Writing for Professional Journals

By Henson, Kenneth T. | Phi Delta Kappan, June 1999 | Go to article overview

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.

Acceptance Rates

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%.

Refereed Status

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. …

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