This article is based on a presentation given at UNL on September 4, 2014, by Professor Denise Cuthbert, Dean of the School of Graduate Research at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. You may also be interested in two companion articles from the same presentation:
There are a number of reasons for publishing your research while you’re a grad student: to create a scholarly record before you go on the job market, to share your work with a larger audience, and to gain satisfaction about your progress on your research. It’s worth the effort to get your research published.
Write early, write often. It’s one thing to read academic articles; it’s another to try to write one. By writing for publication while you’re still a grad student, you’re in a great position to learn how to write a good journal article. Like an athlete who trains for months to prepare for competition, you have to prepare to publish. You can’t just graduate and expect to be able to put out great articles simply because you’ve got the degree! Follow Dr. Cuthbert’s advice: “Write early, write often!” Start writing early in your graduate career and take advantage of your support network. You can get feedback from other graduate students, faculty members, and your advisor as you write. You’ll also establish good writing habits. When you begin writing, make a point of writing a little every day. You’ll be far more productive if you dedicate 20-30 minutes a day to writing than if you have a marathon writing session once a week.
Focus on one main idea. As you conduct your research, think about your work in terms of publishable results and how many articles you can write. Each article should focus on just one idea. If you find yourself writing about two or three great ideas in one article, keep tabs on all ideas that are related to your key idea in another Word document—those are second, third, and fourth articles. By limiting yourself to one idea, you’re keeping the scope of your article narrow and it’ll be far easier to write. Articles that are too wide in scope become ungainly: they have a loose structure and the takeaway message becomes lost. They also take much longer to write, since there’s always more to add!
Find the right journal for sharing your work. Before you even start writing, figure out which journal you want to publish in. Start by considering a few key aspects of the journals: What are the key journals in your field? In your area? What journals do you read for your own research? Be realistic about where you are in your career here: while you may be reading Nature for your own research, ask yourself if you’re "shooting for the moon" if you submit your work there. Remember—the researchers publishing in top journals started publishing elsewhere first! As you look for the right journals, know who your readers are. Ask yourself which journals they’d read to learn about your research.
Tailor your article to each journal. To know if a journal’s a good fit, read the journal’s editorial statement and previously published articles. Note the editorial board’s goals and the journal’s focus. Use this information to tailor your work to the journal. If you try to work the other way around—finding the right journal for the article you already wrote— you’ll have more trouble getting your article published. An article written without the journal’s audience in mind will need finessing later to be a clear fit for the journal. If it’s not a clear fit, it doesn’t matter how good the article is—trying to get published there will be like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.