in the 1990s.
While I'm all for realism, this article lacks balance and sends a depressing message to early career researchers. It describes a faulty rewards system and encourages students to not only comply with it, but also to reinforce and perpetuate it. Students are not just contestants in a tournament for an academic job - they are also the future of the research enterprise. As such, I hope those that care about making research more effective, collaborative, creative, and efficient DO spend some of their time working to change the system for the better - rather than be encouraged to leave the system by regressive advice.

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