Ten Simple Rules for Getting Published states:

Rule 7: Start writing the paper the day you have the idea of what questions to pursue.

This sounds like very good advice, not just because you would pace out the act of writing your paper over the entire duration of your research, but it would also help you stay focused and keep track of your progress.

However, in practice, how is this possible? To start writing a paper, I must first know what format and style it should be written in. To know that, I would consult the guidelines of the journal in which I want publish. But the choice of journal depends on the quality of the research and notability of findings. But if I start writing on the day that I start my research, how can I know what journal the research will be good enough for?

For instance, if I shoot high and assume I am going to have a Nature paper, what do I do if a year down the line, it turns out that I was unable to succeed in reaching my goals and Nature would not possibly accept my research? Now I have to rewrite from scratch for another journal, and the time I spent slowly building up my Nature manuscript is wasted. I might as well have focused on research only at first, and left the writing part for last.

What journal's submission guidelines do I pick to follow this Rule 7? The most prestigious journal? The humblest journal? Some generic set of guidelines for "no journal"?

Rule 9 from the same text says:

Rule 9: Decide early on where to try to publish your paper.

But how can you know ahead of time where you will be able to publish, especially if you don't have much experience publishing?

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    " Now I have to rewrite from scratch for another journal, and the time I spent slowly building up my Nature manuscript is wasted. I might as well have focused on research only at first, and left the writing part for last." Can you explain what you mean by that? In my field (mathematics), one would rarely if ever write a paper in a way which is suitable only for a particular journal. Feb 7, 2014 at 7:06
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    Also: yes, it is more efficient to focus on the research first and leave the writing for last. However, I find that often my take on the research is clarified by the writing process. For instance, sometimes I write the introduction to a paper when the results of the paper are incomplete, and this can help me to figure out what the results of the paper should be or could be. Of course this first introduction may bear little or no resemblance to the introduction of the final version... Feb 7, 2014 at 7:08
  • @PeteL.Clark I was exaggerating the effort needed to rewrite a paper for a different journal, to illustrate my confusion. The advice to "start writing right away" seems solid, but in practice, I get stumped about what exactly I'm supposed to actually write. Though, I think I was exaggerating the problem in my mind as well; and the answer I got are definitely very helpful (I'm not quite sure which one to accept).
    – Superbest
    Feb 8, 2014 at 0:55

4 Answers 4

  • Format and style should rarely, if ever, be your first concern in writing a paper. Your top objective should be describing good research to your readers. You need not worry about how to cite a paper or if you should use British or American English spellings at first. (Or at least not until you complete Rule 9!)

    Instead, what this is rule is advising you to do are tasks such as organizing your thoughts, collect references, write up your methodologies, and think about the graphics you will want to use to help illustrate your points. This is more or less the same advice given by people like George Whitesides in talks and as a "editorial column."

  • Knowing where to publish is not that difficult. Look for where the work you're drawing from is currently being published. If many of the papers you are citing are from journals X and Y, one of those will likely be a good home for your paper. Which one to select might be a matter of which audience you're trying to reach: for instance, The Journal of Physical Chemistry and The Journal of Chemical Physics cover very similar sets of areas. However, the former journal is mainly a chemistry journal, and the latter is primarily for physicists. (There is, as you might imagine, a lot of crossover.)

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    From the OP's question it sounds like "early on" means "as soon as you begin doing the research". It seems to me that that is too early to decide where to publish the paper, because you don't know what you will actually be able to do in the end, and therefore you don't know whether to send it to a top journal, a miserable journal, or somewhere in between. Also, what is the advantage of following Rule 9? I.e., what does it hurt if you don't think seriously about where to submit a paper until the research is nearly or fully done? Feb 7, 2014 at 6:57
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    (I myself tend to fantasize about where to submit a paper assuming that it turns out in the best possible way. I think it is human to have these kind of dreams. But I'm not sure that it is actually helpful or necessary...) Feb 7, 2014 at 6:58
  • Writing a letter instead of a full research paper are two very different propositions. . . .
    – aeismail
    Feb 7, 2014 at 19:04
  • I agree...but what are you referring to when you say that? I thought we were talking about writing research papers. Feb 7, 2014 at 19:16
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    Hmm. In mathematics I'm not sure that the distinction exists. I have a paper published in Mathematics Research Letters but the title doesn't really mean anything so far as I know: it's still a carefully written, not especially short paper. But again, could you explain what the advantage of Rule 9 is? Are you saying that in your field when you are doing the research it is helpful to think "This is research I will eventually submit as a letter" versus "This is research I will eventually submit as a full research paper"? Feb 7, 2014 at 21:41

I was provided this advice by a few successful professors (in computer science): keep a track for a "small pond" and a track for a "big pond". A small pond is a yearly conference that has a pretty small community, is reasonably specialized in its area, and is often accessible as far as acceptance rate goes. Every year, you should aim to have a paper here and get known in the community over time. A big pond is a yearly conference that is large, has good impact and reputation, and is more general to the field rather than to your specialization. Again, aim for this conference every year, but keep in mind that because it's bigger and more prestigious, it's also more difficult to get in.

What ends up happening is that, almost by default, you get at least two yearly targets for publishing - and as a result you know where you're writing every year.

This advice isn't exactly the same when it comes to journal writing, but the general principle can still apply. Pick a couple of journals that are well-known in your field: a specialized one and a more general one, and use them as your main targets.

How do you select targets? Well, as suggested, the places that you cite are pretty good places to go to. Your advisor is likely to have a few favorite publication venues (and it's usually a good idea to publish with your advisor). When you read and write often, you will start recognizing which journals and conferences have respected papers in them, and what the bar is for getting accepted is.

Overall: start writing early. Research questions, for example, are generally going to be similar no matter what venue you submit to. Your methods are not going to change based on the venue you write for. Your results are not going to change based on the venue you write for. It's safe to write these things down early.

What does change with venue is the style guidelines (easy enough to just use a new LaTeX or Word template, or even to copy and paste) and the audience (mostly with respect to Introduction/Motivation and Implications/Discussion of results). It's important to choose the venue for these reasons - I personally consider it a bad idea to not customize the intro and the discussion sections to tailor it toward what a particular community expects.

  • Your advice regarding conferences actually applies to me as well, I think. However, how do you start to figure out which conference to aim for? I am familiar with which journals are prestigious because I have read and cited many articles from them, and discuss their relative standing with colleagues and professors. But with conferences, I am stumped.
    – Superbest
    Feb 7, 2014 at 0:33
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    The conference culture in computer science is quite different from the other sciences, but in computer science, you get a sense of which conferences are in the area by reading papers and checking references and by asking people (in computer science, conference papers are very frequently cited and are often considered high impact on a similar level as journals). If you discuss the relative standing of journals with your colleagues, ask them about conferences as well.
    – Irwin
    Feb 7, 2014 at 17:05
  • This answer is not universal, as in some places and some domains (I am thinking France and fundamental mathematics) writing with your advisor is a bad idea (at least for you major papers), as our custom is that the advisor puts his or her name on a paper only if he or her has helped the graduate more than should be expected. Also, the way the journals are ranked is slightly different in each researcher's mind, so one might get better chance to be recognized by publishing in as many different venues as possible, so that everyone can say "hey, he published in X, that's good!". Feb 9, 2014 at 7:41

A good indicator of where to publish and who is more likely to publish your work is to look at your citations. Its a good bet that a journal that you cite heavily has an audience interested in your work.

As far as having an adaptable, journal independent formatting for your paper, you may want to write your paper in LaTeX. You can easily switch formats by changing the .sty files particular your journal of interest. These usually include predefined reference templates so that you can simply include a separate .bib file with your reference information and the necessary formatting will be automatically be generated.

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    In my field (mathematics), journals often include instructions about the style for submitted papers. I have always ignored these instructions unless/until the paper has been accepted...and I have never heard a peep of complaint from the editor or referees about this. It just seems reasonable not to mess with the formatting until one knows whether the paper itself is worthy of publication. Feb 7, 2014 at 7:03
  • @PeteL.Clark: I think you're right... it's best to focus first on content, and then on style only if they really want the paper.
    – Paul
    Feb 7, 2014 at 13:23

I write while I do the research, but I don't attempt to write the text of the journal paper from the get-go. What I write at the start is essentially a set of research notes, which often gradually evolves into a lengthy technical report. The journal article is written by extracting the most valuable and interesting parts of the report and adding some expository elements (introduction and transitions).

It's possible and sometimes worthwhile to "publish" the technical report as well, for instance on the arXiv or sometimes in an institutional series. In that case you may want to spend more time polishing the report itself. Here's an example of a 47-page report that's much too long for a journal article -- at least, for most journals in my field.

Sometimes it makes sense to submit all or most of the report to a journal with no page limits; for instance, this lengthy report will soon appear in the LMS Journal of Computation and Mathematics.

As Pete Clark says in the comments, I find that the most valuable effect of writing as I go is that writing things down carefully clarifies my own understanding.

  • Hooray for arXiv! How cool is it that you can actually keep updating your technical report over there too, instead of publishing errata that no one will ever read, or revising your analyses with new data that no one will ever want to publish on the same, tired old subject? I'm exaggerating, I hope, but it seems like quite an advantage to have little or no impediment to updating one's work as time goes on, as opposed to having to stick with the article as you published it, even after receiving useful feedback, catching typos, collecting new data, discovering new, useful references, etc.... Feb 7, 2014 at 18:41

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