One way to have an edge in publishing begins with recognizing that journal editors and reviewers sometimes have trouble recognizing outstanding work. If you are willing to make extra efforts to help them, you can publish your best work more frequently in the best journals.
1. Journals do not work like well-oiled machines. Science publishing is a social process, and despite good intentions all around, mistakes happen. Papers get reviewed by people lacking the necessary expertise. Reviewers work when tired and inattentive. Papers get misplaced. Important discoveries get overlooked. Do your part to reduce errors by writing your papers so clearly that even sleepy and barely qualified reviewers will understand the significance of your work. Encourage editors and reviewers to be fair and careful by monitoring their progress periodically and communicating with them clearly and with courtesy. While it is true that they are supposed to be careful and fair anyway, it pays to not take that for granted.
2. Respect reviewers even when they don’t deserve it. If you haven’t been insulted by a reviewer, you haven’t been publishing very long. Some scientists just cannot resist condescending and insolent remarks when reviewing papers with which they disagree. You’ll also run into reviewers who distort the meaning of your results, seemingly deliberately. Never, never reply to reviewers in anger. A hostile response has little chance of being persuasive and risks establishing enmity that lasts for years. Publishing in the journals of your choice is more important to your career than telling reviewers where to get off. So ignore the insults and be diplomatic.
3. Think like a Killer. Among various types of reviewers are Angels, beloved by authors, and Killers, beloved by editors. Angels always find reasons a paper will be important to somebody and ought to be published. Killers know a fatal flaw lurks in every manuscript. Editors assign papers to Killers again and again because they believe papers improve as a result. Try to make your paper Killer-proof by asking, “If I wanted to kill this paper, what would be my excuse?” Although this exercise may not make your paper invulnerable, it can help spot and fix weaknesses that Killers will surely find, including gaps in logic, ambiguous writing, missing controls, and claims that go beyond what the data support.
4. Use the phone. Here is the most underutilized tool in publishing, and the more competitive the journal, the greater the advantage in using it. Suppose, for example, that you wonder if a certain journal will be interested in your paper and should you write a full article or a shorter letter. Call an editor at the journal to ask for advice. Do this in the early-draft stage, so that when your manuscript is ready you’ll know where to send it. Also, the day before you intend to call, email your abstract to the editor so that he or she won’t be caught off guard. Phone calls help you avoid wasting time on journals not right for your paper.
Moreover, conversation is sometimes better than writing in getting an editor excited about your results; an excited editor may take more care to assign qualified reviewers. Calls also give opportunities to handle objections from editors that you might not anticipate in presubmission queries.
Some journals discourage calls through supposedly mandatory procedures for written presubmission queries. Even so, queries in writing are not guaranteed to reach editors who understand what your work is about, and most editors will in fact take calls (or failing that, emails). So if you do make a presubmission query, you should generally follow up with a call a day or two later.
5. Meet the editors. Editors who know you are more likely to listen to an argument than ones who don’t. It’s human nature. This is why some authors cultivate journals and have editors they favor. If they get several papers published by the same editor, they learn what the editor likes and to an extent can write for the editor. And this is a two-way street. Editors’ reputations grow when they publish scientists who produce high-quality work. But what if you don’t know any editors? First, never refrain from contacting editors you’ve never met if you need their advice. You are helping them do their jobs, which is to publish interesting science. Second, meet editors whenever you can. One of the best places is at meetings. Just like you, editors go to conferences to stay up to date. Most really admire scientists and are easily approached. Buy them a beer or whatever and they’ll happily tell you how their journal works and the kind of papers they’re looking for. Then write them a nice-to-meet-you letter when you get back to the lab and you’ve begun to make a new friend.
6. Polish the title and abstract. Your title and abstract may be good enough for specialists in your field, but are they are ready for Pubmed? Far more people may discover your article through Pubmed than ever see it in libraries. Thus, Pubmed can advertise your accomplishment for years to come. To help people find you, put search keywords they might use in the title and abstract. Rewrite the title a dozen times, if that’s what it takes, to find the one that really tells readers why your paper is important. Likewise, if you have a major advance, don’t let your abstract hide it from those outside your field.
7. In danger of being scooped? Don’t overlook that one way to publish faster is to go online. Although an online journal’s review process may not be any faster than usual, once your paper is accepted it can be published the next day. While online journals do not in general have the same impact as print journals, when speed is essential, well-regarded online journals such as those of the Public Library of Science and BioMed Central may be an alternative to asking editors at print journals for expedited review.
8. Don’t give up easily on the journal you prefer. Would you be willing to write a response to reviewers longer than your paper? It has been done — by researchers coping with uncomprehending reviewers, in last ditch attempts to get into top journals rather than settle for lesser ones. And sometimes it works. The point here is that whenever you believe that decision makers have misunderstood your work, an articulate response may convince them to reconsider. Whether your presubmission query was declined, or your submission was rejected without review, or reviewers trashed your paper, try again, politely, to get them to see it your way. Phoning the editor may help. However, if they turn you down and they did understand your work, that’s different. Accept defeat gracefully and try another journal.
9. Write the cover letter right. Seeing virtue in brevity — “Dear Editor: Here’s my paper. Publish it, quick! Sincerely yours,”— some authors forget that cover letters are opportunities to persuade. Don’t be so brief as to jeopardize the main goals: (1) to get the editor excited about your work; (2) to head off any anticipated objections to your paper; and (3) to steer the editor toward qualified reviewers. It is risky to rely on your abstract alone to excite the editor. Instead, use the letter to explain as you would to a colleague not in your field why your results matter to the journal’s readers. As to reviewers, editors seldom know experts in every specialty, so help them by offering names of reviewers qualified to fairly assess your work. And it helps to explain why you recommend them. For example: “We suggest Dr. X because she is an expert in the ABC technique we used extensively; many in our field are unfamiliar with the subtleties of interpreting ABC data.”
Summary. If editorial decisions were bloodless and mechanical, then publishing in the best journals would be about producing top science and nothing more. To the contrary, the decisions that determine where papers end up are subjective and open to influence by respectful and reasoned arguments. Although no amount of persuasion will give a merely good paper a place in a journal alongside great papers, many a paper headed for rejection has been turned around because an author made a persuasive case to an editor. By being courteous and proactive in the editorial process, authors can reduce the risk that their papers will appear in journals whose prestige is less than their work deserves.