Writing for Professional Journals
Henson, Kenneth T., Phi Delta Kappan
Most contemporary higher educators are required to write for publication, and many K-12 educators are encouraged to do so. By heeding Mr. Henson's recommendations, they can turn a potentially daunting experience into a successful and enjoyable one.
THE HEAT is on. Politically savvy university presidents proudly proclaim that their institutions are "teaching institutions." But faculty members on the tenure track know that the gatekeepers of the tenure review process - however broadly their institutions may define scholarly activity - are looking for that magic key to open the gates: publication in refereed journals.
Since 1983 I have been surveying the editors of a number of prominent education journals to determine their criteria for a successful manuscript. The results of the latest survey (conducted in 1998-99)1 are displayed in Table 1. The return rate was 89%. I offer the findings here, along with some commentary and advice to help readers who would like to join the ranks of writers published in professional journals.
Know Your Journal
The first mistake that many aspiring writers make is sending their manuscripts to the wrong journals, thinking that an editor's decision rests solely on the author's ability to provide good information and to present it in an interesting fashion. But be advised that each professional journal has its individual mission. Overlook this mission and the article gets rejected. One of the leading journals rejects more than half of the manuscripts it receives without sending them out to be reviewed because the articles are written for the wrong audience. You must know your journals.
The single characteristic of journals that seems to get the most attention is the acceptance rate. Ironically, many writers misuse this information. Right or wrong, writers associate high rejection rates with high quality. Even worse, they act on this conclusion and send their manuscripts first to those journals that have the lowest acceptance rates. This thinking is wrong. Some journals with high acceptance rates are also top-quality journals.
Perhaps the thinking that lies behind the decision to submit first to journals with high rejection rates is best illustrated by the remarks of a former colleague: "Oh, I always send my manuscript first to X journal because it has the highest rejection rate. Then I send it to the journal I wrote it for." The temptation is too great to refuse. It is like playing the lottery. If the stakes are high enough, many people find the risk worth taking.
But tenure-track faculty members with few or no publications to their credit ought to send their manuscripts to journals with reasonably high acceptance rates. The range of acceptance rates for the journals in Table 1 is broad, from 1% to 80%. Moreover, 89% of these journals accept more than 10% of the manuscripts they receive, and 40% accept at least 30% of the manuscripts they receive. It is difficult to understand why so many tenure-track faculty members who feel intense pressure to publish send their manuscripts to journals with acceptance rates below 25% or 30%.
In academe, the term "refereed" has almost mystical powers. Although most higher education institutions demand that faculty members publish in refereed journals, most of the administrators who run these institutions are uncertain what the term means. Several years ago, when my search for a common definition came up empty, I created my own definition. Knowing that the rationale behind the concept is an attempt to ensure quality, I assigned one point if the journal editors send manuscripts away to be reviewed, one point if they conceal the identity of the author and his or her institution, and one point if the manuscript is accompanied by a rating scale to guide the reviewers. Thus the column in Table 1 headed "Refereed" shows a number from 0 to 3. I always remind those who attend my writing for publication workshops that some of the best and most prestigious journals are not refereed. Nevertheless, if your institution is one of the many that emphasize publishing in refereed journals, you would be wise to use Table 1 to find journals that meet your institution's expectations.
Almost four-fifths (79%) of the editors I surveyed said that their journals meet at least two of these three criteria, and almost two-thirds (62%) said that their journals meet all three. Writers should check with their department chairs, deans, and other tenured colleagues to determine their expectations regarding refereed journals. Several years ago, a seasoned colleague came to me in desperation asking whether a particular journal was refereed. I consulted my list and told him it was not. He left, visibly upset. I assumed that he had just had a manuscript either accepted or published in this journal and was chagrined to learn that it would not "count" toward promotion, merit pay, or some other goal. Just a little investigation in advance could have avoided this disappointment.
Writers make two distinct decisions that have to do with the role "research" will play in their publishing lives. The first concerns whether and to what extent to publish in research journals, those that employ the familiar "research format." While some disciplines insist that their members produce articles written in this format, most disciplines have no such restriction.
If your institution, college, or department requires articles that follow the research format, you obviously have no choice but to follow this format. However, if you have a choice and decide to write only for those journals that exclusively use a research format, you are needlessly limiting your opportunities to publish. About half of the editors I surveyed said that their journals require the research format; 48% said that their journals do not require their contributors to use this style. Because a major criticism leveled by these editors is the dullness of the articles they receive and because the research format contributes to this dullness, my suggestion is that you talk with your department chair and dean. If they tell you that the choice of format is yours, I recommend that you write at least some articles in a more casual style. This will double the number of journals to which you can submit articles. And you might also discover that you enjoy using a more casual writing style.
The second research-related decision that writers must make is whether to report any research at all in their articles. Be aware that editors of all journals look favorably on authors who report data in their articles. Although many novice writers interpret this to mean data from their own studies, most editors of nonresearch journals are pleased to have authors report data from the literature.
I encourage writers to use surveys and action research to gather data for articles. A well-designed, one-page questionnaire can generate enough data to write at least a couple of good articles. The seven surveys of education editors that I conducted before this one gave me all the data I needed to write over a dozen articles for refereed journals. Incidentally, although the average acceptance rate for these journals was about 5%, these articles had a 100% acceptance rate at the first journal to which they were sent. It is equally clear that presenting data can significantly increase your acceptance rate in nonrefereed journals. Forty-six percent of editors of these journals reported that at least half of the articles in their journals report data.
Because I suspected that many novice writers overlook the option of reporting data from studies other than their own, I asked the editors what percentage of the data reported in their journals was generated by the authors' own studies. Just over half (55%) of the data reported in these journals came from the literature rather than from the authors' own studies. For most of these journals, authors can benefit from reporting data found in the literature. To fail to do so is to limit your chances of publication.
Many participants in my workshops have told me that they never target manuscripts to a journal's themes. Some just ignore this as a possibility; others say they purposefully avoid submitting for themed issues because they suspect that the competition will be stronger and the acceptance rate lower for these issues. There's only one problem with this assumption: it's wrong, dead wrong. In fact, just the opposite is true. Editors of journals that print both themed and nonthemed issues report that, on average, they receive about three times as many manuscripts for nonthemed issues as they receive for themed issues. So, by writing an article to fit a theme, you can increase your chances of acceptance by about 300%. These journals offer plenty of opportunities to write for themed issues. This survey found that about one-third (34%) of the articles in these journals are directed to themes.
I do have one precaution to offer that relates to writing for themed issues. Always start early and send your manuscript to the editor well in advance of the deadline for the issue. I know this advice goes against the grain of academic life, but missing a deadline actually lowers your chances for acceptance below the acceptance rate of nonthemed issues. Here's why.
Following each themed issue, many editors proceed to reject articles on that theme for the next year or two. Miss the deadline, and you practically guarantee that your article will be rejected. I am often asked, "How do you know what themes a journal editor has planned?" and "How do you know the deadlines for these manuscripts?" There are at least three paths to this information.
First, you could phone or write the editor and ask for a list of coming themes, along with a deadline for each. But this is the least desirable path; it tells the editor that you don't really know very much about the journal. A good alternative is to check back issues of the journal. At least one issue per year will announce upcoming themes and deadlines for each. Once you locate this issue, write it down. Next year, the new themes will probably be announced in this same issue.
A second route to discovering upcoming themes is through the professional association that publishes the journal. If you are fortunate enough to attend an annual conference of an association that publishes one of your preferred journals, realize that most issues of this journal (both themed and nonthemed) might be planned during this conference. Any member of the association's publications committee should be able to tell you the upcoming themes as soon as these topics are decided.
For those whose travel allowances won't get them farther than the county line, a third and more economical way to learn about upcoming themes is through the yearbooks of many associations, which announce upcoming themes as much as a year or two in advance. You might be able to find this information on a journal's home page. If not, your reference librarian can help you locate these yearbooks.
Three turnaround times are important in academic publishing: 1) the time editors take to respond to letters of inquiry, 2) the time required to evaluate a manuscript and make a publishing decision, and 3) the time required to publish manuscripts after they have been accepted. The time required to acknowledge receipt of a manuscript is not very important and usually amounts to just a few days.
However, writers should pay close attention to the time required to make an acceptance/rejection decision. I remember a workshop participant who shared a personal horror story. He had submitted a manuscript while still a graduate student. Soon he began writing a chain of follow-up letters that stretched over the next seven years. After graduating, becoming an assistant professor, and being promoted to associate professor, he received a definite decision about publication. The letter read, "We are sorry to have to inform you that we can't accept this manuscript. It's dated."
Still he didn't give up. He abstracted each of these letters, wove the abstracts into a new article on writing for publication, and sent it to The Chronicle of Higher Education. He got a nice publication out of his harrowing experience, along with some therapeutic venting.
The editors in my study said that the average turnaround time required for a publishing decision is just over two months (9.8 weeks). About half of these journals (49%) report in less than two months.
Once a manuscript has been accepted for publication, the additional time these journals require to publish it varies from one month to two years. Obviously, there's no need to rush to the mailbox the day after your manuscript is accepted. However, checking a journal's time until publication is prudent when choosing a target journal.
Overall, I believe that turnaround time is as important as acceptance rate. Prolific authors do not get to be prolific by waiting for extended periods of time for each manuscript to be accepted and published. Astute writers send their manuscripts off and turn immediately to writing other manuscripts.
Every journal has its method of operation, and you and I are not likely to get our requests for exceptions granted. This means that we had better do our best to use the correct reference style. About two-thirds (65%) of the journals I surveyed use the APA (American Psychological Association) style, about one- fourth (27%) use the Chicago style, and the remainder use several other styles.
I suggest that you choose three or four journals with fairly good acceptance rates, reasonably quick turnaround times, and the same reference style, so that with each rejection you don't have to rewrite the article with a different reference style.
When I'm asked whether a writer should comply with an editor's request to rewrite, modify, or correct a manuscript and resubmit it to the same editor, my response is a resounding yes. I asked editors to tell me what percentage of manuscripts that have been revised and resubmitted they accept, and I compared this to their acceptance rate for first submissions. All the editors who responded to this question said that their acceptance rate for resubmitted manuscripts is higher than their acceptance rate for initial submissions. Moreover, the size of this increase is significant.
For example, one editor said that an author who is invited to revise and resubmit and does so increases a manuscript's acceptance rate from 5% to 95%. I don't see how a serious writer could consider refusing the request to rewrite and resubmit. Still, one editor said that he couldn't give an average acceptance rate for resubmissions because so far no contributor has bothered to resubmit.
Communicating with Editors
I am often asked what is the best way to communicate with editors. Do editors welcome query letters? Do they prefer phone calls? Are they open to both? So I asked the editors. Most said they welcomed either letters or phone calls. The majority (63%) said that they prefer letters.
Editors have heavy workloads, so I suggest that you keep your phone calls and letters brief. I actually make a bulleted list of questions before I call, and I limit each of my calls to a maximum of three minutes unless the editor chooses to extend it. This helps save the editor's time, and it also helps me clarify my questions.
Each time I prepare this survey, I revise it to ensure that it reflects changes in our working environment. Because in recent years the number of professors using computers has mushroomed and the uses of computers have expanded as well, I added a question to this year's survey to determine the degree to which editors welcome the electronic submission of manuscripts. I was startled to learn that almost three-fifths (60%) of these editors say that they do not welcome electronic submissions. Thus my advice is to submit your manuscript in hard copy; once accepted, you can offer to send it in electronic form. Unless you know that a journal editor welcomes electronic submissions, don't use this method.
Charges to Authors
Sometimes workshop participants ask me whether a request by a journal editor for the author to pay from a few hundred to several hundred dollars in publishing expenses is warranted. I asked editors whether they charge any expenses, such as the cost of charts, photos, and tables. About one-fourth (24%) of the editors charge the contributors for a variety of costs. Most of these charges are used to offset additional costs that journals must pay for printing tables and charts. A few editors charge the author a "reading fee." Some colleges give grants to faculty members to cover all or part of these expenses. When selecting target journals for your manuscripts, perhaps you should check to see if your chosen journals make such charges and if your institution has a fund to cover them.
Most contemporary higher educators are required to write for publication, and many K-12 educators are encouraged to do so. By heeding these warnings and adjusting your manuscript and your tactics accordingly, you can turn a potentially daunting experience into a successful and enjoyable one.
1. Kenneth T. Henson, "A Survey of Editors of National Education Journals," Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, 1998-99.
KENNETH T. HENSON is a professor in the College of Education, Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond. He is the author of Fastback No. 437, A Brief Guide to Writing for Professional Publication (Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1998), and of Writing for Professional Publication (Allyn & Bacon, 1999). This article is an update of earlier articles, the most recent of which appeared in the June 1997 issue.
Characteristics of a Selected Sample of Education Journals Action in Teacher Education* 8,300 3 20 - 20 16-24 1 20 2 APA - No No P American Biology Teacher 11,000 3 60 0 55 8 5 16 2 Other L No No L American Secondary Education 500 3 50 0 50 6-8 6 15 2 APA N No Yes P Child Development* 9,000 3 80 8 20 12 8 25 4 APA - No No E Clearing House 3,000 2 50 20 20 16 5 10 1 Chicago N Yes No P College Student Journal 450 2 50 0 70 4 6-8 12-18 - APA P Yes No L Comparative Education Review* 2,400 2 80 - 15 - 10 30 3 Chicago - Yes No N Contemporary Education 2,000 3 5 80 15 2 2 10 2 APA P Yes Yes L Creative Child & Adult Quarterly - 2 40 50 60 24 9-18 8 2 APA P No No L Current Issues in Middle Education 200 3 50 - 50 4-6 2 - 2 APA N No No P Education 5,000 1 25 20 35 4 9 8-10 1 APA P Yes No E Educational Forum 7,000 3 40 70 20 16 6 16 4 Chicago II N Yes Yes L Educational Horizons 12,000 3 30 95 20 12-52 3-12 15 2 Chicago P - - L Educational Leadership 170,000 0 5-10 95 10 4-6 3-24 - 1 MLA N - No P Educational Perspectives 1,000 - 50 100 - 3-4 3-5 10-15 - Chicago P Yes No L Educational Psychology Review 250 3 1 75 50 8 6 30 3 APA N No Yes P Educational Technology 5,600 0 20 - 20 2 6-12 10-12 1 APA P - - - Elementary School Journal 3,358 3 99 40 9 8-12 18 30-40 3 APA N No No E Harvard Educational Review 10,000 0 50 25 1 12-24 1-3 1- 45 2 Any N No No - High School Journal 2,000 3 70 25 10 6 12 18 3 APA N No No P Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 15,000 3 - - 20 8 6 20 3 APA N Yes Yes P Journal of Educational Relations 1,000 3 25 - 50 8 3-9 15 5 APA L No Yes L Journal of Experimental Education 1,500 3 - 10 30 8-20 5 - 2 APA N - - P Journal of Instructional Psychology 400 2 75 0 65 4 6 10-14 1 APA P Yes No E Journal of Physical Education, EERecreation, and Dance 22,000 3 10 33 32 10 8 120 3 APA N No - E Journal of Res. in Science Teaching 3,000 3 80 10 25 16-20 6 40 4 APA N Yes No L Journal of Staff Development 8,000 0 30 90 25 10 2 8 2 APA P Yes Yes L Journal of Teacher Education - 3 45 20 10 15-20 2 12-14 3 APA N No No E Kappa Delta Pi Record 60,000 3 40 80 30 16 6 12 4 Chicago II P Yes Yes E Learning and Leading with Technol. 11,000 - 10 - 49 16 6- 12 6 1 Chicago N Yes Yes E Middle School Journal 26,000 3 25 80 20 14 12 15 4 APA N No No P NASSP Bulletin 42,000 0 40 50 10 2-4 2-24 7-10 0 Chicago - Yes Yes L New Teacher Advocate 33,000 3 30 0 50 16 6 3 1 Chicago II P Yes Yes L Perceptual and Motor Skills 2,000 1 - 0 33 4-9 1 - 3 APA N No No L Phi Delta Kappan 130,000 0 50 50 5 8 9 15 0 Chicago N No No E Planning & Changing* 558 3 80 25 10 5 24 - 15 APA - - - - Presidency 10,000 3 2 100 15 6-8 3-6 12 1 Chicago - Yes Yes P Principal 28,000 0 10 25 15 2-10 2-12 6-8 1 Chicago P No Yes L Professional Educator 350 3 85 30 25 8 3 20 2 APA P No Yes L Psychological Reports 2,000 1 - 0 33 4-9 1 - 3 APA P No No L Reading Improvement 1,100 - 60 - 50 5 9 - 2 APA - - - L Reading Research Quarterly 11,000 3 90 0 8 8-12 9 - 6 APA P No Yes E Reading Teacher 68,000 3 90 0 8 10-12 6 20 4 APA P No Yes L Review of Educational Research* 17,000 3 100 0 12 8 3- 6 40 2 APA - - - - School Administrator 15,000 0 20 70 25 8 6 6 0 Assoc. Press N Yes Yes L School Science and Mathematics 3,500 3 40 15 28 14 4-5 15 4 APA N - Yes L Social Studies 2,800 2 10 5 50 20 10 15 1 Chicago P No Yes P Teacher Educator 700 3 25 25 25 14 12 20 3 APA N No Yes L Teachers College Record* 3,500 3 50 15 10 30 6 35 4 Chicago - Yes - - Teaching & Learning* 125 2 - 0 50 12 4-6 10 2 Any P No Yes L Techniques 40,000 0 10 50 5 16 2-12 - 0 Assoc. Press P Yes No L Theory Into Practice 2,100 2 - 100 10 4-12 6-8 15 2-4 APA P No Yes P Training and Development* 40,000 3 5 0 10 4-6 6 15 1 Chicago - No Yes P
* Data taken from previous survey or received after computation of figures reported in text had been completed.…
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Publication information: Article title: Writing for Professional Journals. Contributors: Henson, Kenneth T. - Author. Journal title: Phi Delta Kappan. Volume: 80. Issue: 10 Publication date: June 1999. Page number: 780. © 1999 Phi Delta Kappa, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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