I recall that one professor told me once that if a soldier does not want to be a general one day, he is not a good soldier. The intention was probably to encourage me to try to climb higher on the ladder of a researcher. But now I am a faculty member myself working in a university and published some papers, I pondered on this statement and thought: well, I will instead tell my research student – one step a time, and every time when you start writing a research paper, write it for only three readers.
These three persons are the journal editor Amy, the peer reviewer Bob, the peer reviewer Clark.
Journal editor: Amy
The first person who will read your manuscript will be the journal editor. Let me call her Amy. What does it mean? It means that you need to select a journal and find who is Amy for that journal. Yes, you probably think that you will need to have your manuscript ready first before selecting a journal. No, it is the opposite. You write for a specific journal and that journal’s audience is your writing’s potential audience.
Amy will be the first person who will professionally read your paper and decide it fits the journal’s aim and scope or not. Many desk rejections give only one reason: not fitting the aim and scope of the journal. Some journals only take research articles that report empirical data and some journals are more inclusive to all empirical, conceptual, and review papers. Some journals specifically face a certain group of audience or particular settings, such as higher education, family business, technology and innovation. To send a paper written for a primary school audience to a journal that faces higher education audience is a highway to desk rejection by Amy.
Amy decides if your manuscript will be meeting two (sometimes three) other readers: Bob and Clark.
Reviewers: Bob and Clark
If Amy is happy that day, when your manuscript arrived at her desk, she will start reaching out to reviewers inside the journal’s reviewer database. Every author can volunteer to become a peer reviewer of a journal. Even you are a Ph.D. student, you can also volunteer to take on such a role. It is considered scientific community service.
So Amy emailed several reviewers with an Email template to ask if they are able to review the work before a certain deadline. Two will agree, others may turn the request down. Let me call these two peer reviewers Bob and Clark.
Unlike their stage names here in my writing, your reviewers in reality are anonymous. You will not know who they are, what qualifications they have, what research they do, and how credible their responses are. You may be a professor, and your submission may be reviewed by one Ph.D. student Bob and one assistant professor Clark. It is a possible scenario. You may be a mild person, and your submission may be reviewed by one arrogant Bob and one encouraging Clark.
But no matter who are your Bob and Clark, the fate of your manuscript as to stay manuscript or to become a publication is totally in their hands now. If Bob lives in London and it happens to rain a lot that week he reviewed your paper, his mood might have swayed his given points. If Clark just had a newborn baby and was having trouble with getting an hour to sleep in that week he reviewed your paper, his fatigue might have swayed his decision. What I am saying here is that: Bob and Clark are two human beings with their own lives and conditions, their accepting your work or rejecting your work is not the end of the world for you. That is absolutely an understanding that you should take from the very beginning of your research life.
But Bob and Clark are your key readers. And when you are writing the paper, think of them very hard. Instead of writing to yourself or to an imaginary big audience, write to Bob and Clark. Tell them why you are doing this research, why it is important, how did you do it, and what did you find, and your findings will have what research and practice implications, and what can be next step as followups, etc.
The order of writing a research paper
Many know that the structure of a research paper typically is as follows:
- Literature review
But how many know that to write it in the following order:
- methodology, results, discussion
- literature review
- introduction and conclusion
- abstract, title, keywords
- references, tables, figures
The reason for this order is that you have done the research, you went through the fixed process of data collection, data analysis, and your results are also fixed to be presented. These less flexible outputs should be reported first because they are not that possible to change, and are easier to write about.
For Amy the journal editor, title, abstract, introduction, and conclusion are major spots she will read to decide the manuscript should be considered or directly rejected. For Bob and Clark, it can be also the case, if they are in a hurry. Therefore, writing quality content in these heated spots is a fundamental training and practice that you should not ignore.
Professor Pete Carr from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota also suggested this order of leaving the most difficult parts such as introduction to the very end of the writing, when you have developed and more or less fixed a holistic tone for your writing. I highly recommend watching the video “How to Write a Paper in a Weekend” on YouTube. It only lasts for less than 12 minutes but is certainly a highly distilled lesson out of his long career of writing and publishing experience.
For today, I will drop my pen here and call it the end. As take away, I hope you will now remember Amy, Bob, and Clark when you write your research manuscripts.