A Look into the Publishing Process for Academic Journals

An important part of research is writing and publishing papers in peer-reviewed academic journals. Through a Princeton-alumni sponsored internship last summer, I was fortunate enough to co-author and publish two materials science review papers, one in a journal called Gels and the other in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, both a part of the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, or MDPI. Since the publishing process was entirely new to me, I thought it would be helpful to give some insight into what publishing looks like, which is helpful especially if you are interested in pursuing research in graduate school. I will note that although having published papers is helpful for admission to graduate school, it is by no means required.

One of the review papers that I co-authored and published through my summer internship

Step 1: Finding a Journal

When finding a journal to submit to, it is important to consider both the impact factor and whether it is open access or subscription based. First, the impact factor is a numerical value indicating how important or influential a journal is in a specific field. The number can range from around 1 to over 10, where an increasing number represents a more influential journal. When looking for a journal to submit to, make sure to pay attention to the impact factors because it can help you decide whether or not to submit a paper to that journal. As a very general rule of thumb, first time authors might want to aim for journals with impact factors around 1 to 3, while experts in the field could submit to journals with 10+ impact factors. 

Additionally, it is important to recognize whether the journal is open access or subscription based. Open access journals, which are what both of my papers were published in, are free to the public to read online, while subscription-based journals require a person or institution to purchase a subscription in order to read the papers published in those journals. Even more, because open access journals do not charge subscription fees, they usually require the authors to pay when submitting and publishing their papers, while subscription-based journals do not require the authors to pay for submission. Therefore, if funding is an issue, it would be better to aim for subscription journals because of the reduced costs for publishing, although if you have funding, you should be able to choose between either. In my case, the research group leader I was working with had an invitation to submit a paper to Gels at a reduced cost, which influenced us to ultimately submit to that journal.

Additionally, when trying to choose between different journals to submit to, one more important aspect of the publishing process is that typically, you can only submit to one journal at a time. For this reason, people will often submit to their top-choice journal first, and if they don’t get accepted to that, then they will apply to their next choices. If you are looking for some ideas for journals to submit to, your research adviser is a great resource because they can offer suggestions based on their own experience with publishing, and they can point you to which journals are a good fit based on impact factor, publishing costs, and the scope of the journal.

Step 2: Formatting

Once you have your paper written (see this post for help in writing the literature review), journals will typically require you to format the paper in the style of the journal. For my papers, I downloaded the journal’s template from their website for a reference, and I also made sure to match my citations with the journal’s specific style. Often times, journals will have their own citation style, aside from the standard MLA, APA, or Chicago styles, so it’s a good idea to check the specifics for each journal. Additionally, I highly recommend using a citation platform like Zotero for keeping track of your citations because you can easily format the bibliography all at once into the journal’s specific style, instead of having to do each citation individually. Also, if journals have a custom citation style, you can usually download their Zotero extension from their website and import it into your Zotero account for easy use.

Step 3: Receiving Feedback, Editing, and Final Decision

In my experience, it took a couple of weeks to receive feedback from the reviewers. However, this timeline varies a lot by the journal, so anywhere from a week to several months can be normal. For the first round of edits, the reviewers will write comments on your paper and say whether or not they recommend for the paper to be published in that journal. Additionally, the journal will give you a timeframe in which you should revise the paper based on the feedback from the reviewers and resubmit, which in my case was approximately one week, although this timeline varies by journal as well. After resubmitting, they will send a second round of edits, and then the editor of the journal will review the paper and make a final decision on publication. The exact timeline for the feedback process varies from journal to journal, so make sure to check the specifics of the journal you submit to.

Overall, I am grateful to have experience publishing papers as an undergraduate student because it will help prepare me for research as a graduate student and in my career. For my paper published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, the revision process was very smooth, but for the other paper in Gels, the review process took much longer due to the major revisions that we were asked to do. You never know what type of feedback or responses you will get from the reviewers, and the more experience you can get with the publishing process, the more prepared you will be for the future. If you have an opportunity to publish a paper, I would definitely recommend the experience because it allows you to gain more familiarity with the research process, which is important if you are considering graduate school or pursuing a career in research.

–Bridget Denzer, Engineering Correspondent