practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Drafting an article for peer-review means writing, revising, and editing, but also making the decision about when it is “done” and ready for submission to peer review. So when do you know when it’s ready to submit?  When should you stop wordsmithing and click that button?  I recently saw these questions asked on Twitter, in response to which there were a number of different takes on it.  As with anything in research, there are a number of different strategies for figuring this out.  

Quick disclaimer first though: I’m going to share what I do and how I got there, but remember that there’s no one way to make this decision.  This is what I do and why, but as I discuss below, there are reasons why this may not work for you.  Keep an eye out for other conversations on the topic and figure out what works for you!

Part of the reason I came to how I approach this decision is because I tried a different way at first.  My first peer review submission was a paper that I started through my job before graduate school.  My co-author and I had written a number of drafts of a paper and gotten feedback from our team several times.  Based on advice from our colleagues, we submitted to a journal to get additional feedback and figure out how to move forward.  

This advice followed me to my PhD program where I submitted an article with two similar analyses that I couldn’t decide between with the hopes that the reviewers would help me decide.  Instead, they were confused.  Weren’t Table 3 and 4 quite similar?  Why did the authors include both?  What should the reader take from Table 3 that is distinct from Table 4?   There were no answers in the reviews, only questions.  

Using the peer-review process to get feedback to strengthen your articles is one approach to the process.  In the case of my article before grad school, it was helpful as we used a sociological framework, but only had one trained sociologist on the team.  The one thing to remember with this approach is that a journal that rejects your paper is one you cannot submit that article to again.  So the best time to use this strategy is when you have the wiggle room to sacrifice a journal from your list of potential places to submit.  If you want your article to stick at the first journal where you submit it or you need the submission to be a serious consideration, this isn’t a good strategy.  

After my second experience with submitting for feedback, I had an amazing co-authorship experience where I learned a LOT about writing a journal article and the peer-review publication process.  These two experiences pushed me to take a different approach.  For feedback, I use writing groups, friends, mentors, and conference presentations.  It means losing potential reviewers for a paper, but it helps me develop a more polished and complete paper to submit for peer-review.  To determine whether the paper is “polished” and “complete,” I look to whether I get feedback that suggests the paper is half baked in two ways: (1) my analysis and (2) the framing of the paper.  Now reviewers ALWAYS have something they want changed or added to an article, but what I’ve noticed between publishing and reviewing articles is that a critique of your methods, analysis, or interpretation of findings can be damning, leading to rejection.  But suggested changes for the framing of a paper are often seen as doable revisions and are more likely to lead to a revise and resubmit.  I assume that this is particularly true when you’ve demonstrated to the reviewers that you can implement a framing, so I focus on executing whatever framing I choose well and completely.  

Making sure my findings sections are tight and the framing well executed seems to have increased the number of papers I’ve had accepted at the first journal I’ve submitted them to, rather than the third, fifth, or seventh.  (Yes, I have papers that took that many submissions to place.)  It helps of course that I have more experience with writing journal articles and better understand their format, but my approach seems to help too.  

Now I will say there’s one kind of peer-review journal my strategy is still hit or miss for: high rejection rate journals.  Really no matter what your strategy, the likelihood of rejection is high for these journals period.  But I do think my strategy has helped me land in journals with more moderate rejection rates.  

The main critique of this approach from what I’ve seen is that reviewers are going to make you redo something, so you shouldn’t submit something that perfected.  However, this critique seems to be more about your reaction to feedback.  The only problem with submitting something polished and complete is IF you are unwilling to change the article. If you are willing to make the revisions the reviewers ask for, it doesn’t matter if what you submit is closer to “perfect.”  

Another critique is that this approach encourages authors to hold onto their work and not submit it.  This is a really valid potential drawback of the approach.  What I’ll say to that is, for me, the approach has encouraged me to slow down and not rush.  It has calmed my impatience to get articles out the door and off my plate.  Now if you naturally tend to sit on your work and not click submit, then this critique is something to be careful about.  What may help is setting boundaries on how perfect an article needs to be before you submit it.  

Or maybe there’s a third option that I haven’t thought of that you should check out?  What other approaches have you been advised on or implemented?

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