All scientists are well-versed in the "publish or perish" fear — but what about when publishing a paper is so difficult that you feel like the very process may do you in? Researchers looking to get their results into a highly regarded journal for all the world to see have no easy task ahead of them. One way to get through the process unscathed: get familiar with the journals you're interested in, and make friends with editors.
Before you do anything with that manuscript you're sitting on, take a few minutes to peruse the websites of the journals you're thinking about submitting to. They'll all have a page with information for authors; this can help you make sure your paper matches the scope of the journal, and it also includes helpful guidelines about formatting and other details of the submission process. Ignore these at your peril: formats are chosen for a reason, and failing to conform to them can send a couple of bad messages — that you simply don't care enough to check guidelines, or that your manuscript was formatted for another journal and that wherever you're sending it this time wasn't your first choice. Also, pay attention to data requirements; different journals (especially ones that are open access) can have different rules about where data must be deposited for the paper to be published.
Once you're familiar with the guidelines, it can be worthwhile to contact an editor at the journal with a simple note to gauge interest level. "It can be good to send a pre-submission inquiry," says Clare Garvey, editor at Genome Biology, who adds that these inquiries are usually answered very quickly. It's a simple, fast way to see if the paper fits well with the research scope of the journal.
When you do send your manuscript in, be sure the cover letter is tailored to the publication you're targeting. Garvey says a common mistake she sees is sending letters intended for other journals that have been copied and pasted on a paper that was perhaps sent somewhere else first.
If your manuscript is sent out for review and accepted, you're in great shape — and interactions with the journal should be straightforward. But what happens if the paper is rejected — or, worse, rejected without review? While most scientists will beat themselves up or fume over this, very few feel comfortable following up on it. Garvey says it's quite acceptable to contact the editor to say you're not happy with the decision and ask for advice or feedback. "We're perfectly open to being called or emailed" when this happens, she says. "If we can help authors by being as transparent as we can, then that's good for everyone."
Make new friends
The time to think about publishing is not just when you have a manuscript ready to go, though. You'll be in better shape to submit a paper or to ask an editor about a review decision if you've already gotten to know the editor ahead of time. Garvey says that conferences are a great place to take this step — editors routinely attend meetings, and it's their job to get acquainted with scientists in the field and get a sense of the latest research.
Because editors have a broad perspective on research across many fields, Garvey says it's important to remember that they can be "a huge resource" to bounce research ideas off. Editors might "even suggest additional experiments that might help that paper get into that journal," she adds.
And if you're not getting out to conferences as much as you'd like, Garvey says outreach is considered so important that some journals even send editors on lab visits when there's enough interest in how the editorial process works.