Research Tips & Stories for Everyone
When you are nearly completing your initial submission package of paper, it is time to think about paths toward paper publication. For me, this is the most exciting moment throughout the whole life cycle of academic paper. Full of potential like a child, allowing us to do colorful and unbounded imagination of upcoming glory! But hold on your bumping heart and wild dream – academic paper publication process is not a sprint but more like doing marathon in an uncharted area, but with many supporters and waypoints we can take a look along the way. I wish to share my experience on the journey to academic paper publication step-by-step as planned in Part I: Overview. As I find each journey is all different and refreshingly frustrating, these would only serve as helpful tips than solid guidelines. But, looking back my initial attempts full of confusion, I hope these tips would still be very helpful. Let us start with the very beginning of the journey: Submission of the paper.
Pre-prints are a relatively modern invention but have become a major route to publicly share academic outcomes early in their form before formal publications in journals/proceedings. There are many pre-print servers for various research areas (for example, arXiv for physical science, bioRxiv for biological science, etc) and new pre-print servers are keep adding up as academic journals start to embrace them as part of their publication process.
Submitting your initial version of manuscript to pre-print server can be a very nice choice before starting the formal publication process. In my personal opinion, there are several key benefits of the pre-print publication. First, it allows you to share your work publicly early on with academically traceable record (as pre-prints are citable references in most journals nowadays). Second, it allows you to openly communicate with your colleagues or collaborators to get feedbacks with less worry on scooping of idea (as pre-prints are citable references that can protect your novelty). Third, it can potentially lower the vicious competitive pressure among researchers/groups by disclosing the work early on (as the lack of openness until the ultimate journal publication with long-time process is easy setting to push researchers into the Prisoner’s dilemma).
Presubmission inquiry is the first thing available in the journal paper publication process, but not frequently used or well-known. I learned about the presubmission inquiry as Nature Publishing Group started to make it part of their manuscript tracking system with dedicated instruction for it in their journal websites. Essentially, the presubmission inquiry is a brief communication with the editor to inquire basic feedbacks ahead of the formal paper submission. As mentioned earlier, Nature Publishing Group journals offers the presubmission inquiry as a selectable option in their submission system (for example, the manuscript tracking system for Nature). However, many journals do not have dedicated option for the presubmission inquiry in their submission system, but rather adopt direct email communications to editors for such purpose.
One important thing about the presubmission inquiry is that it is not always necessary or recommended. Unless journals have dedicated option for it, some journals or editors might not be available for the presubmission inquiry ahead of the formal submission of manuscript (especially given flood of works they are already swamped). Also, there are relatively limited purposes/merits of the presubmission inquiry, and you would better to do it only when necessary. The purpose and the scope of expectable feedbacks from the presubmission inquiry are the following based on my experience:
1) Purpose. There are two major purposes of the presubmission inquiry: Checking the work’s fit with the journal’s coverage & learning the editor’s opinion on the work. Sometimes, you are not certain whether your work falls within the coverage of the journal of interest, especially when the work is multidisciplinary. In this case, the presubmission inquiry can be a quick way to hear the editor’s input to avoid waste by submitting without knowing mismatch in coverage. The presubmission inquiry can also be a less formal way to hear the editor’s quick impression/opinion/concern on the work ahead of the formal submission. In many cases, the coverage fit with a target journal can be pretty straightforward and the presubmission inquiry is not particularly necessary or helpful.
2) Expectable feedbacks. Typically, the editor’s response to the presubmission inquiry is very brief. While it would vary a lot depending on the editor, the editor’s response to the presubmission inquiry may contain three key information: First, the coverage fit with the journal; Second, overall interest (often with the encouragement to formally submit); Third, specific aspects/concerns that they expect/want to check detail in the formal submission.
The presubmission inquiry can be done in many forms including a short cover letter, email communication, etc. I most prefer a short cover letter as it is probably the most familiar format of communication to the editor and can contain needed information in an organized manner. While there can be many ways to prepare a presubmission inquiry cover letter, here is a template for presubmission inquiry cover letter that I use frequently (also below image):
If the editor informs you that your work is not fit with or not under the coverage of the journal, then it is very helpful information to search for other possible journals. It’s not a bad thing at all – you can save 2+ weeks of waiting time to learn the exactly same information from the initial decision letter (in more frustrating manner)!
Initial submission is the formal start point of the academic publication process (and prelude of long and bumpy road ahead). In the initial submission package, you may likely need to prepare the following items ready:
Since the focus of this post is for the publication process, I may focus only on the cover letter here. The cover letter is probably one of the most important items in the initial submission as it greatly influences the first pivotal editorial decision made by your handling editor – sending out for external review or desk rejected. The importance of cover letter is really well discussed in the recent editorial by the chief editor of Matter, Dr. Cranford, reflecting the editor’s view.
The cover letter is basically a professional & moderately technical advertisement of your paper to the editor. Therefore, your cover letter should have contents to act as a concise yet sharply convincing sales pitch of your work to the editor, or as Dr. Cranford aptly described, something similar to an elevator pitch for startups. There can be very broad range of cover letter styles, but I wish to share a template for initial submission cover letter that I frequently use (also below image):
If you tried the presubmission inquiry, the editor might encourage you to submit formally. If the editor did not share specific questions/concerns in their response, you may need to prepare your initial submission package and cover letter without big difference from the case without presubmission inquiry (but try to avoid overly duplicating the contents of your presubmission inquiry cover letter in your initial submission cover letter).
If the editor provided some specific aspects/concerns in their response, there can be more things you can do in the initial submission (and kind of positive sign as the editor was interested/intrigued enough to spend their busy schedule to think and write some details about your work!). In this case, the initial submission cover letter can be a better targeted advertisement of your work as the presubmission inquiry served as a sort of customer survey. So, you may wish to address the editor’s question/concern on specific aspects of the work in your initial submission cover letter. While it is hard to say whether it increases your chance to convince the editor to send your paper out for external review, but better targeted pitch is not a bad thing anyway (otherwise why Google charges so high for its targeted advert service?). Here is a template for initial submission cover letter after presubmission inquiry that I use frequently (also below image):
What’s next after the initial submission? As mentioned earlier, you have to wait for the first pivotal editorial decision in the publication process – decision to whether send out for external review or not by your handling editor. We may cover this in the next post.
Part I: Overview
Part II: Presubmission Inquiry & Initial Submission (this post)
Part III: Desk Rejected, What Can be Next Step?
Part IV: Revision, Art of Rebuttal
Part V: Rejected After Review, End of World?
Part VI: Acceptance & Post-Acceptance Jobs
Disclaimer. The contents are my personal opinion and do not represent the view of any institution or company I am affiliated/employed. If you find any incorrect information, please feel free to let me know via my email.