Publishing a Technical Article

The technical journal article is one of the principal means whereby scientists share their work with the greater community of practice. In this section, we'll discuss how to get your research published in a peer-reviewed technical journal in your field of research.

Articles on Publishing a Technical Article

Revising the Manuscript for Publication

Once the journal receives your manuscript, they will contact you with a tracking number that you can use to monitor the progress of your manuscript throughout the publication process.

Within several days of receipt, the editor handling your manuscript will typically send it out for review by two or three reviewers and then wait for them to submit their reviews. Specific criteria for review vary from journal to journal however most forms include a request for an overall assessment of the manuscript:

  • accept
  • accept with minor revision
  • accept with major revision
  • reject

and solicit information concerning the originality, significance/impact, and quality of the science and its written presentation. Reviewers, whose service is completely voluntary and uncompensated, are usually asked to complete their review within a two-week period. However some reviewers may need more than two weeks (they may be busy, ill, on vacation, etc. at the time they were contacted) and some individuals simply don't respond. If all of the reviews aren't returned within the required time period, the editor will often contact the reviewer to see if they need additional time in order to complete their review. If the editor feels it is unlikely that the reviewer will ultimately provide a useful review, he/she may send the paper out for reviewer to another person which of course (which means the paper will be delayed an additional two weeks beyond the original review period). Once the editor has all of the reviews in hand, he/she will study them and make a determination regarding the publishability of the work and the suitability of the paper for publication in their particular journal.

The Editor makes a judgment concerning publication of the article based on the submitted reviews. Often the Editor will receive a mix of both positive and negative reviews. If a mix is received, the Editor may request additional reviews from other experts. Sometimes if the paper is in the direct arena of the Editor's technical expertise, he/she may choose to act as an additional reviewer in order to resolve the situation.

Revise Again

Once the Editor has made a decision regarding the disposition of the article, they will notify the authors of their decision and provide verbatim copies of the reviews, rendered anonymous, that he/she used to make this decision. The majority of papers submitted for consideration of publication require some degree of revision before their publication.

When you receive your reviews, don't take them personally. If you receive highly critical reviews of your paper, don't take them personally. If your article is rejected, try not to take it personally. (Note there is a recurrent message here.) Don't telephone or e-mail the editor to yell and scream at him/her. Put the reviews away, take a deep, cleansing breath, and go for a nice long walk. Wait at least a day or two before you pick up the reviews again. If your paper was rejected, read the reviews carefully and identify what the deficiency is that led the editor to conclude that he/she would have to decline further consideration of the paper. It may be something you can address such as poor quality writing or a mismatch between your paper and the journal's readership. If so, then you should be able to make beneficial changes that will facilitate your article's publication elsewhere.

If your paper is still under consideration for publication but you have been asked to respond to the reviewers' comments, you will need to prepare and submit a document detailing your response to all of points raised by the reviewers, a revised manuscript, and a new cover letter. Depending on the extent of revision requested by the editor and/or reviewers, these documents may only be reviewed by the editor or they may be sent back out to the original reviewers. It is important to know this so you understand how important it is to clearly identify what changes you have made, why, and where those changes have been made in the manuscript (line and page number). When you do make significant changes (a sentence or more) to the manuscript, be sure to include the original and revised statements and reference to the line and page number on which they appear in the original and revised manuscripts so the reviewer doesn't have to search through them to find the changes. For example, "We have revised the text at the top of p. 2 in the original manuscript to properly credit this work: "Subsequently, XXX et al.[8] demonstrated that..."

In revising your manuscript, you do not have to make every change that the reviewers request. You may disagree with the reviewers on one or more point. In fact, it is highly likely that you will disagree with one or more of the reviewers' comments. However, if you do disagree, you will need to thoughtfully, constructively, and dispassionately lay out the reasons why you disagree with the reviewer. Whatever you do, if you want your article published, don't attack the reviewer personally. The following is an example of how you might deal with a situation like this in preparing your response to the reviewers: "We respectfully point out that we already credited XXX et al. on p. 7 (this is reference 13 in the paper) of the original manuscript. We have made as much of a comparison as we can at this stage between the [properties] of our films and those prepared by others using [similar approach]. In terms of the other suggested references none are relevant: We did not investigate the effect of temperature, so YYY et al. is not relevant to the present paper. Finally, ZZZ et al. describes [properties] observed during the initial stages of film growth (films about 110 nm thick) and therefore is not relevant to our work."

Selecting An Appropriate Journal

The first step is identifying your audience and the journal to which you will submit your manuscript for consideration of publication. Likely for your first paper, your research advisor will identify the journal where you're your paper will be submitted. However, he/she may ask you for a suggestion. So, how do you go about selecting the best journal in which to publish your paper?

Several considerations will be extremely useful in guiding your selection of an appropriate journal:

  • What is the degree of importance of your work? Has your work contributed to a better understanding of a universally important problem or to an issue of significance in a very limited field of study? If your work is narrowly applicable to a specific field of study, your paper may be more suitable for publication in a specialty journal. Specialty journals are those that publish work in one specific field or using one type of instrument. Titles of some specialty journals include Electrophoresis, Journal of Proteome Research, and Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry. If your research is truly ground-breaking then it may be more appropriate to submit your paper to a high-profile journal with an audience possessing a wider range of interests such as Cell, Science, or Nature.
  • How novel is your work? Does your paper present research that has not yet been published in the peer-reviewed literature? In general, technical articles considered for publication in most journals must meet this standard. However, review articles which summarize and contextualize the findings of individual research studies often due to their very nature present work that has been previously published.
  • How carefully/skillfully has your work been carried out? Important considerations in this regard are the quality of the reagents, methods, results, and analysis. Higher quality journals generally have more stringent requirements regarding the quality of the work described in a technical paper.

Submitting the Manuscript to the Journal

In general, you will need to submit several things to the journal when you submit your manuscript: a cover letter, the manuscript, and a signed copyright transfer form. Today electronic submission of manuscripts is increasingly common. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the process and the information that will be requested of you before going on-line to submit your article. Specific information on the cover letter and copyright transfer form follow.

Cover Letter

The cover letter should be prepared following the standard format for a business letter. This means you should put your address in the upper corner, followed by the date, the full mailing address for the Editor to whom the letter is addressed should appear below this aligned with the left margin. The letter should open with a formal salutation: "Dear Dr. Editor:" The body of the cover letter should contain the following information:

  • The full title of the manuscript you are submitting for publication;
  • A statement that your submission is exclusive, i.e., that you are not submitting this paper to another journal (It is not acceptable to submit your manuscript to more than one journal at the same time.)
  • A brief statement summarizing the significance of the work and how this is relevant to the mission of the journal
  • Information on whom to contact in case the journal requires any additional information about the manuscript.

It will also facilitate the review and publication of your manuscript if you provide the following information in your cover letter:

  • The name of the associate editor whom you wish to handle your paper (Selecting the editor yourself ensures that the person handling your paper has an appreciation for your science.)
  • The names and contact information (mailing address, e-mail) for any individuals whom you would like the journal to use as reviewers of your manuscript as well as the names of anyone whom you would prefer that the journal not contact for review.

Click here to see a sample coverletter.

Reviewers

Ideally, you should identify individuals who share similar research interests and who have the technical expertise to provide a critical evaluation of your paper. If there are individuals whom you do not wish the journal to use in reviewing your paper, it is important to state this up front in the cover letter as well. At the beginning, you may find it challenging to identify suitable reviewers for your papers. A good place to begin is by listing those individuals who have published work on the same or similar problems using the same or similar systems and/or approaches and who have published their work in the journal to which you are submitting your manuscript for consideration of publication. Note that most journals publish a list of their reviewers once each year. Reviewers are often culled from the authors of papers published in that journal so this is also a good starting point for identifying possible reviewers. If you are completely stumped, don't feel that you must supply names. You can always leave the task of reviewer selection up to the editor who will handle your paper. However, remember that if you don't suggest reviewers and you are unhappy with the outcome, it will be harder to contest negative reviews after the fact.

Copyright Transfer form

As an original work "fixed" in a tangible medium of expression, your paper is a form of intellectual property for which your rights as an author automatically are protected by the U.S. Copyright Act. Normally when you submit a manuscript for consideration of publication, you must transfer ownership of the copyright to the journal's publisher. Most journals require authors to sign a copyright transfer form, usually available on the journal's website, at the time they submit their manuscript to the journal for review. As an author it is important that you understand your rights you are retaining and those that you are transferring to the journal. This is an important point because once you sign this form even though you are the paper's author, you may no longer be able to make and freely distribute copies of your article or portions of it without first obtaining permission from the publisher of the journal. In general, authors retain the right to reproduce their data, figures, etc. For example, the American Chemical Society's copyright form states:

  • "The undersigned author and all coauthors retain the right to revise, adapt, prepare derivative works, present orally, or distribute or transmit to not more than 50 colleagues, their own paper, provided that copyright credit is given to the source and ACS, that recipients are informed that they may not further disseminate or copy the paper, and that all such use is for the personal noncommercial benefit of the author(s) and is consistent with any prior contractual agreement between the undersigned and/or coauthors and their employer(s). Authors/employers may post the title of the paper, abstract (no other text), tables, and figures of their own papers on their own Web sites, and include these items in their own scholarly, research papers."

Note: See "Intellectual Property" for more information and references to web resources on copyright.

Sample Coverletter

Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and/or Mathematics
My University
City, State zipcode
Weekday, Month day, Year

Dr. Ed Etor, Editor
Name of Journal
Street Address
City, State zipcode

Dear Dr. Etor:

Please find enclosed a manuscript entitled: "Title" which I am submitting for exclusive consideration of publication as an article in Name of Journal.

The paper demonstrates [significant finding and its significance]. As such this paper should be of interest to a broad readership including those interested in [what kinds of research, topics, techniques - should be those targeted by the journal].

Knowledgeable referees for this paper might include:

  • Ay Dot Reviewer [what is his/her technical expertise relevant to the paper] (emailforaydot)
  • Bee Dot Reviewer [what is his/her technical expertise relevant to the paper] (emailforbeedot)
  • See Dot Reviewer [what is his/her technical expertise relevant to the paper] (emailforseedot)

Thank you for your consideration of my work! Please address all correspondence concerning this manuscript to me at My University and feel free to correspond with me by e-mail (myemailaddress).

Sincerely,

Your Name
Title
Attachment:
[list of all files attached such as manuscript, copyright form, etc.]

Writing the Manuscript

Preparing an article for publication is a lengthy process that requires much attention to detail. In this section, we'll discuss some of the important considerations in preparing a high-quality manuscript.

Obtain Journal Guidelines

Once you have identified the journal, you should obtain the journal's guidelines for authors. This is important because each journal has a unique and specific focus, audience, and format requirements that you must follow if you wish your paper to be published in it. Written directions regarding the specific requirements for preparation and submission of technical articles are increasingly available on-line and can usually be found on the journal's homepage. Be sure to read these through thoroughly and carefully. If you fail to follow the directions, depending on the gravity of the formatting deviation, the journal may simply return your manuscript to you without even sending it out for review. It is also a good idea to obtain, if possible, and read the directions for reviewers as well. After all, your paper will be evaluated by the reviewers according to the criteria outlined in this document so you as an author would be wise to prepare your manuscript to meet the criteria that will be used in its evaluation. Some journals now use downloadable document templates which are formatted by field (title, by-line, introduction, etc.). Some of these are admittedly easier to use than others. That said, if you plan on submitting additional articles to this journal in the future, it is really well worth your time to learn how to use the template sooner rather than later.

Decide What Type of Paper

There are basically three kinds of papers: reviews, communications, and full papers.

Reviews

Reviews are articles that provide a perspective on a field, technique, or research problem. They generally don't contain new experimental results but rather summarize the present and past literature in a particular field or discipline.

Communications

Communications are relatively brief (less than 1000 words) articles describing particularly novel and timely findings for a significant study currently in progress. Because of the restrictions on their length, communications don't have a well-defined format. Communications generally focus more on a presentation of the results followed by a brief discussion of their significance.

Full papers

Full papers describe the results from a complete or full study of a system or process. These papers are generally longer (typically 4-10 pages) than communications and have a distinctive well-defined format. A discussion of the content of each section of a full paper follows below.

  • Title - The paper's title should be brief (12-15 words) and provide peer readers with a quick overview of the paper's contents. It should be able to be understood without reference to other resources, i.e., it should stand alone. In crafting a title, it is useful to include any keywords that could be useful to abstracting service such as BIOSIS, CAS, etc. in properly indexing the article. Useful keywords might include the name of the system or material studied, the analytical methods and/or instrumentation used, etc. A number of journals publish lists of keywords that they use in indexing their articles. Try to avoid using acronyms that may be unfamiliar to anyone except specialists working in a specific field.
  • By-line - The by-line consists of the names of all of those individuals who contributed to the study and their institutional and departmental affiliations usually arranged in order (left to right) of decreasing relative contributions to the paper and the science it describe. The name of the principal investigator/ major professor, usually designated with an asterisk (*), appears at the end (far right) of the list. In general, the first (leftmost) name is that of the person who contributed the most scientifically to the paper. Authorship on a paper is an important issue. It is one that should be discussed between a student and faculty mentor ideally at the start of their research relationship. If you have not discussed the issue of authorship with your advisor previously now is the best time to have this conversation. Authorship comes with important responsibilities attached. All authors are responsible for the quality and accuracy of the technical content, interpretation, and expression of the ideas contained in the article. The American Chemical Society says that all authors of papers in its journals have certain ethical responsibilities concerning the content of any papers on which their name appears. These include: accuracy, economy (shorter is better), attention to detail (repeatability), appropriate credit to the relevant literature, safety (any/all hazards should be identified), completeness, and proper acknowledgment of all contributions.
  • Abstract - An abstract is a brief (usually less than 200 words), succinct summary of the work that has been done. A good abstract outlines the problem studied, the approach used, the uniqueness of the work, the principal findings, and the significance of the study. It should make sense to you then that in writing a paper the abstract should be written last. This ensures that the abstract actually abstracts the article.
  • Introduction - The introduction should introduce the research problem that the study was designed to address and its significance. It should also provide an introduction to the relevant literature in the field, credit this work, and identify any limitations - what gap is the current study designed to fill? In other words, the introduction should provide literally an introduction for the reader on any/all information that he/she will need in order to understand and appreciate the science you will report on later in the article.
  • Experimental - The experimental section should provide information on all of the relevant technical details concerning how the study was actually accomplished. The source and quality of any reagents, materials, and instrumentation (model and make) is provided in this section. The method of preparation, isolation, and/or purification of any reagents or materials used should be provided as well. If standard methods are used for calibration, appropriate references to the relevant literature should be provided. If new methods are used, the procedure used should be outlined in detail. A useful question to ask yourself in writing this section is: Is enough information provided to enable the reader to reproduce the experiments/measurements described?
  • Results - This section of the technical paper could be referred to as "Show-and-Tell." Here, you should present the minimal set of results that the interested reader will need to know in order to reach the same conclusions that you did in your study. There is always the temptation to share everything but this should be avoided at all costs. In writing this section it is a good idea to use sections. The data should first be presented and then any methods of analysis needed in order to interpret the raw data should be introduced. Each finding should then be stated and qualified.
  • Whenever possible use figures rather than tables as it is much easier to see trends in a graphical presentation of data. A useful rule of thumb in identifying the appropriate figures and tables to use in communicating your results is the following: the reader should be able to grasp the principal findings either by reading the text or by examining the figures and tables.

    If you do use figures and tables each of these must be titled descriptively. Captions should include all relevant critical experimental conditions.

  • Discussion of Results - In some journals "results" are presented in a separate section from "discussion. In other journals, "results" and "discussion" are presented together in one section. The former approach is viewed as more rigorous as it allows the reader to separate the data from any interpretation superimposed on them. The idea is that in this way, if the interpretation is at some point later proven incorrect, the results may still be valid and useful.
  • Results are the data obtained. Discussion focuses on the interpretation of those results. Often authors will summarize their conclusions in the last paragraph of the discussion section.

  • Acknowledgments - This section is used to acknowledge the contributions of those anyone who assisted in the study whose contributions did not rise in the view of the principal investigator to authorship and to credit the funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, etc., that supported the work.
  • References - This section contains a specifically formatted list of all of the relevant primary technical literature cited in your paper. As such, it should list all of the important papers in your field. Be sure not to ignore older papers. Today there are a number of commercially available computer programs that you can use to correctly format the bibliography of your paper. Some of the more widely used programs include Thomson's Endnote and Procite.

Prepare a Draft

Writing a good technical article takes time. This isn't something that can be done at the last minute or in a protracted period of time. The best approach in beginning to write your paper is to create an outline of the key points you wish to communicate in your paper. To do this, it is extremely useful to prepare and organize the figures and tables you will need to use to in order to tell your story. Be sure to consult the journal's directions for authors concerning any format requirements that the journal may have regarding figures and/or tables. Next, you should create a draft of your paper. I generally find it easiest to begin writing the results section first. This should then logically lead you to write the discussion section in which you interpret the data presented in the results section. After this, you will know exactly what experimental details need to be described for the reader in the experimental section of your paper. At this point, you will know what background information the reader will need to know in order to understand and appreciate the science that you are presenting in your paper which will enable you to craft a good introduction for your paper. Finally, having written the paper, you will be in the best position to summarize your work in the form of an abstract.

Revise

Once you have a completed draft, revise, revise, and revise. Re-read your paper through with a critical eye toward the Journal's review criteria. Ask your friends and colleagues for their opinion of your paper. While review criteria do vary somewhat from journal to journal, the list below should provide you with a good starting point in evaluating your own paper and determining whether or not it is ready for submission for consideration of publication.

Review Criteria Checklist

  • Is the paper likely to be of interest to the readership of the journal?
  • Is the problem described significant?
  • Is the contribution reported in the paper new and original?
  • Does the paper contain high quality data?
  • Are the interpretations and conclusions adequately supported by the data provided in the paper?
  • Are the references provided in the paper appropriate and correct?
  • Is the organization and presentation clear and easy to understand?
  • Is the length of the paper appropriate?
  • Is the number of figures and tables appropriate?
  • Are the figures and tables of high quality?

Publication at Last!

Congratulations! You made it. Your article is now "accepted" and you may list it as such on your resume. The article next enters the publication queue at the journal. Depending on the number of articles in line ahead of yours, their length (pages), it may be several months before your article will actually appear in print in an issue. When the journal begins work on the actual issue in which your paper will appear, they will send you a "proof" of your paper. At this point, your article is considered to be "in press" and you may list it as such on your resume.

Proofs

Proofs are simply prints of the article as it will appear upon publication in the journal. Journals provide authors with proofs to give them an opportunity to catch and fix any errors that might have occurred upon translation of the article. As a general rule, you are normally expected to offer comments on the layout. At this stage you cannot make any significant changes to the text of the article. However, you may fix minor errors such as typos and formatting errors.

Reprints

At this stage, authors are also offered the opportunity to purchase reprints of the article at cost. Reprints are generally expensive. Today some journals offer authors the opportunity to print a set number of copies of their article upon publication. One important point of which to be aware is that once published your article becomes the copyrighted property of the journal's publisher so you will not be free to photocopy it or if you have or obtain an electronic copy to distribute that to friends and colleagues.

Shortly after you return the corrections to the journal your article will likely become available on-line. Today many journals make articles available on-line several weeks in advance of the actually publication of the issue of the journal in which the article will appear.

About six to eight weeks after your article appears in the print issue of the journal (Congratulations! You are now officially an author!), your advisor will receive any reprints he/she may have purchased.