How to increase your publications rate

February 11, 2002

Getting published is the basic currency of academic life. Get it right and your career and your department will profit. Get it wrong and... who knows? You and your team may never be heard of again.

Yet surprisingly little attention is paid to training individuals - and groups - to get published (which is not quite the same as training them to write papers). Current activities centre on an apprenticeship model that puts high value on methodology and on achieving an appropriate writing style (though those familiar with the prose style of journals may wonder why this is considered necessary). Little attention is paid to the vital skills of understanding the real rules of the game, taking a market-oriented approach, using well-established principles of time management, and introducing a culture that encourages rather than demotivates.

Understanding the game
A good starting point is to realise that the prevailing view of academic publishing is only one of several realities. The ideology has it that getting published in journals is a noble and difficult enterprise, which moves back the frontiers of knowledge and makes the world a better place. I recently did a study which showed clearly that the one thing everyone involved in academic publishing could agree on was that it was more ethical than other types of publishing.

This belief draws its strength from peer review, which is commonly cited as proof that journal publishing is on a higher plane. But, apart from the increasing realisation that academic publishing can be as beset with bias and skullduggery as any other system that determines financial rewards, there seems little evidence for this. At last year's congress on research into peer reviewed biomedical journals held in Barcelona, study after study showed that the reality and the ideology did not match: statistics were misinterpreted, ethical requirements ignored and lies told about the contribution of co-authors.

It may not matter much anyway. If you look carefully enough, academic publishing is structurally little different from the world of newspapers and magazines, and peer review becomes a smokescreen. Referees may advise an editor, but there are usually too many papers chasing too few pages, so it is the editor who has to decide on which to choose. Since journals need to be read to survive, the choice is usually made on the basis of which their readers will find more interesting. This principle is known in other circles as 'news values'.

A market oriented approach
This perspective - that journals are there to attract and keep readers as well as to validate science - has important implications. Those writing for journals should realise that their task is not to write a 'good paper' (whatever that might be), but to write a paper that the editor of the targeted journal will choose over the competition. This is a marketing model. Having good content is only part of the task; the other is to find a suitable journal (or market) to have it published. The clear implication is that academic writers should spend time researching the market as well as the topic they are writing on; they generally don't.

Many sad experiences recounted to me during several hundred courses have convinced me that the most important decision of all - where to publish - is usually taken on irrational grounds. It is based on wishful thinking - let's try the journal with the highest impact factor, and then go down the scale. A marketing approach, on the other hand, would have writers choosing more rationally. A useful early step would be a literature search to identify one or more journals with a relevant conversation or 'thread'. Ideally authors should be able to write a covering letter along the following lines: 'In your April issue Smith and Jones posed the important question... . We provide the answer.'

The marketing model helps in other ways. Journals have subtly different requirements: in a study I did of 300 articles in six medical journals (details on my website) I found a typical structure of two paragraphs for the introduction, seven for the methods, seven for the results and six for the discussion. I also found some key variations, such as The Lancet preferred more alarmist first sentences, the US publications preferred verbs in the title, and general medical journals preferred the active voice. Studying these variables in advance provides a template for the article.

Still more benefits accrue when the paper is sent to co-authors. This usually triggers a frenzy of haggling over relatively unimportant matters, such as how to write the title or which voice to use. These disputes are normally settled by power rather than reason. With the evidence-based writing advocated here, the solution is simple: look in the target journal and follow that style.

Time and project management
Writing a journal article takes up a huge amount of time. As with all time management issues, the key issues are motivation and priorities. All those who have to publish should be encouraged each year to work out their publication goals: what do they need to publish this year, and in which journals? They should then write annual publication plans that will help them to carry these resolutions through.
When starting individual articles, writers should sit down and decide on the product specification, a process I call 'setting the brief'. A good brief answers the following questions:

  • Message : how would you describe the implication of your article, expressed as a sentence (with a verb) of about 12 words?
  • Market : which journal do you intend to submit it to?
  • Format : will it be an original research article, an editorial, a review?
  • Deadlines : when do you intend to send off the article and, working backwards, when do you intend to meet the key targets, such as finishing first draft and sending out for internal review?
  • Co-authors : who will be the co-authors, and in what order. Before you do anything else, send them this product specification, and get them to agree to it. This should save a lot of time and haggling later on.

Changing the culture
Academic writing seems to be organised in a bizarre way. The most junior person is instructed to do the bulk of the work, with only vague instructions. When the first draft is finished, everyone is encouraged to heap on the manuscript as many comments as possible. This is time consuming and depressing for the writer. It also ensures that a well-targeted paper moves away from being focused on the needs of the editor and towards meeting the requirements of the group (which is probably why so many academic papers end up completely unreadable).

Successful teams, however, have replaced this with a coaching culture. Supervisors help their writers to set annual targets. They monitor progress, and provide support when problems arise. Once the first draft is completed, they give balanced feedback, listing what works well as well as what needs to be done. They concentrate on the 'macro-editing' issues (the message, the market, the structure and the proof) and do not get over involved in micro-editing (grammar, spelling, style). All comments are made from the perspective: how can we make this more likely to be accepted by the target editor?

Working groups of writers only help if properly set up. A typical progression would be an agreement at the first meeting to write a first draft and come back in, say, six weeks. At the second meeting only half have written their papers, so the rest of the meeting is taken up with those who have not written criticising the drafts of those who have. This is hardly rewarding the behaviour you want to encourage. Instead groups should be used to set joint targets and as a means of encouraging everyone to keep to them; this can be done very effectively through e-mail.

There is one final thing to do, though it is often neglected. Don't forget to celebrate your successes.


Tim Albert is a trainer who specialises in training biomedical scientists how to write scientific papers - and get them published. www.timalbert.co.uk

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