Publishing is the primary means of getting the results of your research into the public domain. If you are aspiring to a long-term career as a researcher, research leader or lecturer, your publication record will be a critical measure of the effectiveness of your research. Future employers will use it as a test of your ability to generate knowledge and see new projects through to completion.
At the beginning of your career it is unlikely you will be publishing on your own. However there may be opportunities for you to contribute to other work that your manager or members of your department are doing. Talk to them about the possibilities. Be willing to network, and in particular to cultivate contacts you make at academic conferences. These may give you unexpected opportunities for collaborating on a new publication.
All researchers will need to think about:
The performance of universities as research institutions is now a matter of public scrutiny and the Research Excellence Framework (REF) has been set up to determine the allocation of public funding for research after 2014. The number and significance of publications produced by each institution will be considered in the REF as a key indicator of success in research. Where and when you publish is more important than ever.
Journal articles are your most likely outlet for publication during your early career. Articles can be written for:
- academic journals (electronic or paper-based;UK-based or international; peer-reviewed and/or edited)
- professional journals
Articles can be either primary reports of your own research, or reviews of work published in the field. Peer-reviewed articles are highly regarded, especially those published in international academic or professional journals.
Some research projects, most often in the social sciences, culminate in a report (e.g. to a policy-making body). In such cases it is also worth considering whether aspects of the research can be written up as journal articles. However, be aware that there may be contractual or policy reasons why you are unable to do so.
Before you begin writing your article:
- talk to colleagues. Find out where they publish and which journals they consider to be high-profile.
- scan the reference lists of articles that you read to find out where researchers in your area tend to publish.
- make a strategic choice about where to send your article. Some journals are easier to get published in than others. Although these are possibly of lower status it can help to build confidence and expertise at the start of your research career.
Writing is a skill. As such, time needs to be devoted to developing it. Some people find it best to try and write for a set time each day. Others work best if they can ‘block out’ longer periods of time to focus on their writing.
You may write up your research as a sole author or as part of a project team. With joint publication it is important to decide the following issues in advance:
- who will be the lead author. Different subject areas have different conventions for deciding this
- who will be responsible for drafting each section
- who will collate and edit the final version
- the title
- which journal to target.
(adapted from Blaxter, L., Hughes, C. and Tight, M. (1998), ‘The Academic Career Handbook’, Open University Press, Buckingham)
Once you have identified your target journal it is important to:
- check that your proposed article falls within its scope
- be aware of your audience - are they likely to be specialists or non-specialists?
- familiarise yourself with the journal requirements as to word length, formatting, referencing, submission deadlines, etc. Follow these requirements to the letter
- try to find a colleague who has published in (or even been a peer reviewer for) the journal. Their insights will be invaluable in helping you to focus your article
- ask colleagues to comment on drafts of your work. Offer to do the same for them. You may get some useful ideas from the way that they approach their writing.
The adoption of the REF means that universities are under enormous pressure to produce publications, particularly peer-reviewed journal articles. A controversial aspect of the REF is the proposal to use metrics based on a ‘citation count’ as one means of measuring research performance.
A citation count is a measure of the number of times that books or articles published or co-published by the researcher have been cited in other academic papers. In general terms, the more publications a researcher or team has, the more likely they are to be cited in publications by their peers. The Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), now part of Thomson Reuters, publishes an online list of ‘Highly Cited Researchers’ – those whose publications were most often cited over the last decade. Inclusion in this list is taken as a measure of the esteem of these academics.
Citation metrics are the basis of another commonly used measure of prestige: the ‘Impact Factor’ of a journal. The impact factor is a number derived from the average number of citations gained by articles published in the journal. The ISI publishes impact factor data annually. Because articles in journals with a high impact factor tend to be cited more often than articles in journals with a lower impact factor, publication in a ‘high impact factor’ journal is often seen as an indication of the quality of the article.
Some academics maintain that citation metrics do not accurately reflect the importance of published research or the success of the authors or groups who publish the papers. In particular, as early career researchers tend to have relatively few publications to their name, their citation counts are lower than those of more established names. Researchers who develop widely used methodologies achieve large numbers of citations even though they may not be publishing original research. And those who write for the popular presses inevitably gain more citations than those who confine themselves to more specialist academic journals, regardless of the quality or originality of what they are publishing.
In many disciplines, it used to be common practice for research teams to publish large numbers of short articles (often described as ‘letters’) in specialist journals designed for rapid publication of new discoveries. Researchers were often able to use these journals to make an impact early on in their careers. The picture has changed, however, as impact factors have assumed a greater importance. Many of the ‘rapid publication’ journals are in specialist fields and as such their impact factors are relatively low. Some institutions now actively discourage publication in these journals, requiring researchers to ‘save up’ their results until they can be published as a major article in a high impact factor publication instead.
Whether or not these changes are beneficial to the academic community is open to debate. However, the reality appears to be that citation metrics are here to stay. Researchers need to bear these issues in mind when considering when and where to publish.
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