Don't step there: Four pitfalls of journal publication

01 March 2023
Gwen Weerts
Proofreading and careful analysis can help authors avoid four pitfalls of scientific journal publishing.

The culmination of a successful research project is publication, often in a peer-reviewed journal. Journal publication provides a researcher with dual benefits: The process of peer review vets and validates the research, and journal publication disseminates it to the widest possible audience.

Although writing a manuscript is part of every research project, most scientists didn’t start doing research because they love writing. Writing a paper is a lot of work, the process of submitting to a journal can be onerous, and peer review and revisions require an investment of time and energy. So ideally, you only want to do it once.

Researchers make four common errors that result in rejection by a journal. Fortunately, with some care and planning, these pitfalls are easily avoidable.

Pit #1: The paper isn’t a good fit for the journal

Your paper might be impactful, well-written, with an A-list research team, but if it’s not a good fit for the journal it’s submitted to, none of that will matter. The paper needs to be a good match for not only the journal’s scope, but also its audience and impact.

For example, a paper about a medical device that may have clinical use could be topically appropriate for either an engineering or a biomedical journal. But who do you want to read and cite it: engineers or doctors? The answer to that question determines the correct journal choice.

Also, it’s important to be honest about the impact and significance of your research. Although novelty is a requirement for scientific publication in any journal, significance is only a requirement for some. So, if the work is incremental, that’s okay: there are many journals that publish “correct” research and don’t select for impact. But sending an incremental paper to a journal that selects for significance is a waste of your time and that of the reviewers. The journal’s author guidelines and/or scope description should make these criteria clear.

Pit #2: The writing is poor

Maybe you were in a hurry to crank out your draft. Maybe English is not your first language. Maybe you can write error-free code in four different programming languages but writing with words and sentences makes you pull your hair out. Whatever the reason, a poorly written paper is a nonstarter. But, by following some basic guidelines, anyone can write a successful paper.

First, it’s important to contextualize your research in the introduction. This is where you introduce the topic; describe what others have done to address the problem (if it’s an engineering paper); and then present your new, unique solution. The introduction is crucial; it’s the “so what” of the whole paper, and your best opportunity to introduce elegant writing and snare interest. The rest of the paper is a formula.

Fortunately, scientists are good at formulas. Most science journals follow the same basic organization: introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. A few publications use an alternative structure that puts results right after the introduction, but check the author guidelines for the journal you’re submitting to. Unless they specify an alternative organization, stick to the standard section order.

Make sure the paper includes all of the journal’s required elements, which can be found in the journal’s author guidelines. Required elements most often include disclosures, statements of data availability, and funding information. Also, make sure your references appear in the order they are cited, because disordered references are a headache for reviewers, and no one wants an irritated reviewer.

Finally, papers submitted to an English language journal should read as though written by a competent English speaker. If English is your second, third, or even fourth language, ask a colleague for help or utilize one of the many English language editing services available to researchers. If you don’t know how to choose one, reach out to the journal you hope to publish in, and the staff can connect you with language editing resources.

Pit #3: Text or figures are carelessly reused

All reputable scientific publishers run new submissions through plagiarism detection software. That software is sensitive enough to detect a single phrase or sentence that matches another source, including not just published journal articles, but also preprint archives, proceedings papers, software repositories, patent databases, and even thesis papers in institutional repositories. If you copy even a little bit of text, the publisher will know, and they’ll warn the reviewers and editors or reject the paper outright.

Most authors who find their papers rejected for text duplication did not maliciously intend to steal someone else’s ideas, but instead got trapped in  some combination of carelessness and ignorance about what constitutes plagiarism.

Take the quiz below to test your knowledge about what constitutes plagiarism.

Which of these senarios describes improper duplication?
  1. The methods section is copied from a paper that presents a competing idea, but the variables were changed to be appropriate for the new approach.
  2. Two sentences are copied and pasted from the introduction of a colleague’s proceedings paper, with a citation.
  3. An author copies the introduction from their own proceedings paper into a journal paper based on the same topic.
  4. A specific figure is needed to illustrate an idea, and a Google image search yields exactly the right thing. After plugging the figure into the manuscript, credit is given to the original authors in the form of a citation.

The correct answer is that a, b, and d all describe improper duplication. Most journal publishers, including SPIE, allow authors to reuse material from their own prior publications without penalty (scenario c), but the other three examples are not acceptable. Copying and pasting anything verbatim into your own paper, even with a citation to the original paper, is still text duplication (if not strictly plagiarism) and could be flagged by the editorial office. Instead of copying and pasting text, the concept should be recast using your own words, followed by a citation. Always, always cite the source.

Reprint permissions are a closely related topic because they involve giving credit where it’s due plus the additional step of getting legal permission for reuse. Anytime a figure or table is used from another publication, permission must be acquired from the copyright holder—it’s not enough to simply cite it. If the paper was published under a Creative Commons license, then the author is the rightsholder; otherwise, copyright is owned by the journal that published the paper. In that case, permission to reuse the material must be acquired from the publisher directly, or via a service like Copyright Clearance Center’s Marketplace. Most images found in a Google search are copyrighted by someone.

Pit #4: The wrong references are cited

Publishing in the scientific literature is a way of joining the discourse of a specific field, and the papers in the reference section are your cohort. The references you identify as “peers” indicate to the editors how you see your work fitting into the scientific conversation.

For example, are any of your citations to papers published in the same journal you submitted to? If not, why not? If editors and reviewers don’t see references to the recipient journal, they might question whether the paper is relevant to the journal’s scope.

Also, have you included references that provide contrary evidence or perspectives to your own work? Although it might seem counterintuitive, credibility is improved by including examples of alternative ideas to your own. Just imagine a room full of people with a similar idea, all good-naturedly agreeing with one another about their good idea. It might be pleasant, but it’s not a fruitful discussion. Useful and progressive dialogue requires disagreement, so don’t be afraid to include it in your paper.

Finally, many papers go through iterations of publication. For example, a conference presentation might become a manuscript on a preprint archive, which is later revised and published in a journal. All three are citable artifacts, but your reference list should include only the most recent. If your paper lists any non-peer-reviewed references, like preprints, proceedings, talks, theses, or lecture notes, then check to see if the material exists as a journal article.

There are some other places to misstep on the path to publication, but these are the biggest potholes, and they’re all easily avoided with a little care and a critical proofreader.


Gwen Weerts is Editor in Chief of Photonics Focus and also the SPIE Journals Manager.


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