A researcher easily has an illusion that his/her research will sell itself more or less automatically. When trying to come up with publications the key point is to express your main message as clearly as possible. A written piece of work must have a solid storyline.
It is important to start writing articles/putting your work in writing as soon as possible. From the effectiveness perspective, it is a major MISTAKE to wait for a moment when you feel that you know and understand “everything” needed for writing articles. It is more sensible to start learning to write piece-by-piece, better enabling perceiving what to do and when, aiding to avoid unnecessary work. Understanding over the studied issue is enhanced while working on it. In addition, do ask others for feedback often, preferably in small increments, allowing better and more detailed comments.
Articles are often written in small groups, allowing naturally obtaining the views of multiple people. In the case of a doctoral dissertation, especially monograph, it may be difficult to motivate other people to provide adequate feedback. Writing articles together with co-authors is a good way to obtain feedback for your research. Also, it is possible to have others to comment your work for example by offering counter favours. Dynamic group work cannot afford freeloaders, but everyone involved must have something to give. Different types of capabilities and backgrounds can be a strength. Working for the same project is not enough to get your name on someone’s article, but all the authors are required to provide a positive contribution to the realisation of an article. Also, note that some Journals limit the number of authors to e.g. four. As a rule of thumb, it is beneficial to include your supervisor as a co-author. This way you respect the help you receive and maintain the relationship.
The following discusses a recommended order of writing an article and gives tips on how to write different chapters.
1. Recommended order of writing
- Initial outlining of introduction (research questions)
- Initial outlining of theory
- Writing experimental elements
results and analyses
- Research process
- Finalising theory
The presented order of writing highlights the importance of your results for defining the focus of your article. The focus of your article is sensible to define based on the evidence you have. This way you freeze the focus of your article relativelyearly and avoid unnecessary re-work when writing theory and other elements.
It is sensible to start writing an article by outlining the subject matter and content by a few bullets or key words. This phase acts later as an aid in writing an introduction.
After initial ideas and outlining, try to find a suitable target Journal. One of the vital aspects for a doctoral student is Journal’s turnaround time, the time until feedback and decisions, to enable swift learning. Some Journals indicate their response time either on their web page, or on the published articles. Should this information not be available, you can consider sending a polite email to the editor-in-chief.
Aim to analyse about five recent articles in the target Journal, paying special attention to topics, structure, utilised research methods etc. If the Journal does not feel suitable, choose another one and conduct similar analysis. Browse through the editorial board and previous authors, and pay special attention on nationalities. For a European author, it may be beneficial if some of the authors and editorial board members are European. As an example, a pure US board may in some cases prefer American authors.
After selecting a potential target Journal, outline the initial theory for your article. After this, you will need to concentrate on the core of your article and write the results and analysis of your research. Once you have these elements, it may be worth reviewing your target Journal selection, if there are any reason to change, make a note on potentially different format and other requirements, such as the recommended article length. Now you have the core substance ready and you can concentrate on elements critical for articles acceptance, namely, introduction, discussion, and abstract.
In practice, an article constitutes of the following elements:
Research method/ process
Results (is sometimes divided into results & analysis)
Note that the article structure may be slightly different for some disciplines. For example, the literature review may be integrated into the Introduction chapter.
The following will provide tips for each individual element.
When considering a title for your article, do familiarise yourself with the types of titles in the target Journal, analyse whether they are more general or very specific. Editor-in-chief will want article titles to sell and gain clicks. This is why in some cases a more general title may be better than overly specific. Avoid abbreviations in the title and unnecessary “and” words. Fundamentally, a too long title is not good as the reader will have difficulties in perceiving the content. Suitable length may be for example less than eight words.
Abstract is one of the most central elements of your article, luring other people to read it and may also influence the acceptance of your article. An abstract must describe the purpose of your article. Also, it must describe how you have realised your research and provide few key findings and any practical implications. You can build your abstract by answering the following questions by preparing one or two sentences for each one:
What is the bigger, more general whole your article relates to?
What is the purpose of your article?
What methodology have you used?
What are the key findings?
What are the practical implications of your research (how can the results be utilised by e.g. practitioners or companies)?
Your target Journal may have some specific requirements relating to formulating the abstract, such as the word count. Make sure that the abstract is well written, including easy-to-follow transitions between sentences.
Introduction justifies the significance of the subject matter and connects your work to previous research. It is sensible to write the introduction to form a logical funnel, where more general aspects are told first and sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph proceeding into more detailed. The purpose of the article is told last in the introduction by describing the research problem. Do NOT include any results in the Introduction. As the abstract already includes the key results in a condensed form, Introduction can be started in a more general manner. In our experience, a logical funnel is a practical way to build up a functioning introduction.
Start the introduction with sentences that are adequately general, and simple enough to understand even for those who are not experts in exactly the same topic as you. This way different type of readers will better understand the subject matter your article concerns. Aim to motivate the reader and provide understanding on why your research topic is important. Utilise published Journal articles to point out the importance, preferably recent ones as the editors will want the scientific discussion to occur on their own medium.
One way of describing the article content is to use research questions, which are presented at the end of Introduction. Research questions help the reader to perceive the content of your article and the author to structure his/her thoughts and writing. When using research questions, the author must remember that the questions can be changed or adjusted during the writing process. It is also imperative that the research questions and later results match.
5. Theory/Literature review
One can start writing a literature review by finding for example five good articles, of which some are from the target Journal, and maybe few good books discussing your topical area. Write a few pages long summary based on these articles and books. This will help in obtaining a relevant understanding on your research topic and acts later as a frame for the theoretical part of your article. You may also be able to obtain credits for these summaries.
Write the theory to support the storyline or your article. Note that it is not customary to describe the development of your own understanding in an article (cp. e.g. Master’s thesis), but describe what others have studied relevant to your topic. When looking for references, do not chase terms, but aim to understand what the true meaning of these articles are. It is important that you refer to some gurus in your field to show that you know the scientific research in your field. Additionally, it is important to refer to new Journal articles to ensure the timeliness or your article. Minimise references that are not in English as reviewers cannot verify them.
It is wise to finalise the theory only after writing the results of your article. This way you can once more search for related studies and can thus better focus the literature review to match your results.
6. Research method/ process
An article must describe your research, the set up, and research methods precisely. This way the reviewers can assess the scientific basis of your research and the justification of your results. In principle, research method/ process should be described so that another researcher can repeat the study.
It is important to clearly describe how the research is done. If needed, you can visualise the preceding of the research. Also, you can include more justification as appendices, if necessary (for example, in qualitative research, the interview questions).
Once completing experimental research and analysing the results, it is time to write and summarise the results, and especially the analysis. The experimental part of a Journal article must concentrate on the actual analysis of the material, not on documenting the data. Note that this differs from writing for other purposes, e.g. research report.
Consider what the core results of your research are and bring them forward clearly. Also, do highlight the core results by using visual elements (anything that differs from basic text, e.g. lists, illustrations, and tables). This way, anyone who quickly riffles through the article will focus on the key results and will automatically get a level of conception of your results.
Conclusions chapter, alongside Abstract and Introduction, is one of the core elements of a Journal article. Conclusions chapter can be written by using the following structure (one paragraph each):
- Results (one paragraph for each research question)
- Significance of the research/ practical implications e.g. for companies
- Recommended topics for further study
By using this type of structure, you make it easier for readers to follow your thinking and enable understanding the core content without reading the entire article. It is important to include the practical implications of your research in the conclusions chapter, i.e. what are the implications for practitioners, companies etc.
9. Reacting to reviewers’ comments
Typically, articles are not accepted for publication exactly as they are initially submitted, but reviewers require some changes. Obtaining critical comments is a good thing, meaning that you have a chance for publication – it is a time to work and analyse! The feedback may initially seem harsh, however, do not get depressed. Be analytical and start the work. It may be sensible to ask colleagues to join analysing the critique. You may be closer to acceptance than you first think. If you have chosen the right Journal, you have good chances for publication, once you take the effort and react to the given feedback.
It is important to carefully analyse what the feedback really means. Any requirements that initially feel extensive may in practice require relatively small changes to the article. Often you only need to adjust the way the “story” is told.
Do react swiftly to the given feedback and acknowledge all the critique. Should you wish not to change something, regardless of critique, do justify this decision in the covering notes. Do write a cover letter, where you give a point-to-point response to all the reviewers’ comments indicating all the changes to the article, and justify if you did not change something. The purpose of the point-to-point response is to avoid the reviewers being forced to read the entire article again when checking your changes