10 things you should know before publishing your first journal article

grad school journal articles peer-review Mar 09, 2023
But First, Publish
10 things you should know before publishing your first journal article

Are you preparing to publish your first scientific article? Woot woot! πŸŽ‰ This is an exciting milestone in your research journey. I know this can seem like a daunting task when you haven’t done it before, but you absolutely can do it. Academic publishing is not just for old white male professors. πŸ’ͺ

Here are the 10 most important things you should know before submitting your research paper for publication based on my experience over the last 13 years as an author, reviewer, and editor.

1. Your manuscript needs to have a main argument that is crystal clear.

Your journal article needs to offer a new and focused perspective on the topic you are writing about.

I find this is what students tend to struggle with the most. And the problem is not that they don’t have a good argument to make, but that they try to make TOO MANY arguments.

Focus on one main argument, present evidence to support it. You can elaborate on some additional ideas and thoughts in the Discussion section of the article, but make sure that you are really emphasizing one main thing. Don’t try to include everything you know and think about a topic in one journal article.

2. Journal articles are very formulaic.

Scientific writing is not creative writing. There is an agreed upon structure and logic shared by almost all journal articles. Once you understand this, writing them becomes a whole lot easier.

For example, original research articles almost always follow the IMRaD format. Meaning Introduction – Methods – Results – Discussion, the regularity of this format makes it easier for readers to understand your research.

Other article types, like reviews, methods articles, clinical case studies have different formats.

It’s best to look at examples of journal articles in your field, and specifically in the journal you are submitting to help you determine the best format. You can also learn more about how to format your journal article in the You Can Publish That guide.

Most scientific journal articles follow the same general structure, the most common being the IMRaD format. It’s best to stick to this format as much as possible because it makes it easier for readers to understand your research and evaluate your arguments.

3. Longer is not better.

Everyone prefers a concise, but valuable, journal article over a long one. Focus on communicating your main argument and the evidence you need to provide to support it, rather than the quantity of words.

Eliminate any unnecessary information.

Remember, don’t try to show off everything you know about your research topic. A concise article will be more impactful and increase your chances of acceptance.

4. It takes a long time.

Going through the submission portal takes longer than you think. And the peer review process takes a long time. It is important to have patience and persevere through the peer review process all the way to the end.

The timeline for publication will vary depending on the journal. Some journal websites give an indication of their publishing timelines, but in my experience, these are almost always gross underestimations.

5. The cover letter is as important as the manuscript when it comes to getting accepted for publication.

Don't overlook the importance of the cover letter. This letter leaves the first impression and convinces the editor that your research is valuable and worth publishing.

In your cover letter, be sure to highlight the main result of your research, explain its significance, and why it is a good fit for the journal. The role of the cover letter with your journal article submission is to compel the editor to send your manuscript for peer review.

Learn more about how to write a cover letter here.

Devote some time and effort to your cover letter. Your cover letter plays a critical role in the peer review process because it compels the editor to send your manuscript to review.

6. You often can recommend reviewers.

Most of the time you will be asked to recommend reviewers and many editors use some of your suggestions. You can use this to your advantage by ensuring that you cite the peer reviewers that you recommend.

7. Be prepared for ‘feedback’…ahem, criticism.

You will probably receive A LOT of critiques from the peer reviewers. Really a lot. The review process is designed to ensure that your research is of high quality and meets the standards of the journal. Some reviewers have a lot of opinions about your research topic and approach and will take this opportunity to share it.

It can be challenging to receive feedback at this stage of the process, but it is important to keep an open mind and use the feedback to improve your research.

You will need to respond to each individual reviewer comment thoughtfully and thoroughly in order for your manuscript to be accepted for publication.

8. You will have a bajillion versions of your manuscript and each associated file (tables and figures).

It’s so important to be methodical about how you name and organize files. Be systematic. It will save you tons of time and stress in the future. And eliminate the possibility of submitting the wrong file versions.

It’s easy to mix up all the different versions of your manuscript. Have a systematic process in place for naming and organizing your files.

9. After your paper is accepted, it ‘goes into production’.

You think you are done, but there are always more edits requested when your paper is in production.

It is important to respond to these requests promptly and thoroughly. Prior to production, everything moves SLOOOOWLY. In stark contrast, production moves FAST. You are often requested to return edits or information within 24 hours. 

10. Despite your best efforts, you will find typos the moment your paper is published.

Annoying, but normal. You do what you can to avoid errors, but it is important to remember that no scientific journal article is perfect.

11. Submitted is better than perfect.

Okay, I said “10 things”, but this one is probably the most important. It’s a good thing to share your research, even if it has some flaws. Science and research is iterative, and there will always be opportunities for improvement and growth.

Don’t focus too much on perfection, and don’t be afraid to let the paper go and finally submit it.

Do you find this helpful information for your first journal article publication? Pin it!

In conclusion, publishing your research after years of hard work and dedication is an incredible feeling. By following the tips I present here, such as having a clear main argument, writing concisely, and being patient through the review process, you can achieve success in getting your paper published. No article is perfect, so don't get too caught up in making it flawless. The most important thing is to share your amazing research with the world and start making an impact on your field.


If you want more advice for your first journal article, check out the free You Can Publish That guide.

Also, did you know that I mentor postgraduates and early career researchers through the publication of their first journal article? All the motivation and accountability, without the imposter syndrome. Book a Discovery Call with me to learn more.

Hi! I'm Dr Jayne Wilkins.

I'm a research scientist and academic publishing coach. I've been writing, reviewing, and editing academic publications for 12+ years.

In 2021, I achieved my long-time ambition to publish in Nature (woot woot πŸŽ‰).

Want to publish your research?

I can help you finish and submit that manuscript.

Learn More About Me

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