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7 tips to get your first paper published in a journal


When beginning a PhD, the prospect of getting published often feels like it's a long way in the future, but in 3 or 4 years many will have had at least one paper in a journal.

The idea of actually writing a paper may seem exciting, but it can also lead to a fair amount of stress and anxiety.

In an attempt to help reduce that anxiety, we asked a couple of well-established researchers, with many papers under their belt, to give us their top tips on getting published for the first time.

1. Tell a story

Dr Christophe Bernard, from the Institut de Neurosciences des Systèmes in Marseille (and Editor in Chief of eNeuro) and Dr Eric Boué-Grabot from the Institut des maladies neurodégénératives (IMN) at the Université de Bordeaux, both put telling a story as their number one tip for getting published.

Dr Boué-Grabot said:

"The question should be clearly defined. The manuscript should progress logically and by the end you should have told a story that hasn't been told before."

Dr Bernard suggests you try describing the story to a non-scientist using lay language. You should tell them what you did, what this shows and what you conclude from it, as well as where this will lead next. He said:

"The best test is to tell your story to someone like your grandparents. This exercise will enable you to self-evaluate the importance of your work."

Once you know the story makes sense – and is worthwhile – you can then write it down, but this time as if you were telling your peers.

2. Write first, edit later

Once you have a plan and structure in mind for the paper write it out first and edit it later. If you start editing too early it will take a lot more time to finish.

Dr Boué-Grabot said:

"First write without trying to edit. Edit later again and again. Ask all of your co-authors and colleagues to do the same and finally check it follows all the instructions of the journal."

Ask as many people as possible to check your work. Dr Bernard said:

"It is very difficult to get a proper perspective when you are so involved in your own work. This is also true for your supervisor. Don't hesitate to ask another scientist to criticise your work. Postdocs are often most critical."

If English is not your native language writing a scientific paper for an English journal can be a very difficult task. Take advantage of anyone around who does speak English as a first language and make sure that all of your explanations are written plainly and clearly.

3. Choose the right journal

This point was also in both Dr Bernard and Dr Boué-Grabot's top 5 tips. Of course, everyone dreams of having their paper published in Nature or Science, but the chances of your first piece having enough impact to be in there are unlikely.

It may sound obvious, but make sure your paper is within the scope that the journal covers. Once you have decided which journal to send your paper to, make sure you have followed all of the submission criteria. Don't give them anything to complain about and your paper is more likely to get passed by the editors.

Dr Boué-Grabot said:

"The rank of the journal should be selected after a fair self-evaluation of the quality and impact of the work. Unfortunately, this will not necessarily reflect the quantity of work or amount of effort taken to obtain the presented results."

Dr Bernard said:

"Big journals use a punitive reviewing system. It is rarely helpful to scientists. You can choose journals in which the reviewing process has been sanitised. eLife and eNeuro both provide a synthesis, based on a consensus reached between the reviewers and the editor."


4. Explain why your work is important

You should have a clear argument throughout the sections of your paper explaining why your paper is significant to your area of study. If it is only a minor step forward in our knowledge of a very niche subject area, unless you explicitly mention it, it might get missed.

Dr Boué-Grabot said:

"A clear description of the context is important to evaluate the novelty and importance of your work."


5. A picture is worth a thousand words

Before you even write the paper make sure you have all the images and figures done. They should contain strong, appropriate examples of your work and all the necessary controls.

Dr Boué-Grabot said:

"This step may help you think through the most logical and convincing organisation of the article and facilitate the writing of the results section."

The figures also provide the most persuasive evidence from your experimental data and make it easier to understand than long complicated descriptions.

6. Read, Read, Read

Obviously you should be reading as much as you can about your area of expertise but reading scientific papers from a range of fields has other benefits.

Dr Fabrizio Sitzia, one of Scientifica's product specialists, said:

"You don't just need to read so that you know as much as possible about what is going on in your field. You also need to read to get an idea of how a research paper is put together. The greater the variety and number of examples you see the better you will become at writing papers yourself."


7. If at first you don't succeed...

Persistence will be a great attribute in getting your first paper out there. If it gets rejected by one journal that doesn't mean it will be rejected by others. Always take feedback on board. Even if you disagree with it, try and understand why they are saying it.

Getting research published is a time-consuming task. It can take months for journals to get back to you with a rejection, which makes it all the more frustrating. But don't give up, keep on trying and you will improve your ability and your chances.

A final bit of advice from Dr Bernard:

"There is an art to scientific writing. What I did when I was starting was to choose a paper I loved reading, because it was so crystal clear, and analyse its structure, how it was presented and how ideas were developed. I copied it and it worked."

The last thing you need is a little bit of luck, so... Good luck

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