From Dissertation To Peer-Reviewed Publication

Last Updated on May 23, 2019 by Ayla Myrick

The act of shaping a journal article from a successful doctoral dissertation will benefit from prior thought at several different levels: (a) selecting a journal, (b) understanding the requisite structure of the article, (c) anticipating the peer-review, and (d) achieving scholarly credibility in all aspects of form. This short post has something to say on each of these levels.

Almost by definition, unpublished post-doctoral scholars should be familiar with the academic journals through which colleagues in the same discipline present and discuss their ideas and research findings. Such familiarity initiates the process by leading post-docs who wish to publish to a list of journal possibilities. At this point, the best guidance in reducing the possibilities to a “short list” generally comes through discussion with trusted academic superiors, e.g., prior advisors, sponsors, committee members, current colleagues. These are individuals who simultaneously (a) will understand the post-doc’s work, (b) will have intimate knowledge of the research that is trending in the field shared by the post-doc, and (c) will be familiar with the journal(s) associated with these research trends. Acting on such guidance should produce a “short list” of up to three (but many times only one) journal candidate. At this point, if there is any remaining question, the post-doc should write the editor of the journal(s) in question to explore the journal’s interest (but not quite yet-see further) in the post-doc’s work.

Implicit in a journal article is a structural mindset that differs from that required for a dissertation. The focus of a journal article is a single research question (or a tightly-related small group of questions) that ties in very closely with a discipline’s universe of current exploration and that distinctly and non-trivially advances the goals of the discipline. From this focus, certain structural features become a logical consequence. First, the theoretical framework that the research question’s findings are intended to improve must be articulated concisely, with great precision, and critically pruned for direct, immediate relevance.

Second, unlike the audience for a dissertation, the journal’s audience does not care about any literature that is not directly and immediately relevant to the research question and its theoretical underpinnings-meaning that the literature review should be succinct. Be guided by the concept of salience.

Third, authors of articles (as opposed to dissertations) do not need to defend their methodology (unless the methodology itself is the focus of the research question); they just need to describe it in an orderly and crisp manner. (No one cares which version of NVivo was used.)

Most academic journals select articles for inclusion based upon a peer-review process, which is essentially a process by which acknowledged scholars in a particular field evaluate journal submissions and, to varying degrees, highlight for submitting scholars the discrepancies between the manuscript as submitted and a revised manuscript that could qualify for publication. In one respect, peer-reviewers are mentors; in another, they are gatekeepers. (The most common experience with peer reviewers for new post-docs is that of having ice water thrown on their new diplomas.) However, there are ways to prepare for the peer-reviewer.

The first is to be absolutely certain (a) that the single research question is squarely dead-on in the mainstream of current research trends in the particular field and (b) that the findings are unique, non-trivial, clearly articulated, and cannot be ignored by the field’s scholarly interests. (This will get the peer-reviewer’s attention.)

The second is to make sure that the manuscript is perfect as to form (see previous paragraph on structure). For many journals, the default structure is some form of ILMRaD: Introduction, (L)iterature review, (M)ethods, (R)esearch findings, and (D)iscussion and conclusions. The submitter will find greater precision (a) through study of a “guidelines for authors” that every journal publisher makes available and (b) through careful review of three or four articles from the target journal. To satisfy the peer-review as to form, the post-doc needs to do no better than to replicate the form of a published article.
The third element of preparation is to present a manuscript that peer-reviewers will instantly accept as surpassing their minimum threshold standards for scholarly credibility. (In others words, it may quack and walk like a duck, but must also look like a duck.)

Peer-reviewers and journal editors, rightly in my opinion, view themselves as the guardians of the language. In large measure, this is because scientific inquiry deals in precision to the extent that such precision can be achieved linguistically and mathematically. Many scholars at this level will tend to view departures from linguistic perfection either as a mindless attack on a pillar of scholarly faith, as a personal insult to professional integrity, or worse.

First, as to grammar and style, strive for clarity; do not be satisfied with less than the most precise word; remove all superfluous words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs (avoiding over-reporting thereby); transform the passive voice into the active voice always; delete unnecessary details; try avoiding the use of pronouns and forms of pronouns altogether and making sure those you do use are not ambiguous; use compound structures sparingly and be sure that syntactic elements that you do compound are parallel; in terms of sentence length, “less is more” (as the saying goes); and, of course, make sure that your manuscript cannot be faulted for errors of grammar, spelling, punctuation, orthographic convention, or some other visual defect.

Second, building a journal article by cutting and pasting from a dissertation is like reducing the size of a van Gogh by cutting out strips and sewing together those that remain. The painting will be smaller, and it will have van Gogh-like elements, but it will no longer be a van Gogh; it will be a nothing. In a similar vein, a journal article, thought it may invoke some ideas from a dissertation (or any other reference, for that matter) must be crafted from the beginning around a research question. The eventual reader is looking for that crucial, critical, single idea. Therefore, it should be possible to link every subsequent word, sentence, table, citation, or footnote back to the research question. If the reader cannot do this, that particular item should have been excluded by the author in the first place.

Third, as this fourth level of prior consideration deals with achieving scholarly credibility with the peer-reviewer and with the journal editor, the final admonition is to hire an experienced academic editor to assist in this process, one who has experienced the process personally and has successfully guided post-docs through it. Submission of an article to a professional journal is to make the statement, “I am an expert and am submitting my work to a team of experts in my field.” Submitters may be certain that their putative expertise will be tested most profoundly and very quickly. This is surely the time for putting forward as a first step a manuscript that is as good as it can possibly be. This is not a time for “going it alone.” This is a time to be working with the best academic editor that can be found.

*With the author’s appreciation to Dr. Yasmin Morales-Alexander, whose anticipated questions prompted this short article.

Ayla Myrick