In this new post of my ‘dos and don’ts’, I have decided to stitch together Part I (2016) and Part II (2018) of the earlier MEL editorials, and at the same time update the text with important editorial policy changes and advice to authors. Unavoidably, some repetition may be visible in what follows, but I hope we shouldn’t disagree that repetition is the mother of learning. Posting this note rather than publishing it has the added advantage of making revisions easy. In this regard, I will be looking forward to comments and suggestions from authors, readers, editors, referees, or anyone interested in the further advancement of MEL.
Dos and don’ts of scholarly publishing (Part I)
Publishing in a good journal is not as difficult as it may appear at first sight; but there are certain rules on how this game should be played. In many universities, courses are even given to PhD students on “how to interact with your editor”. The few points below are intended as a ‘check list’, throughout the publishing process, until you see your name in print.
When choosing a journal, try first to understand its scope and objectives, in order to satisfy yourself that your paper ‘fits’ there. Otherwise you may be losing your time and eventually receive a frustrating negative decision. The prestige of the journal itself is less important. What is important is to select a journal where your paper will have the highest impact (and thus citations); we have seen papers in the most prestigious of journals, albeit with 3 citations in, say, 5 years.
When you draft your paper, do so with your reader in mind. Starting from the abstract, try to make your paper as ‘appetizing’ as possible, constantly ensuring that your reader will continue reading it to the very end. Your abstract is crucial in this respect. This is the place where you should tell people what is innovative in your paper, or why your paper had to be written, over and above what others have done before you. This is a good point to stress that most journals publish “incremental contributions”, i.e. contributions which build on the work others have done before us. Rarely would applied journals such as MEL publish the ‘discovery of the wheel’.
Decide who your reader is and write accordingly. Does your paper intend to address people with a theoretical background, or business and policy makers? In other words, is your main contribution a methodological one, or does it have policy implications of direct applicability? This decision should determine the choice of journal, your writing style, and the contents of your paper (e.g. the desirability of full exposition of technical detail, in a paper whose value is in its policy recommendations).
As much as reasonably possible, try to avoid arguing with a referee. Once your paper has been assessed as one worth looking at further, referees are there to help you publish. To the best of your ability, try to comply with their requests, rather than stubbornly insist on a certain opinion. When a referee asks a question, he does not only expect an answer, but rather to see that answer reflected in your text. Avoid journals with poor reputation on the ‘rigor’ of their reviewing process. Would you really submit again to a journal which has accepted your previous paper just by informing you that “this is a good paper and we would like to publish it”? Would you really submit to a (predator) journal who is trying hard to get your paper? Or one which promises you publication in one month? Your peers understand your need to publish, and to publish rather fast. But they also know ‘who is who’ in the world of publishing and they might not even look at a paper published in a predator journal, notwithstanding the latter’s impact factor.
It is quite common amongst upcoming academics, particularly PhD students, to want to publish as sole authors. In some universities, this may even be a requirement from PhD students. If, however, you can co-author your paper with a senior academic, e.g. your supervisor, that would be the smart thing to do. Today, we are overwhelmed by information and our reading time is limited. No matter how good your paper is, the chances of it being read (and cited) are much thinner, than if you would co-author it with an acclaimed scholar. I know a lot of rising academics who even pursue this as a strategy; i.e., to co-author with everyone who is someone. And do not forget: the objective is “citations” rather than seeing your name in print.
Writing is an art. A lot of otherwise technically excellent papers are rejected because of poor style, experience in academic writing, or command of the English language. Your reader does not have the time to try to decipher what you “would like” to say. Try to be succinct and to the point. Use short sentences. Avoid wordiness and repetition. Saying something once should suffice. Before submitting, always ask a couple of your colleagues (ideally good English speakers) to have a look and comment.
Long literature reviews are usually not appreciated by many readers who often tend to skip them, particularly when the cited works are remotely related to yours. Stick, therefore, to works that are relevant to yours, i.e. works that you have actually used, or they have influenced the development of your paper. When reviewing a work, rather than describing what that author did, try instead to discuss his conclusions and the way they impact your own work. If possible, instead of discussing each author separately, which may involve repetition, try to identify central themes in your work (e.g. your methodology), and list authors who have work on them.
Depending on how the journal has prioritized your paper, reviewing time can be quite lengthy and good referees are an ‘endangered species’. An occasional inquiry to the editor would be appreciated but do not overdo it.
Finally, there is the big question of ‘publishing ethics’; e.g. submitting your paper simultaneously to more than one journals, or publishing it electronically at various depositories while your paper is under consideration, etc.. Many journals blacklist such authors. On this, I would advise you to take a good look at COPE: Committee on Publication Ethics – www.publicationethics.org which I am sure you will find very enlightening.
Good luck with your research and I am looking forward to considering it in MEL.
Professor HE Haralambides
Dalian, China, 2016
Dos and Don’ts of Scholarly Publishing (Part II)
Before you submit your paper to a journal, distribute a working paper and invite comments from colleagues and business contacts. Even better, organize a staff seminar and present your paper. Do not be afraid to do that. This is the best advice I could give you. Most likely, upon submission, your editor may also ask you: “have you ever shown your paper to anyone before submitting?”. MEL, same as many other applied journals, very rarely publishes ‘exercises on paper’, or research no one has asked for, or research that addresses questions that exist only in the author’s mind.
Most journals do not take well to declarations of confidentiality (e.g. the company name cannot be mentioned, or the data cannot be submitted due to confidentiality, etc.). Your editor will ask you to explain the reasons for the confidentiality and if they are not valid/strong, your paper will probably be rejected. In the same vain, for papers based on surveys, be prepared to disclose the names of the interviewees, if requested by the editor.
Read many issues (abstracts) of the proposed journal and try to understand its Aims and Scope: is it for you? Does it publish papers like yours? This understanding is crucial to avoid a disappointing rejection. If in doubt, it is not a bad idea to send an abstract to the journal’s editor and ask; most editors will be happy to enlighten you. Always submit to a journal with a proper impact factor. If your proposed journal did not have an impact factor in certain years, inquire with the EiC as to the reasons why. Consult JCR (journal citation reports) for journals that may have been suspended and/or not given an impact factor.
Your editor is probably a senior colleague; treat him as such and write to him personally, rather than asking your secretary (or a student assistant) to submit the paper. If you do not have time for him, perhaps he and his referees may not have time for you.
Give full details of all co-authors, including their (institutional) email, affiliation, and designation.
Mention some key publications of each co-author, in the English language, and published in an English medium. If possible, quote papers in refereed journals. Usually, editors have a lesser interest in conference proceedings or book chapters.
Try to answer, as accurately and to the point as possible, the three questions posed at the end of the Cover Letter.
Declare (no) conflict of interest and your acknowledgements (if any).
The template of the MEL Cover Letter can be downloaded from the journal’s website.
A senior co-author brings another benefit onboard: most probably he is also a seasoned writer and, as I discuss below, writing is an ‘art’ which takes years to develop. A common reason for rejecting a paper is poor English and writing style, notwithstanding how good, technically, the paper might be.
As regards authors name order, in MEL and in many other journals, most of the time, co-authors appear in alphabetical order of family name. MEL assumes that all co-authors are equally and indistinguishably responsible for the paper. If this is not the case, and thus authors require a different name order, the journal may need to explain ‘respective roles’ in a footnote.
is and art
However, it is one thing to come up with good results, or prepare nice tables and graphs, and another thing to write a good paper. Differently, it is one thing to put words in a sentence, and another to compose a sentence conveying a clear message in a structured and impactful way.
Write succinctly. Use short sentences and avoid wordiness and repetition. If your English is good, do not try to show it off; our discipline is an applied one; not literature. Avoid the superlative and words like ‘fabulous’, ‘tremendous’, etc., which are quite common in expressions of many countries.
If you are not native English speaker, use the services of an English editor prior to submitting. There are many of them around, from the prestigious ones of international publishers, to one-person internet-based companies. Their prices vary greatly, ranging from $100 to $500 per paper or even more. If necessary, seek advice because what matters is not price but price-quality, as well as the amount of work your paper requires (which can range from light grammatical improvements to actual ‘heavy rewriting’).
Finally, write with your readers in mind and not yourself or your colleagues. Your readers may not know as much as you do and thus you should not take too many things for granted. A part in your introduction should provide your reader with all the information necessary to understand your paper.
To the extent possible, your Abstract (200-250 words) should be written in non-technical language, aimed at the general reader. It should not contain formulas, symbols, references or footnotes. This is the most important part of your paper, and the one that everybody will read; it needs to convince the reader that the paper is worth reading. In non-technical language, explain to the reader why you wrote this paper; who has asked for it; what do you add to existing knowledge; what is your methodology; what are your main conclusions. Remember: your abstract is something very different from your introduction, which will probably follow. Thus, do not duplicate.
When you discuss a work, don’t mention only what the author did but, more importantly, discuss his results and how these impact your own work; this is the reason you quote a work, and not just to show that you have read a lot. In this sense, your literature review should comprise works relevant to yours in a narrow sense; e.g., when you optimize stowage on a ship, don’t review papers on stacking yard optimization, although both subjects may be using the same methodology).
Identify top researchers (and top papers) and stay away from the trivial ones (no citations). Most definitely, do not build your paper, based on trivial publications. Finally, your references should be as recent as possible, in English, and easily traceable.
Tables and figures should be self-explanatory; thus, you should not repeat/discuss them (a lot) in the text.
It is easy to create lots of tables and figures; however, readers are not impressed by their number. Often, a table or a figure is redundant, just taking up journal space which is very expensive. If you can say something in conventional sentences, instead of a table or figure, do so. Same is true for bullet lists: if you can avoid them, and structure your text in the usual way, do so.
In the former case, the paper is forwarded for refereeing. Referees will have to do the same test: i.e., advise the EiC on Outright Rejection (ORR), or proceed with their review. Instances where ORR is common are “exercises on paper” -mostly of the optimization/simulation type-, with little or zero practical relevance. Other ORR cases consist of “attempted solutions” to problems that exist (or created) only in the author’s head, i.e. solutions no one has asked for. Finally, several editors feel that an additional reason for an ORR might be their expectations on a paper’s impact (citations); something not totally uncorrelated with an author’s prior publishing experience.
If the referee decides to review your paper, he becomes your friend and your advisor (at least in MEL); thus, treat him nicely! His objective is to help you improve your paper. He will be constructive, therefore, and will not ask you to do impossible things, e.g. re-estimate a model. If he wanted to do that, he would have rejected the paper at the beginning (ORR).
Dedicated and reliable referees are difficult to find; an ‘endangered species’ I would say. We therefore need to treat them with a lot of understanding as regards their time and busy agendas. The refereeing process of a serious journal is a lengthy one. If you look for ‘quick and dirty’ refereeing, there are plenty of journals around, but think of your reputation: Would you submit again to a journal whose only comment was “this is a good paper and we accept it”? Or one that promises to publish your paper in one month?
Same as in the abstract, conclusions should be written in non-technical language, to the extent possible. As many people may decide to start reading from your abstract and then conclusions, both should be written in ‘perfect English’; if necessary, seek advice.
Conclusions are ‘conclusions’ and although you may also want to summarize the paper (legitimate), you should not introduce aspects of it, or new ideas, which have not been discussed in the main text. Also, try not to include references, tables, or graphs in your conclusions. Finally, also discuss the limitations of your paper and your ideas on furthering your work.
Good luck with your research!
Professor HE Haralambides
Rotterdam, 2018 / Paris 2020
 A very important econometrician once approached the port of Rotterdam, with Archimedes lever in hand, and said: “give me the data and I will solve all your problems”. They are still laughing at the Port of Rotterdam.
 I made a mistake: I used superlative, i.e. ‘greatly’ rather than, say, ‘significantly’.
 I was once talking to the EiC of a top economics journal. With a big smile on his face I remember him telling me that 75% of his rejections were ending up in two competing journals which, interestingly, had a much higher impact factor than his own!
 As said above, this is ‘research’ you should be doing before submitting.