For better or for worse, most scientists aspire to publish their work in the top journals such as Nature or Science, but sometimes this can seem like an impossibly steep mountain to climb. Tales abound about the over-achieving PhD student that got their work straight in, and coffee-room competitions about the length of time it takes to get a rejection are seemingly commonplace. However, with a bit of thought and proactivity, getting published in these journals can become a reality. A few things to consider:
1. When deciding where to submit, ask yourself the following questions:
Does your paper have a big impact on the field?
Top journals publish the big ideas or hypotheses, not the supporting work to test these concepts. Are the results surprising / unexpected? Is the work relevant to the real world? Will this work be useful to the wider field (does the data have resource value)?
Does your paper have significant conceptual advance?
Does your paper provide knowledge insight or technological advance? This should not be the next logical step from your previous paper, but taking big steps to move the field forward. Bigger sample sizes / higher resolution / etc. is not a guaranteed winner for this – are you actually showing anything new over previous (smaller-scale) work?
With this in mind, it’s crucial to have a firm story throughout the paper and to ensure the key message comes across loud and clear.
2. Aim high (but be realistic)
If you genuinely feel your paper is suitable for publication in a top journal, send it in. Worst case scenario is that it’s rejected! But, be realistic – if you bombard editors with loads of papers that are clearly not suitable for that journal it will do you no favours in the long-run.
3. Get to know your editors
Journal editors know their subjects inside-out, are extremely well read and can see your paper in a vastly bigger picture than just your research field. They are also just people. Many editors travel extensively to conferences all around the world, so you’re likely to be at the same conference at some point. Take this opportunity to chat with them / go for lunch / have a drink. That way, they get to know your name, and you can find out what they are looking for. Similarly, if you are asked to referee for them or to write a ‘front-half’ piece, always try to accept these requests, and stick to the deadlines agreed. You could even invite them to your institution for a meet-and-greet.
4. It’s a numbers game
“Prof. X is always publishing in Nature!”
The short answer is that this is simply not true. But, authors who have relationships with editors get to know what the editors are looking for, thus increasing their chances of a paper being suitable. As a percentage, Prof X probably has just as many rejected papers, but also has the confidence to send them in!
5. Smaller points to consider
- Use short, catchy titles (> 90 characters)
- NEVER SUBMIT A PAPER WITH A TITLE ALL IN CAPITALS
- Salami publications will not get in – wait for the full story
- You can appeal! But be wise about it. If you are rejected, take a day or two to consider the editor’s reasoning and any accompanying reviews before replying
- Always use a professional email address
About the author: Dr Heidi Burdett is a Research Fellow at the Lyell Centre for Earth and Marine Science and Technology, Edinburgh, UK. She received her PhD in marine science from the University of Glasgow, followed by a research fellowship at the University of St Andrews, supported by the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland (MASTS). Heidi’s current research investigates the interaction between organisms and their environment, with a focus on photosynthesis in coastal and marine ecosystems. Prior to joining the Lyell Centre, Heidi worked as an Associate Editor for Nature Microbiology, based at the Springer Nature London office.