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How to publish an article in an academic journal: Avoid rookie mistakes

I have reviewed an insane amount of articles this past year and have noticed that many of these articles should never have been sent out for review, because they were missing key components.

The authors of these articles thus waited three months for someone to tell them that they do not have a clear argument, that there is no literature review, or that they need to describe their ethnographic methods. Sometimes they waited this long or longer only to hear other fairly generic advice.

I frequently am in the process of submitting an article to a journal. As such, I was inspired to write this article both to make sure that I practice what I preach, and to offer some examples from my own writing that might be useful as you prepare your own article. This article is primarily directed at authors of empirical social science articles, but I believe the main points may be applicable to other fields as well.

Some questions to ask yourself

First of all, before you send an empirical social science article out for review, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is your research question?
  • How is your research question related to the current literature?
  • How will you use your data to answer your research question?

Before you send a piece off, make sure that a) you can answer these questions; and b) that anyone that reads your paper also can answer these questions.

I reviewed twenty papers and books in the first half of this year. Many of the articles received rejections because the articles did not have all the necessary pieces or because the pieces did not have the necessary elements. Thus, make sure that your paper has all of the following elements.


The introduction should contain a brief summary of the literature with which you will engage, a research question that derives from that literature, and a brief explanation of how you will answer that question.
For example, I am writing an article that engages with two distinct bodies of literature: scholarship on race and incarceration and scholarship on immigrant incorporation. My introduction has one paragraph on each of those bodies of literature, followed by a statement of the research questions and the methods.

“This paper brings the literature on immigrant incorporation into conversation with the literature on mass incarceration through a consideration of these two research questions:

How has mass deportation affected the incorporation trajectories of black male immigrants?

What role does gendered structural racism play in blocking the mobility of black male immigrants? 

I draw from interviews with 83 Jamaican and Dominican immigrants to answer these questions.”

I then use two more paragraphs to define the conceptual terms I am using – particularly “gendered structural racism.”

Literature Review

Some of the papers I reviewed simply did not have literature reviews. Others made the rookie mistake of a serial literature review – where the author discusses one piece of scholarship per paragraph yet does not put the works into conversation with each other. The literature review must synthesize the literature and point directly to your research questions.


Every article needs an argument. You can state your argument in the introduction, in the abstract, and/or in the literature review. You need an argument, however, in order to get published. Here’s mine:

“I argue that a primary factor contributing to their arrest and incarceration was gendered structural racism – not oppositional attitudes. Neither ethnic cohesion nor Anglo-conformity protected these black male immigrants from being funneled into the criminal justice system.”

Note: If your paper is quantitative, you will need hypotheses. In my view, you don’t need these for qualitative papers.


My article is based on ethnography and interviews, so the methods section is pretty straightforward. I discuss how long the ethnographic research lasted (9 months); how many interviews (83); and the case selection – why I interviewed deportees in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, and why most of my interviewees are men.

Data and Analysis

This is the meat of your paper – where your original contribution lies. The main trick here is to make sure that you deploy your data to answer your research questions.
Many qualitative papers fail to analyze their data. You not only need to tell us what you learned from your interviews and ethnography; you also need to analyze each piece of data you provide. Tell the reader what it means and why it’s important.


I have not thus far rejected an article for not having a good conclusion – although I did receive one that completely lacked a conclusion. And, that did not look good.
In any event, a good conclusion can only strengthen your article and make it more likely that your findings will be understood and disseminated.
In my conclusion, I reiterate my findings, mention any possible limitations, and explore directions for future research.


Tanya Golash-BozaAdapted and reposted with permission from the blog Get a Life, PhD, Weekly Tips on How to Succeed in Academia and Have a Life Too. This blog is written by Tanya Golash-Boza, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced.