Authors Philippa Benson and Susan Silver offer a guiding light in the academic publishing process Shop Talk

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For many authors of academic papers, the specific rules of Chicago style may be some of the only straightforward guidance they get during a perplexing publishing process. Papers seem to disappear into a submission system only to mysteriously reappear with a decision. What is it that journal editors are really looking for? Authors Philippa J. Benson and Susan C. Silver decided it was time to pull back the curtain and demystify the process. While their work looks primarily at scientific publishing, their advice will ring true for anyone hoping for an “accepted” in their decision letter.

You’ve both worked with scientific authors and publishers for many years. What inspired you to finally put together a book about navigating scientific publishing?

We have traveled to China every year since 2007, teaching “How to get published” workshops to help Chinese PhD students, postdocs, and young faculty get their research published in high-impact, English-language science journals. After we’d taught the course a number of times, we realized that it might be easier to have the content in book form rather than making extensive handouts for each seminar. In addition, a number of our American colleagues had commented to us that many young Western researchers could also benefit from the material we teach, so we decided to put everything into a book.

What are some of the most common mistakes novice authors make when submitting their papers?

One of the main reasons a paper is rejected without review is that the author chooses the wrong journal to submit it to. Inexperienced authors don’t know how to match the content of the paper and the desired audience to the scope, readership, and criteria of the journal. Or they submit a relatively minor development or innovation to a high-impact journal that is looking for groundbreaking research. Even if they have chosen a suitable journal, they often don’t study recent issues to see what the editors are interested in, or they don’t follow the “Instructions to Authors.”

Editors regularly see submissions well over the specified word limit. Editors of journals that want theoretical papers get submissions about practical applications, or vice versa. And there are a host of smaller issues, often connected with illustrations or with copyright laws. Many authors are confused about the resolution requirements for images, while others are unaware of who owns the copyright to a figure or table they want to reproduce, thinking that it is the authors of the original paper rather than the publisher. Creative Commons licenses are changing the landscape of copyright ownership, but every journal is different, and authors need to study the instructions carefully to understand the requirements of the specific journal they’re sending their manuscript to.

Most authors know cover letters are an important part of the process, but it seems that many people are either hesitant to “sell” themselves or they go too far and appear pushy. How can authors sell themselves and their work in a cover letter while remaining professional?

Many authors waste an important opportunity to catch the editor’s attention by not including a cover letter at all. Also, a cover letter that repeats the abstract is a waste of everyone’s time. An author needs to explain why his or her paper is a good match forthat journal and why the topic or findings will be of interest to its readers.  Not all editors pay attention to cover letters, but many do. We go into a lot of detail in the book regarding what sort of things authors can include in their cover letters that might interest an editor.

It seems that the costs associated with submitting a paper can come as a surprise. What should authors expect? Are there any payment requirements that should raise red flags?

When considering a journal, authors need to study the journal’s website and find out what the fees are and make sure they can afford them if the paper is accepted. There may be page charges, color charges, an open-access fee, or even a submission fee. There may also be a possibility of grants or waivers of those fees. The website should explain all this. If an author can’t afford the costs, he or she must contact the editor before or during the submission process, or at the very latest after the first round of reviews, to find out if a waiver is possible. Don’t wait until the paper is accepted and then announce that you can’t afford the fees. If authors research the journal carefully, there should be no surprises. 

There have recently been a small number of rogue open-access journals that don’t tell authors about charges up front—they wait until the paper has been published online and then demand money. Authors need to research a journal very carefully, to make sure it is reputable, before sending their paper there.

There have been some recent stories about the increase in the number of retractions in scientific journal articles over the past decade. What can writers and publishers do to reverse this trend?

Retractions are painful for everyone concerned. Some occur because someone discovers an error in a published manuscript that is the result of a genuine mistake—one that invalidates the results of the research. Others are based on the discovery that authors have plagiarized, falsified, or manipulated their results in some way; sadly, there will always be a small number of individuals who try to cheat the system, for whatever reason.

The most important action that authors can take is to check and double-check their work before they submit, to reduce the possibility of errors.  Editors and publishers need to ensure that their journals have a thorough, ethically based peer review system in place and that manuscripts are also carefully checked during the editing and production phase, in case there are anomalies.

What’s your advice to authors on how best to avoid plagiarism in the digital age?

First, authors need to properly understand what does and what does not constitute plagiarism. They also need to learn how to quote the words and cite the work of others correctly. Plagiarism is using someone else’s words or ideas without giving credit to the original author. Guidelines suggest that copying about five or more meaningful words in a row constitutes plagiarism—not words like “We conducted a study of two hundred patients” but original word sequences like “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The best way authors can avoid plagiarism is to cite the sources of words or ideas they are drawing from.  Many publishers are now using software programs such as CrossCheck to detect plagiarism; in other cases associate editors or peer reviewers of a manuscript, being familiar with the topic, recognize sentences or sections in a paper that they have seen before and report it to the editor.  

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve each received?

Philippa: Good writing is rewriting.

Sue: A professor I used to work with once told me: “When you are writing and there is a sentence or paragraph that you are particularly pleased with that you think is unusually clever or witty, it is probably best to delete it!” 

Philippa J. Benson has taught science writing and technical communication at Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, the United Nations, and the National Institutes of Health, and has launched scientific publications for two conservation organizations. Susan C. Silver is editor in chief of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, published by the Ecological Society of America. Their book, What Editors Want, is now available from University of Chicago Press.