Sunday, February 23, 2014

Help, My Department Requires Graduate Students to Publish a Peer-Reviewed Paper!

A colleague recently mentioned that her department is considering whether to require graduate students to have at least one paper from their dissertation or thesis research published in a peer-reviewed journal in order to receive their degree.

This is not a new idea. Such a requirement has been implemented or is being considered in a number of graduate programs in the US and elsewhere. In some cases, the requirement is different depending on the degree. Here are a couple of examples found on university websites:

"Graduates from the M.S. and Ph.D. programs are required to publish in the archival literature of their research fields. The requirement is as follows:
  • Graduation with the M.S. degree requires 1 publication in submission to a journal or conference by the time of the thesis defense.
  • Graduation with the Ph.D. degree requires 1 accepted journal publication and 1 submitted journal publication (or a 2nd paper) by the time of the dissertation defense."
"The process of bearing first author responsibility during the entire publication process from submission, through reviews and resubmission, and on to final acceptance, provides unique and valuable professional training.
To ensure that all …..students have this experience, as a requirement for graduation, each ….student must have at least one first author, peer reviewed journal article published, in press, or accepted."

As you might imagine, there is quite a bit of disagreement and debate underway about such publication requirements. One of the strongest arguments against the publication requirement is that the student has no control over the publication process and is therefore unfair. On the other side of the debate is the argument that navigating the peer-review process is a fair test of an essential skill (ability to publish in scholarly journals) and, moreover, will ensure the student graduates with at least one peer-reviewed publication. Here is a blog post that summarizes views on both sides of the debate, mostly from the student's perspective.

My view is that this is not an outrageous requirement and something any graduate student should be capable of achieving. It just requires some additional planning and preparation. I base my opinion partly on my own experience as a student. When I submitted my dissertation, one of the chapters had already been published in a peer-reviewed journal and four more were almost ready to submit (and were in better shape than most manuscripts I review today); these were submitted for publication soon after I graduated. I was also co-author on several other papers that were published or submitted during this period (I was working on several additional projects not related to my dissertation).

Was it difficult to get one paper published before graduation? No. I began writing that paper as soon as I had the data in hand; it was based on a preliminary set of experiments and an exploratory field survey that turned out sufficiently well to warrant publication on its own. My plan was to have it accepted by the time I defended. My thinking at the time was that my committee would have a difficult time failing me if I had a publication in hand—in the event I performed poorly during my defense. I also figured I would have an easier time defending my work if it had already passed peer review at a good journal (it worked; I had no questions about that chapter). I gave myself enough lead time to resubmit in case the first journal rejected the paper or required substantial revisions or additional analyses. As it turned out, that paper was accepted with minor revision on the first go-around.

Would I have done anything differently had there been a publication requirement? Possibly. I might have readied a second paper for publication to increase my chances of getting at least one accepted before graduation. I would have designed several short-term experiments that could be written up before my long-term experiments were done. I also would have started writing much earlier than I did. If I were to do it again, I would begin writing as soon as I started each experiment--sketching out the introduction and writing at least the methods and then results as they came in. No one ever advised me to do this, but I wish they had.

Do I think a publication requirement is unfair to students because they have no control over the review and publishing process? Not really. I don't agree that a student (or any author, for that matter) has no control over whether their paper gets published. While it's true an author has no control over who reviews their paper, they have quite a lot of control over how their paper fairs in the review process (see list below).

What if your department has a publication requirement? Here are ten ways that a student author can exert some control over the process and increase the chances of getting a paper published by a deadline:

1. Get Your Ducks in a Row. Plan ahead to ensure plenty of time to deal with co-author foot dragging, toxic reviewers, extensive revisions, or requirements for additional analyses. Set specific deadlines to have a first draft done, a submission date, etc. Based on those dates, plan the details of your writing project. Go over this plan with your advisor and any other authors and make sure the timing works with their schedules.

2. Get a Statistical Review. Get input or advice from a statistician to ensure that the experimental design and statistical analyses are solid and that the statistical methods are written properly. If there are reviewer criticisms related to the statistics, this same person can to help counter those criticisms, if unfounded, or help you redo the analyses, if needed.

3. Get Peer Reviews. Prior to journal submission, have your manuscript read by committee members or anyone who has a lot of publishing experience to identify potential flaws in logic or writing. Follow their advice, unless there is a good reason not to. Pay particular attention to any problem mentioned by more than one person.

4. Get an Editorial Review. Consider hiring a professional editor (or ask your advisor to) to go over your manuscript, especially if you are a non-native speaker.

5. Select the Right Journal. Carefully select an appropriate journal for your work or get advice from the committee or other professors if you are not sure. Do your homework; don't just select a journal at random or because your advisor publishes there. Match the quality/novelty of your paper with the journal and its acceptance rate. Scrutinize recent papers in your target journal and try to match their writing style, length, and organization. Avoid journals with long or inconsistent review times.

6. Follow Author Instructions. Follow the journal formatting and submission instructions to the letter. This includes not only the narrative structure and bibliography, but also figures and tables. Some journals will automatically reject a paper that does not conform.

7. Write a Good Cover Letter. Submit a carefully written cover letter explaining why your work is important and why it's appropriate for that journal (don't, however, rehash all your paper's findings).

8. Suggest Reviewers. Provide a list of appropriate reviewers and any people with a conflict of interest (ask your advisor for suggestions if you are unsure).

9. Be Proactive But Professional. Contact the journal if you do not hear anything in a reasonable period of time and ask when you can expect a decision. If the paper is accepted with revision (minor or major), don't delay. Quickly make those revisions and provide a point-by-point reconciliation for the editor to show that you've made the suggested changes; if you disagree with something, explain fully why you think the change is not needed. Be professional in your response and thank the reviewers for their input, especially if the final acceptance hinges on a second round of reviews.

10. Have a Backup Plan. Be prepared for rejection and don't panic if it happens. Have a second journal pre-selected in case the first one rejects your paper and quickly turn it around (don't waste time fuming or whining to your office mates). Take the first reviewers' comments into account when revising for resubmission or you may see those criticisms again. If possible, have a second paper in the works to double your chances of publishing by your deadline.

These suggestions won't guarantee your paper gets accepted by your defense deadline but will help you stay on track and avoid some of the reasons papers get rejected.

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