Papers

Along with conferences, publishing papers in academic and professional journals is one of the main ways through which researchers share ideas and new developments. As with attendance at seminars and conferences, publishing papers will help you become part of the academic community and develop as a researcher.

Whether you are writing a paper as a stand-alone piece of work or are developing it from a poster or a spoken presentation, the advice below will help you know what is expected from an academic paper and how you can make yours as effective as possible.

Publication Process

Taking this original idea and turning it into an academic paper suitable for publication will mean following a formal process by which you submit your paper to a journal for review and a decision is made by them whether to accept it. Understanding this process and what journals are looking for will help you know what is expected from you and what you will need to do to get your paper published.

This process begins with you submitting a proposal to a specific journal, so your first step is to identify which journal to target.

Journal Selection

There will be a number of academic and professional journals relevant to your discipline, so you need to think about which one you will target. You should already be familiar with many of the main journals in your discipline and have an idea as to how often articles in them are cited elsewhere. If you are unsure, have a look through your own reading list and look to see which journals are referenced most often.

Of course not all journals have the same profile or level of prestige. Your colleagues may be able to offer you advice on how journals in your discipline are commonly rated. Your supervisor can then help you decide which journal to target. For a first time author it may make sense to target a journal with relatively less prestige. Do not take this as a snub! The experience will still prove valuable and will help you take your first steps as an academic writer.

Remember that you should not send your paper to more than one journal at a time - this will avoid you and your research group being placed in an embarrassing situation should your paper be accepted by more than one journal.

Proposal

Having decided which journal to target, you next submit a proposal that summarises what your paper will cover. Most journals will have a website with advice for contributors and this should include any specific requirements for the submission of proposals.

Once your proposal has been considered, the journal's editors will make an initial response - indicating whether or not they invite you to submit a draft version of your paper. If you are invited to submit a draft version of your paper, the invitation will normally describe any specific requirements that your paper must meet as well as a deadline for submission.

With the support of your supervisors, you will now write a draft version of your paper ready for submission. You are required to submit a draft version of your paper in the sense that if it is accepted you will be given the opportunity to make corrections; in fact though, what the journal editors will want to see is something that looks and sounds like a finished version - that is, one that is academically sound and one that is well structured, well written, and free from errors.

Review

Your paper will then be subject to a process of peer review - whereby other researchers in your field are asked to read and comment on its academic merits. In particular, they will be looking to see that your paper:

  • reflects sound academic methodology and has a clear theoretical basis
  • is given an appropriate context
  • describes the contribution to knowledge made by your research
  • is appropriately referenced and is free from plagiarism

A decision will then be made whether to recommend that your paper be accepted for publication.

Acceptance for Publication

Once a decision has been reached, the editors will contact you with their decision. In some cases, they may ask you to make some revisions to your draft before they can reach a final decision.

If your paper is accepted for publication, it is likely that this is conditional on you making some amendments - it is very rare for a paper to be accepted without some changes being needed. The important thing to remember is that the end is in sight - having got this far, do not give up even if there is some further work to do. The editors will normally specify what changes they need and you should take this advice very seriously and act as fully as possible on the recommendations that have been made.

If your paper is rejected, do not to be too disheartened. Even more established researchers do not have every paper they write accepted. In fact, the more prestigious journals usually accept less than a third of the total number of papers submitted to them. Again, the editors will hopefully provide you with some advice as to why your paper has been rejected. Use this to think about things that you can do better in future and then try again - learn from your experience and apply that learning when you come to write your next paper.

Planning Your Writing

Right now you may not be too sure as to what will be expected from your paper - what structure it should take and what content it should include. A good place to start is by looking at other papers that have been published recently in your discipline. This will give you a clearer picture of how your paper should look as well as helping you identify any conventions specific to your discipline.

One common mistake is to try and make a paper out of your whole thesis. A doctoral thesis and an academic paper can be very similar in terms of structure, but they have very different aims. A paper is much more focused on a specific development. You should think of an academic paper as being a concise narrative which gives readers:

  • a description of the theoretical basis for the research
  • a description of what was done
  • an explanation as to what has been discovered and why that is important
  • an idea of the next steps that are suggested by the findings

Once you and your supervisor have identified an area of your research that could form the basis of an academic paper, you need to start thinking about what its content will be and how that content will be structured.

Structure

From looking at papers that have alreadfy been published, you should be able to go on and plan a structure for your own paper. Although requirements can vary by discipline and there is no such thing as a standard paper, the following is a broadly typical structure:

StartMain Body of PaperFinish
  • Abstract/Keywords
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Methodology
  • Results
  • Discussion/Findings
  • Conclusions
  • References

Try putting your own draft paper structure together making sure to follow any conventions specific to your discipline that you have identified.

Then take each of the sections of your structure in turn and break them down - thinking about what you will write for each one. A good way of doing this is to list the various sub-sections that each of your top-level sections will have. If you find it useful, you can break these down still further and map out the main ideas that each sub-section will cover.

Your Work Plan

You should now have a much clearer picture of the "what" and "how" for writing your paper - what is still missing is the "when". The next stage in your planning process is to create a work schedule that sets out when you will start and finish each section of your paper plan.

There are two key limits to your writing plan - the maximum word limit and the deadline for submissions. Most journals will have a website with advice for contributors and generally advice on both word limits and submission deadlines will be available there. Spend some time thinking about how long each section of your paper might be so that you do not exceed this total word limit. Again, looking at other published papers should give you some ideas as to how long typically each section should be.

You also need to be realistic as to how much time you have available and how much writing you can expect to complete in that time. Two things need to be emphasised:

  • you do not need to write your paper in order from start to finish: getting started with your writing is much less difficult if you start with the most straightforward parts first
  • allow enough time before your paper is due for submission for your supervisors to read and comment on it and for you to make any changes they might suggest

Once you have the plan for your paper ready, share it with your supervisors and make sure that they are happy with your proposed approach.

Managing Your Writing

Once your plan has been agreed with your supervisor, you are ready to start writing your paper. The advice below will help you manage and develop your writing.

Getting Started

Start anywhere. You do not have to write your paper in order from start to finish. It may help to start with those sections that will be easiest to write or where you already have something in writing that you can adapt. Remember to organise you work using files and folders so that you can put it into order later.

Think About Your Readers

As you start to consider the quality of your writing, you will probably be thinking about how it sounds to you. However, it is more important to consider how it will sound to your readers. It does not matter how good your research is if you cannot communicate it to others.

Think about your readers' needs and aim to make your writing as clear as possible:

  • do not use a difficult word where a simple one will do
  • avoid excessively long sentences
  • use punctuation correctly to aid the sense of your writing
  • use paragraphs to break your text into logically self-contained units

You should also think about how your readers will navigate their way through your paper from beginning to end. In your plan, you will have developed a structure for your paper that allows you to present your arguments and your findings in a logical way. However, this structure may not be as apparent to someone reading the paper as it is to you writing it. You need to make sure that you communicate your structure so that your reader is guided through it and can see why you have written in the way you have.

To guide your readers, you need to have a system of "signposts" - things that explicitly or implicitly tell the reader what to expect. Signposts that you can use in your paper are:

  • a well written abstract that provides a clear summary of your paper and defines what original contribution to knowledge is being reported
  • an introductory section that makes it clear to the reader what will follow
  • a conclusions section that summarises the main points of what they have read

You may also want to use sections headings; if so, check with the journal's advice for contributors and see if there are any requirements relating to the use of headings.

Writing Conventions

Whatever discipline you belong to, there will be certain conventions of academic writing - for example, specific modes of phrasing, specific terminology, recognised acronyms/abbreviations, etc.

It is important that you make yourself familiar with these and the best way to do this is through reading other published papers. Doing so will help you learn how to use these conventions correctly in your paper but you will also find that it can play a part in your own development as an academic writer - look out for writing styles in your discipline that you like and think about what techniques have been used that make them work well. See if you can identify techniques that you can use in your own writing - making sure that you are not just mimicking someone else.

You also need to remember basic rules for written English - for more advice, read the University's Grammar Study Guides:

Be Realistic

It is natural to be anxious about the quality of your work, but do not let this stop you writing or allow yourself to be caught in the trap of repeatedly revising the same section.

Remember that:

  • you are just starting out as an academic writer - you should not expect, nor will your supervisors expect, to see in your work the writing style of an experienced academic writer
  • you need to keep sight of what is important about your writing style - do not waste time agonising over phrasing or your choice of words, so long as your writing communicates clearly what you have to say then it is doing its job
  • you can use feedback from your supervisors and others to reassure yourself that what you are writing is of an appropriate standard

Use Feedback

You should already be planning to get feedback from your supervisor on your writing as it progresses. Your supervisor will comment on the content of your work, but you may also want to ask for feedback on your writing style and whether there is anything you can do to improve this. If you would find it helpful to be given feedback on your writing style, let your supervisor know that this is something you would appreciate their comments on.

Alongside your supervisor, your friends - particularly fellow researchers - are also a useful source of support. Obviously, if you are showing your paper to friends working in a different discipline you need to remember that they may well be unfamiliar with conventions and terminology you have used - but even so, they can offer general advice on tone, phrasing, and structure.

Proofreading

You need to make time for proofreading. It should be something that you have planned for and to which you have allocated time before your expected submission date - proofreading requires care and time and should not be an afterthought at the end of the writing process:

  • proofread one section at a time with a break in between
  • proofread your paper twice - once to check that everything you have written makes sense and once for accuracy of spelling, punctuation, etc.
  • do not rely on spellcheck software - it cannot tell you when you have used "there" when you meant to say "their" and it will miss other things too
  • proofread diagrams/tables/illustrations separately and ensure that the caption is correct in each case

Remember that your paper will reflect on both you and your research group. As part of your proof reading process, make sure that:

  • it is referenced appropriately and correctly
  • statements are accurate and supported
  • it is free from inadvertent plagiarism

Do not forget also that proofreading requires a lot of concentration - it is not something you should start if you are tired or do for long stretches of time. And when you have finished, it never hurts to ask a friend to look over your paper and see if a fresh pair of eyes catches something that you have missed.

Authorship

There is a whole range of accepted conventions and ways of doing things that are associated with academic writing; these will become more familiar as you develop in your career. These conventions vary in their details between disciplines, but one thing different disciplines usually have in common is that research students are rarely the sole author of an academic paper.

Instead, your first academic papers may be written as part of a research team with a specific "lead" author. This is not an attempt to rob you of credit - it is simply part and parcel of academic writing and you will still be named as an author. Moreover, this way of doing things has benefits for you - by having your name attached to those of more experienced researchers, you increase the chances of your paper being accepted for publication.

Again, your supervisors will explain how this works with papers in your discipline. What you need to do is check who will be doing what and what is expected from you.

Re-Using Your Paper

Remember that any papers you write can be used later when you come to write your thesis - it is much easier to re-work something you already have than to write something from scratch. Do make sure though to not inadvertently use work that others in your group contributed - it may be unintentional, but it is still plagiarism.

It can also be tempting to post a copy of your paper online - this should be avoided. If you do this while your paper is still being considered for publication, it is likely to lead to it being rejected - a journal will not want to publish something that has already appeared elsewhere, even if it is just on your own School/Department webpage. If you do this after your article has been accepted, then it can create copyright problems unless you are providing a link to the journal itself.

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