Research papers are only as influential as their audience in the scientific community is wide. To reach that audience, a paper needs to pass the peer review process of an academic journal. However, the idea of having research published in peer-reviewed journals may seem daunting to newer researchers, so it's important to provide a guide on how an academic journal looks at your research paper as well as how to determine what is the right journal for your research.
What makes a good research paper? In simple terms, a research article is good if it is accepted as credible and rigorous by the scientific community. A study that isn't seen as a valid contribution to scientific knowledge shouldn't be published; ultimately, it is up to peers within the field in which the study is being considered to determine the study's value. In established academic research, this determination is manifest in the peer review process. Journal editors at a peer-reviewed journal assign papers to reviewers who will determine the credibility of the research. A peer-reviewed article that completed this process and is published in a reputable journal can be believed as credible with novel research that can make a profound contribution to scientific knowledge.
The process has been codified and standardized within the scholarly community to include three main stages. These stages include the initial submission stage where the editor reviews the relevance of the paper, the review stage where experts in your field offer feedback, and, if reviewers approve your paper, the copyediting stage where you work with the journal to prepare the paper for inclusion in their journal. With all that in mind, let's go through a brief step-by-step guide for each of these stages.
Established academic journals employ editorial boards responsible for deciding the content and direction of the journal. This can often be found in the aims and scope section on journal websites. Essentially, an editor reviews the article to determine if it is relevant to the journal and if it meets the journal's requirements (e.g., whether all the relevant information and supplementary materials are included, whether it meets the word count). It is at this point that the editor can either send the manuscript to reviewers, send it back so that the author can provide any missing details, or reject it outright for not matching the desired content of the chosen journal. The smallest oversight (e.g., confirming that you have submitted your manuscript to only one journal, having all the necessary information in your cover letter) can send your paper back to you and delay the publication process. At this stage, you should check that you have covered all your bases in preparation before sending your manuscript to a journal.
If a paper is rejected at the submission stage, it is possible that it is just not the right fit for the journal, in which case the editors believe that other publications would be more suitable for your research. This is less a slight against the quality of the paper and more about the broad ambiguities in any research field, particularly in the social sciences, where journals in the same field might have different theoretical perspectives or prefer certain research methodologies over others. If you run into this issue, it's a good idea to examine the journals listed in your citations list to determine the ideal journal for your manuscript. This will benefit the paper both in the submission and peer review stages as it signals to editors and reviewers that you have been using their publication to conduct research.
Very rarely does a manuscript pass peer review in scholarly publishing without reviewer comments. A published paper will undergo at least one but most likely multiple rounds of feedback before reviewers are satisfied with the research work. Editors reach out to reviewers who are independent experts on the research topic in your manuscript to provide feedback on your research. Feedback can illuminate weaknesses in the synthesis of theory, the methodology, or the argumentation.
Scholars differ on the extent to which a writer should conform to or push back on reviewer comments. For the sake of expediency, you may just decide to develop your paper precisely to the expectations of reviewers. Still, this approach might alter the direction of the paper to the extent that it loses your voice. Conversely, you are free to rebut any feedback that you feel does not contribute to your research paper. However, authors may feel that they risk having their submission rejected if they are seen as ignoring suggestions or critiques from reviewers. Ultimately, it is up to you as an expert in the research area you are studying to decide how best to develop your research paper. Keep in mind, of course, that any feedback you receive, even in a peer review process where your paper is rejected, can only benefit your thought process and research as you develop a dialogue with other scholars.
By the time a paper reaches the final step in the publication process, it is all but approved to become a published paper. At this point, all the researcher needs to do is to examine feedback relating to spelling, grammar, typesetting, and citations, addressing such feedback in the final version to be sent to the journal for final publication. In copyediting, the journal staff sends a draft that conforms to the formatting found in their journal. The researcher then has one final chance to fix any typos and answer any clarifying questions that need to be addressed before the manuscript is published.
Publishing a research paper may seem like an opaque process where those involved with academic journals make arbitrary decisions about the worthiness of research manuscripts. In reality, reputable publications assign a rubric or a set of guidelines that reviewers need to keep in mind when they review a submission. These guidelines will most likely differ depending on the journal. That said, they fall into a number of typical categories that are applicable regardless of the research area or the type of methods employed in a research study.
A reviewer often wants to know if an author has sufficient knowledge of the particular research area to which they are contributing to be considered an expert in the field. Because scientific research focuses on the orderly organization of empirically-generated knowledge, a research paper's author must demonstrate their understanding of the current state of that organized knowledge before they can be said to be able to develop it. After all, scholarly peers cannot determine if a research study is "state-of-the-art" if the researcher cannot articulate what the existing state of the field is.
As a result, quality research is founded on a thorough review of the literature and the researcher's ability to synthesize that literature to identify research gaps and pose research questions justifying the study they are presenting. As mundane as it might be in the face of novel research, the literature review is a required component of any paper reporting an original study as it establishes that the research is thoroughly connected to the existing understanding of knowledge. The literature review also provides a useful reference that allows reviewers, who are expected to be experts in the contemporary scholarship, to determine that the author knows what they are talking about when justifying their study.
The presentation of research data cannot be believed without a comprehensive accounting of how the data was collected. Whenever the reader doubts the credibility of the findings and the data supporting the findings, they refer to the methodology for collecting and analyzing data to clarify their understanding of the research process. Without a sufficient description of methods that meet the standards of research rigor and transparency, reviewers are thus less likely to accept the findings or the paper.
The culminating objective of publishing papers for research is to present what knowledge has been gained from a study or analysis. While all research benefits our collective understanding of the world, scholarly publishing places a value on research that generates new thinking.
Keep in mind that literature reviews as standalone papers can also have just as much value as published articles that report primary research.
Choosing the right journal isn't simply a matter of which journal is the most famous or has the broadest reach. Many universities keep lists of prominent journals where graduate students and faculty members should publish a research paper, but oftentimes this list is determined by a journal's impact factor and their inclusion in major academic databases.
If you are choosing a target journal based on the scholarly contribution your research can make in your respective academic community, then there are more essential factors to consider. With that in mind, let's look at the different publishing options available to researchers.
An international journal is a publication that, by way of its prominence and reach, is recognized around the world. Journals such as these often stand in contrast to regional journals that focus on a specific part of the world. However, there is not really a particular standard by which a journal would be considered "international" beyond the size of its audience and reach, which can be difficult to quantify.
A journal's status as an international journal often gives the perception that it is a quality publication, but researchers should take care to submit to a journal with which they are unfamiliar. Internationally reputable journals are almost always indexed in major research databases that are used by universities and research institutions. Such indexing significantly expands the audience of a particular journal as engaged scholars will find it easier to look for articles published by that journal. A journal's inclusion in these databases is a far more compelling indicator of its global reach than whether the word "international" appears in the title.
A subscription-based journal is often closed off to the general public, made available only to individual subscribers and libraries at universities and research institutions, oftentimes for a considerable fee. As most prominent journals require a subscription, this restricts the audience for the most prominent research to those who can afford the access or belong to certain institutions. An open access journal, on the other hand, makes research papers publicly available online and without viewing restrictions. This is appealing to researchers as it expands their audience of other scholars who can then cite their research articles in their own papers.
Work published in an open access publication almost always requires the author to pay a publication fee (oftentimes known as an article processing charge) to offset the loss of fees paid by subscribers and the costs of maintaining the journal. In principle, this restricts the pool of submissions to those whose authors can secure funding to offset these fees, which can be hundreds of dollars depending on the publication.
In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of predatory journals that take advantage of researchers who want or need to publish their research quickly and without a rigorous review process. In exchange for submission or publication fees, these journals all but guarantee a quick review, if not publication outright.
While there have been attempts to create blacklists for such predatory journals, there are ultimately no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to determining what constitutes a predatory publication because such rules might unfairly disadvantage smaller, emerging journals. It is worth noting that predatory journals are seldom, if ever, indexed in major research databases, meaning that studies in such publications are less likely to be seen by their intended audience.
Researchers should keep in mind that good research writing practices benefit from journals that conduct rigorous peer review and that the quality of a journal can be implied from the authors that contribute to it. This means that journals that publish work from established authors might be ideal venues for new research.
Most journals that publish rigorous and novel research rely on the researcher to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the existing theory in the field and new theory stemming from the original research. With transparency established as a key element of good research, reviewers look favorably on manuscripts that establish a thorough "audit trail" of how knowledge was collected, organized, and generated at every step of the research process. It is not enough to make an assertion based on the evidence collected in a study; how the evidence was collected is equally important for the author of the study to be considered credible and knowledgeable in their field.
A significant portion of this guide has been devoted to the use of ATLAS.ti, not only to uncover key insights from project data, but to provide the sort of detail to support those insights. Tools such as the Code Manager and Code Co-Occurrence Analysis can provide visualizations for the major themes that appear in the data as well as the underlying phenomena represented as codes that support those themes. Networks and Memos give researchers a space in their project to visualize and document the theoretical developments emerging from their project. And Word Frequencies and Concepts can provide insightful representations of their textual data.
The various features in ATLAS.ti, taken together, can aid the researcher with a comprehensive, documented analysis of their project data, and documenting that detailed analysis in a research paper can make all the difference in convincing reviewers of the quality of your study. Whatever your endeavors are with respect to publishing a research paper, you will benefit significantly from putting in the effort to code and analyze your data, and using ATLAS.ti to visualize your research to your target audience.