Peer Review, Pt. 4: How To Publish Your Scholarly Paper

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 Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Let's suppose you have written a scholarly paper of which you are proud and want to get it published. The easiest way is the sequential journal list approach: if one journal doesn't accept your paper, send it to another. There are often a dozen or more journals in a given field. It would be most efficient to send the same paper to a glut of journals at the same time. (Buffaloes come in herds, whales in pods, and journals in gluts.) The practice of parallel submission is considered verboten because you are using too much of the valuable time of those who review your papers. But sequential submission is within the rules and it works.

I once had a paper rejected from Applied Optics. The reviews were unfair. (Authors always think negative reviews are unfair). I let the project sit for a month or so when I learned there was a special issue of Optical Engineering in the area of my paper, so I made some queries. I was invited to submit the paper, and did. It was published. And since I was asked, I could list the contribution as an “invited paper” on my resume. A presentation, paper, or book chapter pays higher wages in academic currency when accompanied by the word “invited.” It says you are highly respected by your peers. My ugly rejected paper metamorphosed into a beautiful invited paper.

If your paper is outright rejected, shake the dust from your sandals and walk away. But even for negative reviews where the paper is not outright rejected, stick your foot (sandal and all) in the door. Initiate a back and forth with the journal. You become a salesman pushing your wares. It shouldn't have to be like this. Your work should stand on its own merit and your contribution should be clearly seen by reviewers with any intelligence. But this is typically not the case. Many reviewers don't have any intelligence.

Over the years I have developed a system that maximizes the chance of getting your paper published in a scholarly journal when the door is left open. The method is a combination of principles I learned from Dale Carnegie, Mark Mathis and from my experience across a six-year stint as Editor-in-Chief (EIC) of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks.

Let me begin with Mark Mathis. I was in the documentary titled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed because of some problems I had with Baylor University and the website I ran. (We'll leave the details about this to another time.) I first met Mark Mathis, the Associate Producer of Expelled, when he came to my house with a camera crew to record me for the documentary.Mark specializes in media relations and has a background in journalism. One of Mark's jobs was appearing as a guest on talk shows and writing op-ed pieces that promoted Expelled. Mark taught me that most journalists were either overworked or lazy. He suggested that a good way to get journalists to write about your agenda is to do their work for them. In his book Feeding the Media Beast1, Mark says to always be ready with “prepared spontaneity” for any media interview. These are memorable points and phrases a journalist will quote verbatim because it's easier to use your clever prose than it is to make up their own clever prose. Everybody likes it when you help them do their job.

And it works. Here's a personal example.

The same administration that gave me problems with my website at Baylor later decided to deny tenure to a large number of deserving faculty. The ill-conceived motivation, I believe, was to send a message to untenured junior faculty that the tenure bar had been raised and they had better get off their butts, get busy writing papers, and start attracting research funds. Some of my colleagues who I felt were strongly deserving of tenure were victims of this massacre. I got an email from a reporter I had befriended during the Expelled fiasco asking if we could talk about the mass tenure denial. I said yes. But I needed some “prepared spontaneity” for the interview. After some thought here's the quote I came up with:

“The administration's decision about this year's tenure swept over Baylor like a tsunami. It was totally unexpected and left a significant body count.”

For an engineer, this is a pretty good quote! I wrote it down.

I got the call from the reporter and gave him permission to record our conversation. We chatted at length about the problem. I likened the mass tenure denial to a massacre. And when I felt the time was right, I looked down at my notes and read the quote. In the morning, the newspaper article came out and there was my quote almost word for word:2

“Marks called the tenure denials a `massacre' and said `the administration's decisions about this year's tenure swept over Baylor like a tsunami. It was totally unexpected and had an entirely significant body count.'”

Prepared spontaneity works! Plus, it was a help to the reporter and it sure made me sound clever.

On another occasion, I made the list of “The 20 Most Brilliant Christian Professors” on the website I got an email from a reporter and agreed to an interview about the list. Following Mark Mathis's advice, I again worked on my prepared spontaneity and decided on a variation of an old Jack Benny joke. I worked the quote into the interview and, sure enough, there it was verbatim in the next day's newspaper story.4

“Marks said he was humbled by his inclusion on the list. `For the record, I don't deserve this,' he said. `But I have lower back pain and don't deserve that, either.'”

Not only did my prepared spontaneity appear in the article, it is now listed on my Wikiquote page.5

Like journalists, Editors of scholarly journals are often overworked. Others are lazy. The legacy of Editors lives on nearly independent of their performance. Like many bureaucrats, Editors want to make sure they are perceived as doing a good job while minimizing their effort. The line stays on the resume whether or not they put in overtime. There are exceptions, of course. And there are many claims of exception. But in my experience, the warranted exceptions are few.

One of the reasons I know this about Editors is because I was guilty of these crimes when I was EIC of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks. During this time, I had a full-time position as a professor with a full teaching load on top of directing the research of a gaggle of graduate students. (Yes, graduate students come in gaggles). I also had three pre-teen children who we were home schooling. Like most Editors, my EIC duties were an overload and, frankly, not my tip top priority.

I recall being impressed on one occasion with the response of a team of authors to a paper that my Associate Editor considered borderline. I asked the authors to respond to the reviewer's criticism of their paper. Besides the revised paper, the authors submitted a response letter that went on and on. Each criticism of their paper was addressed in detail. The response letter was almost as long as the revised paper. I read the first few pages of the letter noting that the author's responses were both polite and seemed to directly address the criticisms. After three pages I thumbed through the rest of the response letter to see how long it was. Twenty pages. “Wow,” I thought. “This guy really makes a good case and really knows his stuff.” So without further reading I accepted the paper for publication.

I decided to adopt this practice myself and now write long detailed response letter to Editors. And it works.

Besides being long, response letters should be extraordinarily polite. Angry letters from rejected authors polarize. The author is stupidly posturing him or herself as an enemy of the Editor and then asking for favor. Editors are only human and have a natural tendency to push back against angry authors. I once received a letter from a rejected author who promised that if his revised paper was not accepted, he would publicize the injustice of my journal and assure that my reputation and that of my journal were damaged beyond repair. After muttering some milquetoast expletives (I'm a Christian), I read the revised paper looking for all of the reasons it should be rejected. Ultimately, it was.

To be effective, long detailed response letters must fully embrace the teachings of Dale Carnegie.6 Here are some Dale Carnegie principles from his great book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, followed by responses taken verbatim from letters I have written. All of the responses here ultimately resulted in acceptance and publication of the paper.

1. Dale Carnegie Principle: “Begin with praise and honest appreciation.”

Compliments must be honest. Otherwise they are perceived as flattery. Here is an example of the beginning of one of my response letters to an Editor.

“First, thank you for coordinating a thorough and in-depth review. We have noticed deterioration in peer review quality in the last few decades and it is refreshing to see quality. We have revised the paper in accordance to the reviews and, as a result, the paper is of higher quality. Below is our detailed response to the comments of the three reviewers…”

2. Dale Carnegie Principle: “Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never say `You're Wrong.'”

One way to do this is to shift the blame to yourself and then claim you corrected the problem. Here's me taking the blame for some negative reviews without admitting the paper itself was bad.

“There were of course some [reviewer] comments made which were negative. Upon reflection, we believe that our first draft did not make some of the content is clear as it needed to be. If you and the reviewers, who are obvious experts in the field, misunderstood our paper, then we must take the burden of blame. The good news is the comments were helpful in us generating the attached revised edition which makes points more clearly and addresses every comment made in the review.”

3. Dale Carnegie Principle: “Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly.”
This can be done by claiming a misunderstanding that is your fault. Here's an example.

“Sometimes when one is so entrenched in doing research, the degree of familiarity of others becomes obscured by your closeness to the topic. I suspect you have felt something like this yourself. Although in retrospect all of the information needed was made available in the paper, we did not present it as clearly as we should. I think you'll agree that in the revision these problems have been taken care of. Please read our response below. Although we believe you will agree with this, we would be highly appreciative if you don't that we can have as feedback a critique. You'll see that all of the negative comments were a result of misunderstanding. We have taken care to alleviate these problems and to explain things more thoroughly.”

Note that if the Editor didn't agree with us, we asked him to do more work. Under the assumption the Editor wants to avoid spending more time on our paper, this is a smart request.

4. Dale Carnegie Principle: “Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view.”

Salesmen frequently do a phony version of this to manipulate customers. As a customer, you say “I really don't like this used car. I've heard the Yugo is cheaply made and falls apart when you drive across the first speed bump.” The veteran used car salesman pauses, looks up, rubs his chin, and pretends to think. After rumination, he nods in agreement and responds. “Yes. Absolutely,” he agrees still nodding. “You know, I used to feel that way too.” He looks you in the eye and points his finger. “And then I realized…” The salesman agreed with you. Now he will skillfully deflect the criticism with some reason or another. And the sales pitch continues.

Here is my attempt using such a response. The Editor wanted the Appendix of my paper shortened and I felt it couldn't be shortened any more. I wrote:

“A great Albert Einstein quote regarding explanations is:

`Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.'

“We are very appreciative of the comments of the reviewer because we were also troubled by the length of the Appendices. They are, indeed, longer than is the case for the average paper. Be assured the Appendices have been shortened significantly as we drafted and redrafted the original submission. We now believe they have reached the Einstein limit. Our attempt to provide a rigorous foundation for presenting…”

The rest is the technical justification for not shortening the Appendix. Note that, like the used car salesman, my response is “Yes. The Appendices are too long. I agree. But then I realized…”

5. Dale Carnegie Principle: “Appeal to the nobler motives.”

At times I receive reviews of my papers that are so inane, I wonder if the reviewers have even read the paper. The stupider the review, the stupider the reviewer. The stupider the reviewer, the less chance there is at having a reasonable exchange. In such cases, I often appeal to the Editor to do the right thing and dump the reviewers. Here's an example of appealing to an Editor's nobler self after receiving some pretty stupid reviews:

“I served as EIC for The IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks for six years, and insufficiently in-depth reviews slipped through my fingers in more cases than I care to admit. Reviews were assigned by lazy professors to graduate students. Other reviews were made by those inept in the field who would not confess their ignorance. Grammar and nit-picky comments on the structure of the paper often are the fruit of reviewer ineptitude. I always felt, and I'm sure you agree, that the enormous amount of work that authors give to a paper deserves thorough review by true peers. I have had papers rejected, but always with good reason such as literature oversight. Even when I did not agree with the decision, the reviews were authoritative, in-depth and well documented.

“The papers we submit to [your journal] contain some of the best work I have ever done. [Your journal] is the top journal in its area. We are looking forward to seeing substantive peer reviews.

“Thanks for listening.”

Here are the takeaways to getting your journal paper accepted after a review. First, remember that journal Editors are people who want to treated nicely or even praised. Everyone does. A good response letter should adhere to the best teachings of Dale Carnegie. Secondly, Editors are typically snowed with work. You, as an author, can take advantage of this by writing long detailed response letters. Doing so without appearing to ramble is an art. The Editor will look at your meticulously written tome and think “I don't have time to read this. But…” flipping through the pages, “it looks like a comprehensive and well-written response. Besides, I have a research grant to write.” And your paper will be accepted.

At least, this strategy has worked for me.

 Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Robert J. Marks II, Ph.D. is a Distinguished Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Baylor Univesity in Waco, Texas. The material in this column, though, does not necessarily represent the views of and has not been reviewed or approved by Baylor University.

[1] Mathis, Mark. Feeding the media beast: An easy recipe for great publicity. Purdue University Press, 2005.
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[2] Woods, Tim. Faculty 'massacre' blamed on Baylor's confusing tenure criteria
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[3] “The 20 Most Brilliant Christian Professors,”
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[4] Woods, Tim,. Baylor faculty member named one of '20 Most Brilliant Christian Professors'
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[5] Robert J. Marks II. Wikiquote.
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[6} Carnegie, Dale. How to win friends and influence people. Simon and Schuster, 2010. Originally published in 1936, this book ranks among the most important published in the twentieth century. If you haven't read it, you should.
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