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Publishing as a graduate student & tips for submitting a manuscript for submission

I have been asked about publishing as a graduate student, and have decided to share that opinion here with some pointers. I chose the blog as opposed to elsewhere because the blog is the venue for these perspectives—not a university website, not in-class materials. These views are not the views of Texas A&M University, nor do they really belong in any of the classes I teach. Publishing as a grad student is not part of my course; rather, it is part of how I see the experience of being a graduate student, what it should be, and what it is.

Some manuscripts require more work than others. Some of mine required my mentors to work pretty hard,

Some manuscripts require more work than others. Some of mine required my mentors to work pretty hard

Occasionally a paper written for a course actually has enough merit to be the raw construct of a paper worthy to be read by others. For advanced graduate students, writing for school is writing for publication, if you’re doing it correctly. At the undergraduate level, and in some parts of early graduate school, the act of writing is one of honing your thinking, sharpening the analytical knife, and learning to put knowledge to use. But in the later stages of graduate school, the healthy target is publication because the publication process is where coddling ends, and the writer faces the real challenge of expert review.

A student asked me, “But aren’t our professors experts?”  It is very likely your professor is an expert in the topic of the course, but your professor reads your paper with a completely different purpose than she reads articles for review. She reads your paper to see if you understand the concepts and procedures she taught you. She reads submitted manuscripts to see if the knowledge presented is a contribution to HER knowledge, not yours. This difference is subtle, but important. There is much to be learned in the process of publication, and the experience of the publication process while in graduate school is essential to understanding what it means to be a scholar. While I am not advocating that all final papers be submitted to journals, I am advocating that submission to publication is the ideal target for young authors, especially when those young authors are students who are interested in going into higher education or research.

I need to preface my tips for preparing a manuscript with a few warnings. Publication circles are small. Submitting a term paper for publication prematurely can get one’s name associated with low quality scholarship.  While publication is a worthy target, it’s also a target that should be approached with caution, preparation, and rigor. This blog post was inspired by student questions about my position on writing for publication at the graduate level, not because I advocate sending final papers to journals. That would be irresponsible, and counter-productive. I didn’t like getting papers written for class as an editor, and I got a few. Here are some things to keep in mind should you endeavor to publish from what you wrote in a grad school course.

1. Select the publication venue PRIOR to writing your paper. Imagining the readership of the magazine or journal while writing tends to force some students to re-think before they write. If you know real people will read it, you’re less likely to write far-flung ideas and more likely to explain your position in simple language. For some, imagining real people can also have the adverse effect of writers’ block. Let’s assume for now that that will not happen. Selecting the venue first can be influential in helping you accomplish tasks during the process as well. Searching that journal for articles on your topic and then responding to those articles directly in your paper can bring a stuck writer to some valuable insights early in the process of writing. This also provides direction for style and gives the work real meaning beyond the credits awarded for the course. It also leads into my next point.

2. Make sure that you have cited the journal to which you are submitting. This is valuable for 2 reasons. First, if you can’t cite the journal, your article probably does not belong in that journal. A great example is a paper I helped someone prepare for a games and simulations journal. The literature they were using was not from the journal to which they were submitting, even though the title of the paper and the title of the journal seemed to match. Under closer inspection, it was a poor fit. Preparation of that article for that journal would have been waste of time. The second reason is that each journal is a discussion in progress and the reviewers need to know that you’re up on the discussion taking place in that journal. Not all the reviewers are fully up-to-date on ALL topics being addressed in a journal. A paper that cites NO work in that journal is a good indication that the article was NOT written for that journal and would not be very interesting, or helpful, for those who read that journal for that topic. In fact, if it is truly outdated and uninformed, it will drive some readers away. Therefore, I know as an editor I was always suspicious of using up reviewers’ time with articles that were outdated or uninformed. Making sure there are a few substantive citations from that journal to situate the article within the larger discussion gives the reviewers and editor a means of deciding whether or not what you have submitted will be interesting for readers.

3. Anonymize. An “A” on your paper does not mean your paper is ready for submission. There are a number of tasks that need to be accomplished before the manuscript is ready to send off to submission. An obvious but sometimes forgotten task is to clean up and anonimyze the manuscript for review. If you have had to deal with peer or teacher comments, address as many of them as is applicable to improving the manuscript, BUT GET RID OF THE COMMENTS. Accept all changes, save as a clean draft, and remove your personal electronic stamp by (…if using MS Word) going to Microsoft emblem in the upper left->prepare-> then properties. Also make sure there are no remaining tracked-changes lurking at the end. Your goal is to make it to review; only a clean, anonimyzed manuscript will be sent out.

4. Save your acknowledgement for later. If you’ve had previous support by the teacher or classmates to help develop the manuscript, it’s professional and courteous to include an acknowledgement of that support, but NOT at the submission stage. Remove the acknowledgement if you’ve already placed it in. That acknowledgment goes back in after the first review. Also, you need to remove any language from the acknowledgement that could be interpreted as promotional, subjective, or identifies this article as coursework. Once the course is over, it is no longer coursework. The revised manuscript after review will likely be quite different from the manuscript you submitted. Remove any sentences in the manuscript that state or imply the manuscript was part of a course. If you have never written an acknowledgment, keep it modest and simple. Here’s an example I gave to one of my students. It’s not particularly elegant, but it’s a functional acknowledgement for someone who had not written one before.
I acknowledge the guidance of Craig D. Howard PhD, Assistant Professor of Inst. Technology at Texas A&M – Texarkana, the helpful reviews of XXX,YYY, ZZZ, and the anonymous reviewers at [publication name here]. I acknowledge the US Army Tuition Assistance Program for supporting the development of this article while I was deployed in Afghanistan. 

This particular student was in the active military at the time when he wrote this article and his study was supported by a US Army program. I cautioned him to check if there were any grant numbers or specific language that should be included, but honestly, I know very little about these legalities and a comment from a reader on this point would be very helpful.

5. Read the writers guidelines. These are also known as  “Instructions for Authors” at some publications. Check the publication’s website. Here’s an example of some writers guidelines at Tech Trends.

Writers guidelines invariably have little nuances that can slow down your article’s review. Get as many of these minor changes BEFORE submission. Sometimes an article gets to the top of the to-review list, a guidelines problem is uncovered (like a bio left in the article or style issue) and the article goes back to you for repair, only to go to the bottom of the list when re-submitted. Just off the top of my head, watch out for short abstract word limits and the publication specific spellings such as “m-learning” or a preferred way to write electronic mail (Email, email, or e-mail.)  Don’t be afraid to condense some of your text. Unlike some papers for school, longer papers have a more treacherous road to publication than shorter ones. (This is more of an issue in print journals than electronic ones.) Exceeding the word count on the writers guidelines can easily get you a rejection prior to review.

Along these same lines, if you have included terms specific to your institution, remove them. I have returned at least a dozen manuscripts to authors prior to review asking that the authors replace course numbers with course names. “In our course, w200, there were 4 instructors and 120 students over five sections.” No one wants to guess what w200 is, though we can if we must.

6. Craft your bio. The editor may need it quickly and having it handy and in the online system, or ready to be emailed saves time. Keep your bio under 100 words. I have seen 200-400 word bios that get an article pushed to a later issue based on space limitations. Remember, a shorter bio is more publisher-friendly than a longer one.  Your bio is always written in the 3rd person, and usually ignores your undergraduate education. I recommended to the students above to write his as follows:

Joseph Dotson is a Masters student at Texas A&M University – Texarkana and a [rank here]  in the US Army.

While this bio is short, it is important. Be careful about the name you use. You want the formal version UNLESS you’re going to stick with the informal version forever. I had to switch to “Craig D. Howard” once I learned there was a Craig Howard in New Jersey writing Jewish nostalgia. I am neither Jewish nor very nostalgic. This is one case where your middle initial is helpful for disambiguation. I know not everyone has a middle initial, but if you do, use it.

7. Register with the journal as an author, upload and SUBMIT.  Of course, be sure to read the submission steps. They usually tell you when you’ll be hearing back about the journal’s receipt of your manuscript.  Sometimes the confirmation is sent automatically via a bot, sometimes it’s an actual email from the editor. Can take anywhere from a couple hours to 2 weeks.  The time of the year plays a role as well. Both Tech Trends and IJDL were inundated with manuscripts during the first week of June, and received NOTHING in October and November. Be aware that holidays can slow the process down at every stage. My quickest confirmation was also a rejection. It took  Abbie Brown 3.5 minutes  to reject my article while he was the editor at Tech Trends. I considered that a success to because I learned something right away– if it can’t be anonimyzed, it goes elsewhere. Remember, just getting into the process is an accomplishment. If you are a student, and your article is rejected, CONGRATULATIONS! You just got more learning out of the course that you took than a large percentage of the students who paid the same tuition that you did.

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3 Comments

  1. Eric says:

    Thank you for this fantastic information. I do have one question for you though, as I am struggling with this before I submit my paper. I wrote a paper for a graduate course. The paper I plan on submitting is exactly as I turned it in to the course with absolutely zero input from or collaboration with the professor. In fact, his entire involvement with the paper was approving the topic (it was a term paper) and grading it. Yet he is telling me that since I wrote it for his course, he needs to be listed as an author. I strongly disagree with his statement. Is this something I should be concerned about? Do I really need to add him as an author?

    • craig d howard says:

      Wonderful question and thank you for submitting it.

      There are a few things that need to be clarified prior to saying your professor is outright wrong. First off, this blog post was meant for graduate learners in Instructional Technology, but might also be broadly applicable to social science research in general. I don’t know your field of study. Much depends on the conventions in your field. If your paper was developed from someone’s course which included access to a lab where data was collected, it is very likely that authorship listing the lab leader is the most appropriate convention. Also, if the paper topic was developed iteratively with the professor, that in itself may very well constitute input worthy of authorship. Your professor might also be refereeing to content in the paper that was derived from teachings in the course, in which case the professor would be making a legitimate claim. Both contributions and conventions should be discussed prior to any submission of the article anywhere.

      Graduate students should inform themselves of some of the more general conventions using authorship guidelines published for their appropriate field. There are guidelines out there for determining authorship. In my field, Instructional Technology, AECT has some, but more generally, there is an APA guide online. Read it closely. Knowing these conventions will help you learn more from your discussion about authorship with your professor. This is a key learning step in graduate school and one often overlooked in the process from admission to graduation, and possibly the root cause behind the uncomfortable feelings expressed in the comment.

      Secondly, one phrase in your question strikes in me a note of caution, “The paper I plan on submitting is exactly as I turned it in to the course.” This strategy runs the risk of getting a swift and straightforward rejection, needlessly uses the time of an editor at the journal you submit to, and moreover, runs you the risk of sparking a negative image of your work in the eyes of the editor. No paper should go to submission raw. Now that the course is over, re-read the writer’s guidelines and make sure you are familiar with the prospective journal’s most recent publications on the topic you cover. I expect there’s a fair bit of editing to do. Established professors can submit less polished drafts than students can because they know key phrases and can use shorthand to express concepts and other ideas. A learner’s text must be well crafted because the key phrases are less accessible when writing. You haven’t been reading for enough years to know them all and include them so fluidly.

      More strategically, it would be wise to rethink your take on collaboration in the field. From the perspective of the student, credit for a single-authored publication is paramount. However, from the perspective of scholars in the field, it is likely not so. The co-authored paper is worth more, not less. When a potential candidate’s cv evidences multiple collaborations that resulted in publications, it sends a far stronger message of competence than a cv with a few single authored published papers. Scholars publish dozens of articles over their career, and their co-authoring relationships evidence the breadth of their participation with topics of interest to others doing work worthy of publication. There is much to gain from collaboration and showing that you work well with your professors, even if this particular professor does not spur in you the desire for a long term identity of association. You have far more to gain from the professor’s name being on the byline than you have to gain from being sole-author, even if you plan on never co-authoring with this professor again. Your paper is also more likely to be read because inclusion in the professor’s online archive may draw readers surfing your professor’s publications, and it may also heighten your rank in Google Scholar searches if your professor is more published than you are—which is more often the case than it is not.

      At this point, your task is to get yourself informed about the appropriate conventions for authorship, make strides in the development of the paper for publication, and bring the draft back to your professor to have a more informed conversation about the draft and target venue. It may feel like eating humble pie, but it’s not. Even if you are vastly more experienced and it is a junior faculty member you’re dealing with (which does happen as grad students come from all walks of life and faculty can come straight from successive years of grad school) what you do not want is to publish the paper without the professor’s approval, especially with verbatim sections from the paper you submitted in the course. That runs the risk of you being marked as someone who does not give credit where credit is due, could alienate you from other scholars in the future, and potentially endanger your completion of the program where you are now.

  2. […] discussion started as a comment to Publishing as a graduate student and developed into something worth a little more space than the comment trail, I think. What […]

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