3 “Not-so-obvious” tips for article submission and review

Q: Speaking from your perspective as Associate Editor for Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior for the past five years, what three “not-so-obvious” tips can you offer academic authors regarding the journal article submission process?

Julie Reeder, Associate Editor, Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior:

I will start with a few tips that might seem obvious at first, but based on my experience as an Editor, are often underappreciated by authors. First, an early visit to your target journal’s website is a must. Don’t wait until you are nearing submission to make your first review of its contents. If you are considering a journal you are less familiar with, a thorough review of the scope, aims, and any information about mission or readership should be your first stop on the site. Then apply that information to critically assess your draft manuscript.

Take a moment and imagine yourself as the editor who has just received your article. You need to quickly decide whether to pass this manuscript on for peer review or reject it at submission. How well does your article clearly and concisely demonstrate its fit with the journal and its readership? If the fit is murky I would suggest rethinking how you’ve framed your study’s context and findings. Can they be revised to be a better fit, or do you need to move on to another journal? Checking your fit with the journal early can reduce your chances of an immediate rejection.

Your second stop on the journal’s website are the guidelines for authors. Pay very close attention to formatting guidelines. While this tip may seem obvious, I have received many manuscripts that do not adhere to our formatting guidelines and some that leave out whole sections, such as implications.  Others are noticeably a quick recycle of an article rejected by another journal. Beyond not following our formatting guidelines, a few of these recycled articles will still have the old cover letter attached, addressed to the other journal and editors!  This doesn’t get a manuscript off to a great start. Therefore, whether this is your first or twenty-first try at getting a manuscript published, make sure you adhere to each journal’s specific guidelines and double check your cover letter.

The third task is to carefully consider the different types of articles a journal publishes. A common mistake is to believe the standard research article is always the ideal choice. If your study has a smaller sample size, is exploratory, a pilot, or has methodological or generalizability limitations, another format may be more appropriate.   When I suggest to authors that they should strongly consider cutting their manuscript to fit a shorter article format, some interpret this as a negative judgement about their study. Please remember that in the review process the editor, reviewers, and the authors are working together as a team to create the highest quality manuscript. My job is to help dig out your most important findings and really make them shine. And sometimes, that means applying a “less is more” philosophy.

Finally, I would use the search option on the journal’s site to get a quick idea of other recent articles related to my topic. I often see manuscripts submitted by authors in professions slightly outside the focus area of our journal who have many citations from journals in their field but few or none from the journal they are submitting to. When searching for articles on your topic it is important to not be overly narrow with your search criteria. For example, a paper on the influence of parent-teen relationships on food choices may have much in common with articles on parenting styles and picky eating in preschoolers. In short, moving beyond the immediate circle of your discipline, most familiar journals, and search terms will help you produce a well-rounded paper that can appeal to reviewers and editors who may be viewing your manuscript topic from a different context.

In terms of “not-so-obvious” tips, reflecting on my five years of experience, I have observed that the following three tips can be key to a smoother and more successful manuscript review process.

Tip 1: Be accurate and transparent with the studies you cite to frame and contrast your study rationale and findings. As an editor, I often take time to look up the full article for a given citation, particularly when it is used in support of a very strong claim or lacks details about the specific setting/context/population for me to assess its relevance. Not infrequently I will find that authors have misrepresented the study findings or failed to divulge critical details about the study’s context or participant demographics. An example of such misuse would be claiming that there has been a substantial improvement in overall nutrition knowledge, demonstrated by higher scores in your population (undergraduate nutrition majors) compared to the cited but not described study (of low income Seniors).

Tip 2: Appreciate that peer reviewing can be a small world. Most senior researchers review for a dozen or more journals. Consequently, if you had a paper rejected at one journal there is a small but not insignificant chance of your manuscript being assigned to that same reviewer at another journal. This is particularly true if your topic is very specialized. There are two key take-aways from this. First, always be kind in your responses to reviewers even though the authors and reviewers are blinded to one another. Second, if you receive many detailed and thoughtful comments in the rejection decision letter, please strongly consider making those changes before submitting elsewhere. It is easy to be dismissive of reviewer comments when they come wrapped in a rejection letter, and the feeling arises that “they just don’t get me or my study.” While sometimes your manuscript just isn’t a match, often the article truly needs revisions and it is wise to make them before submitting to a new journal.

Tip 3: I absolutely love papers that plainly state when something did not work. As Albert Einstein is attributed as saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over-and-over again and expecting a different result.” Reporting null or negative findings is an important contribution to your field. Also keep in mind that just because something is statistically significant does not mean it has practical or clinical significance. I have less love for papers claiming unparalleled success based on modest statistical significance, only among a tiny subgroup of their population, and only on nights with a full moon. And yet manuscripts are full of such claims. If your study is reasonably well designed and yet the findings are null or negative, proudly present them as they are, resisting your urge to obscure them. Knowing what doesn’t work is just a critical as knowing what does.

In addition to serving as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Julie Reeder is the Senior Research Analyst with the State of Oregon WIC Program, Incoming Chair for the American Public Health Association Food and Nutrition Section, and an Affiliated Associate Professor at Oregon Health & Science University-Portland State University School of Public Health.