Manuscript publishing: a beginner’s guide

Summary

  • Publishing a manuscript in an academic journal is a key part of being an academic so you need to learn the do’s and don’ts early on.
  • There are many ways for you to pick a journal to publish your manuscript in. But, when you decide on one always refer to its Guide for Authors.
  • Tell a story. Set the scene, hook the readers and give them a reason to care about your work.
  • Deciding who to include in the author list doesn’t have to be confusing anymore. Elsevier has helped to clear up confusion with the credit author statement.
  • Refer to the Guide for Authors to know how to best structure and format your manuscript for publishing so that it will at very least be sent off for peer-review.
  • The peer-review stage can be a lengthy process. See it as a win-win situation, no matter the outcome. If your manuscript is accepted for publishing by the journal then fantastic. If not, you have some genuine and constructive feedback to enhance your manuscript for the next attempt.
A pair of glasses on top of a published manuscript.
Publishing a manuscript for the first time is a gratifying experience. All that hard work has paid off. Getting to this point takes a calculated approach that even the most experienced researchers can struggle with.

Publish or perish

Life in academia is tough, there’s no doubt. I often heard the ‘publish or perish’ adage and from my experience, it’s very true. If you’re planning a career in academia then publishing your work is a must. But, if you’re new to this, where do you begin? What does the whole process involve? Which journal do you submit to? This blog will aim to answer these questions and more based on my own experiences with the publisher Elsevier.

How to select a journal

I discovered the first journal I published in, the Journal of Membrane Science (JoMS), during my undergraduate degree. Following the penultimate year, I did a four-month internship at a Crown Research Institute in New Zealand. There, I worked in a laboratory making porous ceramic supports for metal membranes. Unbeknownst to me, my supervisor at this institute had gone on to publish our work in the JoMS and credited me in the Acknowledgements section.

Upon my return to the UK, I immediately started the final year of my degree where I had to continue the work I did in New Zealand for my final year project. I began by searching the literature where I stumbled across a JoMS article that featured my work. I was quite proud that I had a mention in the article but I always wanted to do one better and author my own. During my PhD, I would.

Use the literature

Of course, not everyone will discover their firsts journal this way. If you’re new to this I’d suggest asking your supervisor and trusted colleagues for suggestions. Failing this, there are other ways. It all begins with a literature survey and during this journey, you may very well see a pattern emerge as to which journals contain the articles relevant to your field of interest. Once you have singled out a journal you can make sure your manuscript fits its agenda by checking the journal scope on its official website.

Use the reference list

Another approach can be to go ahead and draft a manuscript and use the reference list as a guide to choose your desired journal. In essence, the journal that appears most frequently in the reference list may be a good fit. Although, this can be risky as you may discover that your manuscript doesn’t match the journal’s scope all that well.

Use Journal Guide

One other way is to use the online tool, Journal Guide. All you need to do is enter your manuscript title and abstract and the Journal Guide will give you a list of journals that could be a good match for publishing your manuscript in.

Read the Guide for Authors

Once you’ve identified the journal you wish to target it is imperative that you refer to the Guide for Authors found on the official journal website. As an example, the JoMS Guide for Authors contains crucial information that you need to follow to ensure that your manuscript gets passed the first hurdle: the journal editor. Anyway, this guide usually contains information on how to structure and format the manuscript for publishing as well as how and what files to upload for submission amongst other things.

The writing bit

Probably the most daunting bit, but the sooner you start the better as your manuscript will likely be bounced between authors for internal review and will become several versions. Publishing a manuscript turns it into an article and it involves five stages: conception, submission, review, publication and dissemination. You can read more about these stages on the Elsevier website, it’s worth a read. From my experience, there are no word limits, but there may be a restriction on the number of figures and tables that you can use. The whole idea is about readership. Readers, typically, won’t like to be overwhelmed with lots of diagrams, charts, graphs, tables, etc as this will be information overload and can ruin the read. Include only the most important and relevant items and be concise.

Tell a story

I heard this phrase quite often and it used to drive me crazy. When you think ‘story’, you think of something compelling and entertaining and as a researcher, you understand that not everyone would describe your work as either. However, you can provide a context to readers explaining why you dedicated your precious time to performing this stellar work. No one will be gripped by your work if they do not understand how it could benefit their life and solve an ongoing societal problem.

For example, you could be researching new and environmentally friendly methods of removing plastic from the ocean. Some readers might find this very interesting, others may not so you could mention the impact of plastic getting into the food chain and affecting human life as well as marine life. Readers will then see how your research can impact them. So, you may want to mention early on in your manuscript data and other evidence of plastic’s impact on human and marine wellbeing over the years. Now, the reader can get an understanding as to why you dedicated your time and effort towards this cause.

Get your figures, tables and other graphics ready

Throughout your research, you will be conducting experiments, fieldwork and other forms of investigation to acquire data for your manuscript. Whichever software you use to generate your figures and tables always ensure they’re high-quality and high-resolution and do not overwhelm the reader with too much information. There is always that temptation to overload graphs with countless data points, curves, colour codes and what not but it can be quite confusing for someone to follow. My advice is to emulate the approach used by other authors in your target journal and have suitable individuals review your figures with a fair and critical lens.

The manuscript structure

Structuring your manuscript for publishing will be a lot like what I’ve explained over in my other blog on writing a quality dissertation, but below you’ll see a brief description of the usual headings and sections.

Title

This will be the first thing readers will see and must be compelling and effective to hook their interest. Keep the title concise and to the point. Avoid using abbreviations and formulae where possible too. An example of a cluttered title could be “Does removing plastic from oceans using a novel technique have any benefit on the health and wellbeing of human and marine life?” On the other hand, a vague and undesirable title may be “Plastic clean-up of oceans”. A more effective title could be “Effects of a novel plastic ocean clean-up technique on human and marine life”.

Author list

The author list is where you mention the individuals involved in the creation of the manuscript for publishing. When writing your first manuscript you may be wondering who you can include as an author. This is quite a touchy subject as it has been known that people have been included as an author on various manuscripts and have contributed little to nothing. It’s worth checking out the credit author statement as it attempts to spell out with no ambiguity the categories and criteria for authorship.

There’s also a convention in the order that author names appear on a manuscript. The first name will be the corresponding author and is the person who will be contacted throughout the entire publishing process and beyond. From what I know, they are also the person who did the bulk of the research and wrote most of the manuscript. The last author name will be of the individual who received the grant that made all of this happen. The names in between played some sort of role in the work, but it’s down to you and your supervisor to decide who gets in. PhD Comics makes light of this very thing.

Keywords

You’ll likely need to choose a few keywords to help your manuscript be indexed by search engines. The keywords need to be relevant and applicable to your manuscript and allow it to be easily found by other researchers with relative ease. If you were searching for a manuscript very similar to yours, what would you type into the database search engine? List a few questions you would ask and search terms you would use and you’ll come up with some relevant keywords for your manuscript.

Abstract

The abstract is written last and summarises the key and significant findings of the manuscript. After the title, this is the most read part of the manuscript and is what readers will skim through to get an idea of what’s ahead. This section should aim to answer these questions in no more than 250 words:

  • What did you do?
  • Why did you do it (this goes back to telling your story)?
  • What were your most important findings?
  • Why are these findings important?

Introduction

Here you get to set the scene and spell out to the reader the context of your research and the question it aims to answer and the problem it will solve. Include a very brief overview of the literature and avoid the temptation to go into lengthy analysis here. This ties into the story you want to tell the reader and explain to them why your work is interesting and why they should care.

Methodology/Experimental procedure

In this section, you have to describe your approach to acquiring all the information and data that you use to support your claims within the manuscript. Think of giving enough information so that an independent researcher can go away and replicate your results. So, you need to specify test criteria, conditions and you need to detail the equipment that you used including their make and model.

Results

Your results need to be clear and straight to the point. By this stage, you probably have so much content for this section that you don’t know where to begin, but it’s key to whittle it down to the most informative and relevant stuff. Try not to overcrowd any images, diagrams, tables, charts, graphs and so on as this will simply confuse the reader to no end. Remind yourself of the research question you are attempting to answer. By now you will have one or more answers, so for each answer select the result you believe best supports your argument(s).

Discussion

This is the core of your manuscript and is where you describe and explain the results you presented earlier. What do your results tell you and what do they mean? What claims and arguments can you make from the data presented in the results section? Make doubly sure that your results support your points rather than contradict. Try to compare your findings with the wider literature to see if there are any agreements or not. If not, can you rationally explain why?

Conclusion

This is where you wrap up and convey your main message and final thoughts that you want the readers to know. Keep it concise and summarise the main findings of your manuscript here. Reiterate the solution to the problem that you set out to address in the manuscript. Some questions you can consider for this section are:

  • What is your solution to the problem introduced in your manuscript?
  • If there was no solution found, can you explain why and suggest reasons?
  • What message do you want to leave the reader with?

Acknowledgements

Acknowledge those who supported your work other than those mentioned in the author list. This can include any outsourced work performed by an external company or institution. Always remember to give a mention to the funding body and provide the grant number where necessary.

References

List all of your references here in the correct format using a consistent referencing system. Refer to the Guide for Authors to see what the journal requires.

Produce your manuscript as if it were to be printed in black and white

This isn’t always obvious and it may seem tempting to make all of your diagrams colourful and attractive. Consider this: if you were to print out a black and white version of your paper would you be able to understand what’s going on in those colourful diagrams? Maybe you would, because you created them, but someone else looking at them for the first time may have a hard time. Of course, your article will be available online in colour and printing in black and white nowadays is rare but making your images equally understandable in black and white as well as in colour is never a bad thing. Just something to bear in mind.

Get your submission bundle ready

You have a final draft, congratulations! But that’s not the end yet. There are just a few more things you need to consider before you click submit.

Manuscript: final draft

You finally have the final draft, but there are a few more considerations to make next to maximise your chances of acceptance:

  • Make sure your manuscript has been reviewed, proofread and edited. The last thing you want is to have your manuscript rejected on the basis that there are too many spelling and grammar mistakes. It’s definitely worth having someone proficient in the English language or even a professional English language editor check over the text.
  • Ensure that all in-text citations are detailed in the References section in the correct format.
  • Ensure you have the usage rights and permission of copyrighted material featured in your manuscript before publishing. You don’t want your article withdrawn due to a dispute over copyrighted content. Cover your back.
  • Suggest some peer reviewers that you prefer to scrutinise your work. There has to be no conflict of interest here and the suggestions you make may or may not be considered by the journal editor. Knowing who to suggest can be tough. I’d suggest you choose the authors that you cite the most in your manuscript as a way of coming up with names for potential peer reviewers.
  • Be intellectually honest. Publishing your manuscript should be an act of sharing facts, not fiction. I have personally peer-reviewed articles citing my work to discover that the claim they attached to my work was not accurate. Don’t let this happen to you. As a peer reviewer, you are left wondering if there are any more inconsistencies hidden in the manuscript and this may very well jeopardise the success of your work.
  • Double-check the Guide for Authors to make sure you have everything in order for your target journal.

Letter to the editor

This is a brief formal letter, approximately 300 words long, introducing your manuscript to the Editor-in-Chief of the target journal. Some things you need to include in this letter are:

  • A concise introduction to your manuscript.
  • A quick highlight of your major findings.
  • Why publishing this manuscript will be a good thing for the journal.
  • A suggestion of peer reviewers.

Figures and tables

Get all of your figures and tables together in high-quality and high-resolution. You do not want these items appearing blurry or distorted in your published article. You may even need to include your figures, tables and their associated captions in a separate file.

Highlights

Here you must include between three and five bullet points that encapsulate the novel findings of your manuscript. You can see some examples here.

Submit!

Almost there! Don’t rush this part. By now you should have created an online account with the target journal. If you haven’t, go and register and familiarise yourself with the online portal as this will be the place where you upload and submit everything to the journal for a decision. Thankfully, there’s no deadline so you won’t feel any pressure. Refer to the Guide for Author’s submission checklist to make sure you have everything you need ready for submitting.

What happens next?

The moment of truth! It can take a few months or the best part of a year to reach a decision. The editor will take a look at your manuscript and decide whether it is suitable for the journal. If yes, then it gets sent for peer-review. If no, then you’ll need to seek out a more suitable journal. The peer-review process is performed by two or more experts and you won’t necessarily know their identity.

As a peer reviewer, I have encountered some amazing work, but the one thing I found that affected my decision the most, aside from the quality of the scientific argument, was the language proficiency. My advice is to make sure that your written manuscript is error-free and easy to read. Don’t let language be the reason why your manuscript fails.

The peer reviewers will write a report with recommendations to the editor advising them on what to do next. There are four possible recommendations:

  • Accept without modifications (rarely happens, but is possible).
  • Accept subject to minor revisions (could be rewriting certain sections or amending figures and tables).
  • Accept subject to major revisions (may involve redoing experiments).
  • Reject.

The whole peer-review process and how to handle the editor’s decision is a topic for another time. If you face rejection, do not despair. Take the criticism from the peer reviewers and editor constructively and come back stronger. You owe it to yourself and the scientific community.

What do you think?

Do you think I’ve missed something? Do you need proofreading, editing, course designing, grant proposal writing or consultancy services? I’d love to hear from you. Get your free quote today!

Follow me

Remember to follow my FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn pages as well as subscribe to my YouTube channel for the latest updates.

Naser Al-Mufachi
Latest posts by Naser Al-Mufachi (see all)
Manuscript publishing: a beginner’s guide
Scroll to top
Call now