What happens when I submit an academic paper to a journal?

So, you’ve just completed your first piece of academic research and your supervisor has asked you to submit it to a journal. You want to act like you’ve got it all together, so you say you don’t need help. Here’s the low-down of how to prepare yourself for submission and what will happen when you have submitted to a journal.

First things first, you need to choose a journal to submit to. An important thing to realise, and one where many people make a mistake, is that you can only submit to one journal at a time. Submitting to two journals at the same time can cause a host of confusion and ethical issues which can cause extreme embarrassment for your research group and cause people to lose trust in yourself and your fellow academics. This means that you need to make a choice. If you submit to a less well-known or less respected journal, you are more likely to have your paper selected, but you might always wander – what if? On the other hand, you might make the decision to aim high and aim for the top journal in that research area. Of course, the stars might be aligned for you, but if your paper is not selected, you need to go back to the drawing board. For journals with a high level of submissions it can take a few months for you to hear back from the editor by which point your research might have become too outdated to submit to your back-up journal.

Once you have submitted your paper to a journal, it will most likely be looked at by the admin staff that run the journal. They will ensure the paper is within the scope of the journal and will reject anything that is not. They will also check over the level of English and ensure that it is good enough to be seen by an editor. Again, if it does not reach the level of English required, it will be rejected. A few other parameters might be checked at this stage like ensuring the paper follows the correct structure and that the correct referencing format has been used. For minor changes, you will be offered a chance to resubmit.

If your paper passes this first stage, it will then be passed on to the editor. The editors are the experts in their field and have a more strategic outlook on which research is new and cutting edge and where they see the journal going. The editors may reject anything at this stage which they feel is not new research or will not add anything interesting to the journal.

If the editor is interested in the paper, it will be passed on to peer reviewers, of which there are usually two. Peer reviewers will check through the method, check there are no errors in the data, ensure it is not the same as another paper they have read, and offer their expert opinion. They will send a decision back to the editor to say whether the paper is ready for publication or whether it needs either minor or major revisions. Most papers will require some type of revision so don’t worry about this. If you have been told to make minor revisions and you make them, it will almost certainly be accepted to the journal. As long as the feedback from reviewers is positive, there is no reason that the editor would reject the paper at this stage.

Depending on the journal, the paper might now be sent to a professional for a copy-edit if the English needs more work. It will then be type set by the publishers and receive one last proofread before it will appear in the journal – usually online first and later in hard copy if the journal produces hard copy versions.

In total, the process can take from a few weeks to a few months depending on how well your paper met the English language and style guide standards, as well as the speed at which the editors and reviewers work – this usually depends on the number of submissions to the journal. The higher quality your paper is from the beginning, the quicker the process will go, as you will require fewer revisions from the editor and reviewers, and from the initial and final checks. It is therefore a good idea to have a professional copy-editor or proofreader look over your paper before you submit, to ensure mistakes will not slow down the publishing process.

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