Crafting Your Scholarly Voice: Writing Your First Academic Journal Article
Embarking on the journey of writing your first academic journal article can be both exhilarating and daunting. It marks a significant milestone in your academic career, showcasing your research prowess and contributing to the broader scholarly conversation. In this blog post, we'll navigate the intricate process of crafting your inaugural journal article, offering insights and practical tips to ensure your first journal article is a confident stride into the academic world.
Adina Dudau, PMR Link in the IRSPM Board and Professor of Public Management at the University of Glasgow
Allow me to start with a metaphor for academic writing for journal publication: a journal is not unlike a large formal party where the guests sit around round tables. Each table is an established conversation (with a critical number of contributions, i.e. scholars)-some are old conversations, at the fringes of the party (yet still a part of it), others are new and vibrant, closer to the spotlights. Imagine walking into the room and looking to join one of the tables -which one might you go for and what unique perspective might you bring to the conversation? With that elevator pitch, you are now ready to select the right journal (e.g. party), match your research findings with a key debate from the journal, structure your contribution appropriately, and engage with your readers: first the reviewers, then the wider journal’s readership.
Understanding the journal ecosystem in your field
Before penning down your thoughts, it's crucial to survey the academic landscape -or, in keeping with the earlier metaphor, it is crucial to survey all available ‘parties’ before you settle on the one you are most likely to enjoy. Familiarize yourself with various journals in your field, taking note of their focus, target audience, and writing style. Selecting a journal that aligns with the scope and objectives of your research enhances the likelihood of acceptance.
Consider the impact factor and reputation of the journal, but also the review length period, any values such as to open science or research integrity, the accessibility and relevance to your intended readership. Some people aim at the highest ranked journal in their field and then work their way down from there. This is not an effective strategy for two main reasons. First, top journals expect top-level refinement in the academic arguments they publish; if the drafting of the paper falls mostly on you instead of a very experienced co-author, you may not get the benefit of aiming high and it may, in fact, cost you years playing a game of snakes and ladders. Secondly, the introduction of the principles to which an increasing number of institutions subscribe means that the quality of the article should not be inferred from the quality of the journal, so you can feel free to aim for the journal which represents the best fit with your arguments.
It is worth choosing the journal before you write the paper. Choosing the right journal for your article is a strategic decision and sets the tone for your writing, dictating who your audience is (a public policy audience, general management scholars, political scientists, civils servants with some interest in the social sciences, etc.). Alongside the journal’s readership, consider additional factors such as: the scope of the journal, the type of articles it typically publishes, as well as specific relevant conversations which may appear heated and requiring more perspectives, or perhaps stale and requiring revamping. In terms of matching the specific requirements of the chosen journal, e.g. adhering to formatting guidelines and citation styles, that is sadly still an issue to consider, but an encouragingly increasing number of outlets consider ‘your paper your style’ type of submissions.
Defining your contribution before you write your article
The importance of finding a good match between a journal and the knowledge you wish to disseminate cannot be overstated. This is how you ensure it contributes to existing knowledge gaps in your field and, specifically, in the journal.
You will have reviewed the literature to identify the existing conversations and gaps in your chosen area. This not only informs your research but also demonstrates your awareness of the scholarly landscape. Consider doing the same for the journal you wish to publish in, so you gain awareness of the conversation you specifically wish to enter in the targeted journal. Only write for a journal once that contribution is clear to you. To make it clear to others, emphasise it explicitly in your abstract, introduction, discussion, and conclusion.
Structuring your manuscript
A well-structured article is essential for conveying your research effectively. Follow the standard structure of an academic journal article, including sections such as introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion, and conclusion. Each section should flow seamlessly, guiding the reader through your research journey. There is room for improvisation, certainly, but you might like to choose a tried and tested formula for your first article.
The structure of an academic article is akin to a well-constructed argument. Don’t we all love good conversationalists (see the party metaphor we started with) who hook us with a story, then gradually unpack it and reveal how their interpretation of things challenges taken for granted assumptions about the world? In the same vein, good academic writers grab the readers’ attention with a comprehensive and intriguing abstract, then gradually elaborate on their research throughout the paper, taking their readers by the hand and keeping them on script throughout.
How might you do that? Start with a concise and engaging abstract that encapsulates the key elements of your study. Ensure clarity and avoid jargon and acronyms, to make your research accessible and inviting to your readership. Follow this with an introduction that sets the stage, outlines your research question and establishes the context. Your literature review should bring to life previous contributions to the debate to which you wish to add your perspective. This means you need to converse about this contribution and focus on the ideas rather than the people (i.e. avoid ‘X said Y’ and instead talk about Y and how it connects with other ideas, all the while referencing X and other relevant scholars). If you have been socialised into a culture where people matter more than ideas, or where the forebearers of a field need to be celebrated ahead of the ideas they introduced, you may find it difficult to focus on the conversation of ideas, but it is a neat hack to making your literature review read as critical, rather than descriptive.
A common question is whether your theoretical framework or framing be a separate section or part of your literature review? Either works. Another question is whether your hypothesis development should be separate from your literature review. If you are writing a quantitative paper with hypotheses, it is best to have these in a separate ‘Hypothesis Development’ section where you show each hypothesis developing gradually (rather than simply placing a hypotheses table at the end).
The methodology section should provide a clear and detailed account of your research design, participants, and data analysis methods. It is OK if this section reads as technical and not particularly engaging. Just make sure you cover the main aspects of the data collection and analysis process. Illustrations go a long way here, although some may need to go to Appendices, as they can be fairly extensive and potentially distract from the flow of your argument.
Results and discussion are the core of your article, presenting your findings and interpreting their implications. Most journals in our field like a clear separation of what you have found (but help the reader with meaningful headings and subheadings) and your interpretation of your findings. The latter is achieved by comparing and contrasting with key conversations in the literature. The Discussion is a particularly meaningful section (and often the first section I read in a paper) because this is where you have the opportunity to be explicit about the contribution your findings make to the extant literature. It may be tempting to amass numerous contribution points. Resist that temptation. Be clear about a couple of strong contributions and discuss those thoroughly. You can do so without repeating your literature review arguments, by focusing on a subset of the literature you discussed previously and by focusing on the future rather than the past -e.g., how do your findings allow us to see a specific aspect of the extant debate differently and what might that do for the development of that conversation and, later, the field.
Finish with a robust conclusion that summarizes key takeaways, key limitations (there is no research without limitations, so be frank and assertive about what your study does not do) and suggests avenues for future research. You can do the latter in less detail than you did in the Discussion, and perhaps linked with your study’s limitations. For example, your study may be showing a correlation between X and Y, with the limitation that it does not show causation, hence future studies might like to employ experimental methodologies to investigate the direction of the relationship. Or you have theorised on a process from interviews with people involved at different times in that process, but you have not done so at the exact times they were experiencing it; hence future research could employ a diary methodology to see how people make sense of the process while experiencing it.
Writing Style and Clarity
Academic writing has its unique conventions, characterized by clarity, precision, and formality. Strive for clarity in your language, ensuring that your ideas are easily accessible to your readers. Be precise in your descriptions, avoiding unnecessary jargon and ambiguity. Pay meticulous attention to grammar, syntax, and citation style, adhering to the guidelines specified by the target journal.
Remember, you're engaging with an academic audience, and a polished and professional writing style enhances the credibility of your work. Strive for clarity and be mindful of your audience -hence being familiar with the journal, as a reader and reviewer, before authoring for the journal, helps. Reviewing is the unsung hero of academic writing for journal publication. It is often dismissed as time consuming and unrewarding, yet the more we review, the better writers we all become. This is consistent with that nugget of wisdom that good readers make good writers. Reviewing is reading plus, and reviewing for the journal you wish to write for is all the more powerful.
Use academic language judiciously, focusing on conveying complex ideas in a manner accessible to a broad academic readership. Proofread your work meticulously to eliminate grammatical errors and typos that may detract from the professionalism of your article. You may wish to make use of grammar checking and copy-editing tools, or even professional copy editors to enhance communication clarity. If neither is accessible to you, simply get fellow researchers to read your manuscript and witness the accessibility of the language and of the argumentation increase with every iteration of the paper. Typically, there will be tens of rewrites before a paper sees the light of day, so edit boldly and decisively, actioning as many of the suggestions you receive as possible. Fresh perspectives can uncover blind spots and contribute to the overall strength of your paper.
I have invested considerable personal and institutional resources to sharpen my academic writing skills and I can confidently claim that, while a threshold level of English proficiency is essential, the skills does not depend on your mother tongue not being English. If you can afford a copy editor, use one, regardless of whether you speak English as a first, second or third language. It is not about the language itself, but about the logical flow of your arguments which need to make sense to others. As puts it, we are not in the creative writing business, so the natural fluency of your mother tongue, or the infamous writer’s block, are inconsequential for academic writing. But, steady practice of academic writing skill is essential -so strive to write, read or review every day. There is help out there from people who developed writing coach skills over the years and who generously share those with others -my go to people over the years have been , and . There will be others that may speak to you better or may be better aligned with your field. Find your heroes and take the challenges they throw at you to turn you into effective academic writers. Likewise, use conferences to hone clarity of argumentation both orally and through writing.
Engaging with the peer review process: cultivate resilience in dealing with rejection
The peer review process is a crucial step in academic publishing, providing valuable feedback to enhance the quality of your work. Be open to constructive criticism and use it as an opportunity to refine your article. If you received a Revise & Resubmit decision (often referred to as Major Revision / Minor Revision), prioritise that work. It means you are partially in, your chances for publication having increased from about 10% to over 50%. Address reviewers' comments thoughtfully in the ‘response to reviewers’ letter, demonstrating your commitment to rigor and dialogue. Choose quality over quantity (do not drown reviewers under pages and pages of analysis, hoping that would answer their questions), but at the same time take the space you need to address each and every one of their concerns thoroughly -e.g. ‘we considered this comment, tried these options, settled on this solution and explained it / implemented it on page X paragraph Y in the revised manuscript). Remember that reviewers and editors give out voluntarily, out of commitment to the field and rarely (virtually never) motivated by any personal gains (other than perhaps the fact that reviewing improves one’s own writing). So, take their feedback seriously, but also recognize the value of your unique perspective and contribution. You do not need to implement all of your reviewers’ suggestions, but you need to address them all, implement most and have a solid argument for those you decide to not undertake.
Writing your first academic journal article is a journey marked by challenges and triumphs. It requires resilience and perseverance. Rejections will inevitably find you, but each one is an opportunity to learn and refine your work. Take a deep breath, put it aside until you find the headspace to receive criticism and see constructive ways forward with your paper. In most cases, that means a fresh submission elsewhere. However, you can and should still take on board any feedback received on the previous submission -reviewers’ pools are shared among journals, so there is a good chance your paper will be reviewed by at least one reviewer who saw it before. They would be pleased to see that the paper is not identical to one they reviewed previously. There is dignity in learning.
Celebrate the milestones – from drafting the first paragraph, to the moment your article is accepted. The process is as much about personal and intellectual growth as it is about scholarly contribution.
Solo or assisted craftmanship: notes on (co-)authorship
There is no ‘right’ answer (unless your PhD regulations are clear on this point, so it may be worth checking). We are all different and we have different preferences -some work best on their own, others with co-authors. It may make sense to submit one paper co-authored with your doctoral supervisors, advisors or committee members (the label depends on the country in which you are doing your PhD). An experienced and involved co-author will substantially reduce the time your paper spends in peer-review (by reducing the number of changes required by reviewers, but also by targeting the right journal from the start). Having said that, while their assistance may help you overcome a steep learning curve, it may also teach you less about the process than if you were to do it all yourself.
While there are benefits and costs to both working solo or co-authoring with your supervision / advising team, there is however one scenario which you might like to avoid or reflect on deeply before embarking on it: co-authoring a paper from your PhD with someone external to your PhD. Unless your PhD regulations prohibit it, you may well consider doing so, particularly when you are lucky enough to have found ‘your scholarly tribe’ beyond your institution. You may even, occasionally, be well justified to go down that road. But reflect first on issues around intellectual contribution to your PhD and the extent to which people outside that process might be given a seat at a table they have not helped to set up. This is particularly important if that seat is to be denied to someone who did contribute to the set-up. These notes do not apply if you decide to work with someone else on a project alongside your PhD.
In terms of names order in the authorship and / or roles in the paper, the Contributor Roles Taxonomy () is your guide. CRedIT principles have been worked into by a University Sydney academic who wanted to make it easier for researchers to use the contributor taxonomy -as a result, this handy is now at your and everyone’s disposal. A great conversation started about contribution in your team, particularly if you are more than 2 authors. Beyond standardised tools, journals are also considering more general principles, such as dignity statements (e.g. ) to include other forms of co-authorship practices which are not conducive to good science, and to designate first responders handling any reports of wrong doing.
Writing your first academic journal article is a significant undertaking, requiring a combination of meticulous planning, scholarly engagement, and effective communication. By selecting a suitable topic, crafting a strong abstract, structuring your article, honing your writing style, engaging with the peer review process, and selecting an appropriate journal, you pave the way for a successful publication journey. I have offered insight gained from my academic expertise in this blog post, but there are always exceptions to every rule. (For example, you may notice that I have not mentioned the famous cover letter accompanying your journal submission -the truth is, I never submit one.) Find your own way but take these notes on board while developing your skills your own way.
Remember, the process is as valuable as the product. Each revision, peer review comment, and acceptance contribute to your growth as a scholar. Each conference helps you do so often and to different audiences, helping you express yourself in different ways and get instant feedback on the clarity and quality of the communication (often, even on your research design). Within the conference ecosystem in public administration and management, IRSPM holds a prominent place and the support it offers PhD students is second to none: matching of new and seasoned researchers as part of the New Researchers Panel, New Researchers Osborne Best Paper Award, editorial and publishing panels, fee waivers and PhD courses, to name but the more explicit benefits to opening your work up for discussion at IRSPM. Opening communication channels about your work can be emotional, but it contributes to your development as a scholar and a writer, so do so often through conferences, paper development workshops, writing retreats, blogs, just join a community within which you can feel safe. Embrace the challenges, celebrate the successes, and continue to refine your craft as you navigate the seas of academic publishing. Finally, just give yourself time. Skill development needs time to hone in. Your first article is not just a publication; it's a testament to your dedication and contribution to the academic community. It is a seat at the table.