How do you get your work published? I recently offered readers of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (JPAM) a top 10 list of things to do and not do if you want your work published in peer-reviewed journals. It was based on my experience as a senior scholar and the editor-in-chief of JPAM for the past decade. This advice is directly relevant for scholars in business and the social sciences, but some of the advice is less germane for scholars in the fine arts and humanities. This is a condensed version of a more detailed article that is available online.
Think globally. Even if your research is local, based on a small geographic area, or tiny country, you need to think globally. Keep track of global trends. For example, because of medical advances and declining fertility, the world's population is aging. This has ramifications for government funding of pensions, healthcare needs, public healthcare expenditures, and poverty among the elderly. So if you are writing on any of these issues, even if you are using local data, the research has broad salience. It is important to understand global and national trends to place your work in that context and motivate your research.
Create a good research team. Scholarly research is tackling increasingly complex issues. Publishable research requires a strong theoretical foundation, solid research design, defensible data, measures and methods, and an ability to motivate your work. Additionally, the tsunami of big data and push for interdisciplinary research mean that writing strong papers often exceeds the capacity of one person. During my editorship (2004-2014), the percentage of single-authored articles fell from 36 to 10 percent, simply reflecting the characteristics of successful submissions. Create a team of researchers whose skills complement your own.
Select a strong research design. Research design trumps statistics, econometrics and stellar writing. It is not possible to resuscitate a weak or flawed research design. For causal research, the gold standard, at least in the United States, is the randomized experiment. This methodology used to be employed almost exclusively by the large research firms and bench scientists. But that has changed dramatically over the past decade. Regardless of your discipline, for the purposes of publishing, you should select and frame research questions so that you can construct a strong research design.
Use good data and measures. Data are widely available, but they vary in quality. There is more easily accessed, high-quality data available now than ever before. You can choose to use these data or collect your own.
Should you decide to collect your own data, then you need to consider the measures you collect carefully. Whenever possible, unless it really does not fit the needs of your study, you should give strong consideration to measures that already have been validated. Many government agencies put substantial effort and resources into measurement and you may not need to reinvent the wheel.
If your paper has flaws, do not ignore them. There is a world of difference between making a long list of all of the heinous problems with your work for referees and pretending that problems do not exist at all! Do not list the problems and do nothing about them, or conversely, ignore the existence of problems. Neither approach works well.
Remember, it is a key part of the job of journal referees to find shortcomings in your submissions. If you have swept issues under the carpet, they will lift the carpet. Good referees will do this constructively. Others will have a bit of fun at your expense. If you are forced by data limitations or other circumstances to make choices that are subject to criticism, explain the constraints and the reasoning that motivated your choices. Understanding why you made these choices or measured tradeoffs will deflect a great deal of criticism from referees.
Get to the point and write clearly and compellingly. Get to the point right away. Tell us your research question, the contribution to knowledge, and why we should care in the abstract and then repeat it again in the first paragraph.
There are different cultural norms based and styles of education across the globe. For a U.S.-based journal, modesty about your contribution is self-defeating. You need to be explicit about your contributions. Starting with Plato and Socrates and working your way slowly to Karl Marx and finally telling us your research question on page 35 is also self-defeating. You will have used up a good amount of the referees’ time unnecessarily, and they will not be happy. The directness found in U.S. journals simply reflects our cultural norms, but fair warning, this is very likely different if you are submitting to journals based outside the U.S.
Constructive feedback is your friend, especially before you submit your manuscript to a journal. Whenever your work is close to being ready for journal submission, start presenting that paper. It does not matter if it is at your university, at a conference, or another venue. When someone makes a good suggestion after your presentation, write it down. When you go back to your office, make the recommended changes.
Be strategic. Look at the journal to which you are submitting your paper. Find articles that are related to yours. If there are none, this should give you pause. If you find related papers, cite them in your submission. Your work might improve on these papers or provide new insights on their findings. Some of these authors are likely to be your referees. Failing to acknowledge their contributions, particularly in the same journal to which you are submitting, just makes your referees unhappy.
Get it off your desk. Constructive feedback is great, but after a point it should not become an excuse for failing to submit your paper to a journal. One hundred percent of the papers on your desk and in your files or on your floor will not be published. You will never make a difference in the world or get a job or tenure or that cherished promotion because you have a big stack of papers.
Eventually, you will receive a decision letter about your submission. It is pretty much impossible to get a conditional acceptance or an acceptance the first time you submit your paper to any highly competitive journal. The best you can normally hope for is a request for revisions. If you get a request for revisions, the editor has opened the door! Rejection may mean your research was a poor fit for the journal and/or there are problems with your research. Fix all problems, find a journal that is a better fit, and resubmit.