May 19, 2017

Seth Stein: Navigating the Publication Process

Posted by AGU Career Center

Finishing a successful research project feels great. You have neat results and want to share them. However, young scientists often discover that the next stage, publishing the results, can be tougher and take more emotional energy than the research itself.

This isn’t surprising. Research involves trying to figure out something about nature that—to paraphrase Einstein—is “subtle but not malicious.” Publishing, however, involves editors and reviewers who have views about how nature works. Hence getting new results or ideas published can sometimes be difficult.

I’m often asked for publication-related advice, in part because I’ve edited AGU’s Journal of Geophysical Research and books for the American Geophysical Union, the Geological Society of America, and the Geological Society of London. In such discussions, other colleagues and I often draw analogies from what seems like an unlikely source—sea stories.  The publication process is like a voyage; after leaving port, it may go smoothly or be difficult.

I sometimes refer to HMS Ulysses, Alistair MacLean’s great novel about the British navy in World War II.  Ulysses is a cruiser that escorts ships carrying vital supplies from Britain to Russia via the Arctic Ocean, facing both brutal weather and determined attack by submarines, aircraft, and surface ships. Getting research published doesn’t involve war’s horrors. Still, academic life is described figuratively as “publish or perish,” so there are analogies:

Go with your best

Ulysses is specifically designed for her challenging mission. She is well-armed, has radar (rare at the time) that lets her fight effectively at night and in fog, and is among the fastest ships in the world. By analogy, when you submit a paper for publication, make it as good as possible. The act of writing will help you spot possible weaknesses in the science, so check all of them. Use conferences or other opportunities to test and improve your arguments and presentation, and write the paper using what you learned. Check the journal’s rules for style, length, etc. and follow them. Proofread everything several times. Use your computer’s spell checker but don’t rely on it—it can’t tell you if you’re using the wrong word. It’s also prone to make changes you didn’t want, like changing “subduction zone” to “seduction zone.”

Use the team

Ulysses benefits from an excellent admiral, captain, and crew who have become experts on their tasks and work together well. Similarly, when preparing a paper, treat your coauthors as a team.  Your senior coauthors have lots of experience with publications. Your junior coauthors can offer fresh perspectives. Encourage everyone to read the drafts carefully. Ask them to identify arguments, text, or graphics that are unclear or need improving, and suggest specific changes. Don’t feel bad asking—being coauthors involves more than just checking that their names are spelled correctly.

Work with others

Ulysses doesn’t operate alone—she’s the flagship of a task force including aircraft carriers and other ships. Similarly, you’re usually not doing research alone. In addition to your coauthors, other scientists have related interests. Showing what you’re doing at conferences often elicits valuable feedback and ideas that you hadn’t thought of, which will improve your paper. Don’t just wait for advice—ask others what they think of your work. Once you submit the paper, sending preprints out can generate good advice. Some of the journal reviews may have valuable insights. These interchanges of ideas can be embarrassing and tough at times, however, the collaborative nature of science is one of its best features, so take advantage of them.

Expect surprises

Ulysses encounters nasty surprises on the voyage in the book (I won’t give away the plot, because the book’s worth reading). Surprises often happen in publishing research. Sometimes difficulties you prepared for don’t arise. Sometimes parts of the paper you thought were uncontroversial come under attack. Some criticisms are ill-informed and easily rebutted, whereas others raise serious issues. Probably the best way to handle negative reviews is to read them once and put them away for a day or two. Then read them calmly again and start thinking about which you want to rebut and which require serious changes to the paper. Try to put your hurt feelings aside and think about how to improve the paper. As the old line goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Anticipate losses

Ulysses can’t protect all the convoy’s ships. Some are sunk. Others are damaged, can’t keep up with the convoy, and must be left behind. Thankfully submitting papers doesn’t involve lives, but there are analogies. Some papers, especially ones with new data or ideas, get rejected. Sometimes we have to discard important parts of a paper to get the rest published. We wait till we calm down, make changes if they seem needed, and try again. Usually, with persistence, we can get most results through the publication process.

It’s worth remembering that many fine papers get rejected. For example, both Nature and the Journal of Geophysical Research rejected Lawrence Morley’s recognition in 1963 that magnetic anomalies at midocean ridges demonstrated seafloor spreading. An anonymous reviewer commented that Morley’s ideas were the stuff of “cocktail party conversation” rather than science. As a result, Morley’s discovery—which lies at the heart of plate tectonics—is usually called the Vine-Matthews hypothesis since Frederick Vine’s contemporaneous research wound up being accepted for publication first.

Through your own careers, you’ll likely develop experience in the publication process as an author, reviewer, associate editor, and editor. This experience will help you navigate the process better and help others do the same. Still, no matter how experienced and prepared you are, submitting a paper will always feel like leaving a safe harbor and heading into the unknown.

Seth Stein is William Deering Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and an associate of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, and president-elect of AGU’s Natural Hazards focus group.