Q&A Niamh Brennan: 100 rules for publishing in top journals

A checklist for success.

18 July 2019

Gemma Conroy

University of College Dublin/Supplied

As an academic and peer-reviewer, Niamh Brennan was used to seeing unreadable abstracts, messy references and poor spelling.

But an even greater concern, she says, is that many academics simply do not know the rules of the publishing game.

Early this year, Brennan, a professor of management at the University College Dublin in Ireland, published “100 research rules of the game”, which draws on her own experiences as an early-career researcher.

The paper, subtitled “How to make your research world class; how to successfully publish in top international refereed journals” published in the Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal in May, is a checklist for researchers to consider before hitting ‘send’ on their manuscript.

Nature Index spoke to Brennan about the pitfalls researchers face when getting their work reviewed, and how to ensure the best chance of success.

What are the most common challenges for young researchers trying to publish in top journals?

They don’t take enough care with the basic details when writing, such as spelling and grammar. When reviewing papers, the first thing I do is read the abstract. If the abstract is written poorly, then I already have a sense that the paper is not going to make it through the review process.

Next I look at the references, and if they’re a dog’s dinner I am certain that the paper will be rejected. Leading academics don’t have these types of hygiene issues.

The challenge is that you need to have a really strong, original idea, but you also need to home in on the miniscule details. It requires both big-picture thinking and micromanaging your work.

What was your experience as an early-career researcher trying to get published?

When I started my PhD, I had an awful time. There was no mentoring, guidance or assistance. The head of department sent me to one professor, who sent me to another. There was no one who was competent enough to supervise my dissertation. Six weeks later, I quit and did not get going again for another 12 years.

Luckily, this time around, I managed to work things out for myself. I discovered that I absolutely love research, and I don’t want anyone else to experience what I did in the beginning.

When I visit The University of Sydney in Australia each year, I leave my door wide open so that PhD students and researchers can come and talk to me or ask for help, but I’ve been astonished at how few have knocked on my door. It’s important to realize that help is available, but you have to be proactive and find it yourself.

What prompted you to write “100 research rules of the game”?

When I was working with PhD students and early-career researchers in Australia last year, I said to them, “You’ve got to learn the rules of the game”. It was like a lightning bolt moment, because I’ve said it so many times to so many people.

I decided to document these rules for myself, as they had been in my head after years of trying to get published myself, and reviewing papers for journals.

While writing the first paper, “100 PhD rules of the game to successfully complete a doctoral dissertation” - published in January - I realised that I needed to write a separate set of rules for more established researchers, which I called, “100 research rules of the game.”

I wrote the rules to be short, punchy and easy to scroll through. But while it’s easy to read the rules, enacting them can be quite a challenge!

What problems were you trying to address?

The issue I was trying to tackle was the number of people, including postdoctoral academics, who I’ve met over the years who clearly did not know how best to approach the publishing of their research.

The problem is, universities hold a gun to their head in relation to getting published. If academics don’t have an understanding of what it takes to successfully publish, they’re not going to get very far in their career.

Another problem is that some supervisors themselves are not well-published enough to know the rules, and this lack of knowledge is passed onto their students. But the student also has to take some responsibility and choose a supervisor who is publishing regularly in good journals.

How has the submission and publishing process changed in the last 10 years?

The competition is unbelievably intense now, and I’m glad that I’m not starting out at this stage. The pressure academics are being put under is eroding the collegiate nature of the academic world.

Everyone is locked inside their office, busy trying to get published, and this could explain why PhD students feel that there is not enough help or support available to them.

What practical advice do you give early-career researchers when preparing for submission?

One of the most difficult aspects is the writing itself, and a good way to tackle it is to ‘Snack and binge’ (rule #32). For instance, I can use the half-hour before a lecture to write something very quickly. When I travel to Australia each year, I carve out large amounts of time for writing. I snack when I teach and binge when I’m overseas.

Another important rule is ‘Learn to juggle your research’ (rule #9). Academics must balance teaching, research and administrative tasks, and it’s not something that comes naturally. How do you learn to juggle? Practice using pockets of time to write a little bit here, do a bit of teaching there, and then write some more.

“100 research rules of the game” starts and ends with the same rule: ‘Enjoy your research’. This is the most important rule, as it’s very difficult to be good at something that you don’t enjoy. I mean that in a pleasure-pain sort of way!

There are many dark days in the office, such as when you have a paper rejected. But as I say to many PhD students and early-career researchers, if there’s a sense that it’s too hard, or you simply do not like what you’re doing, then it could be a signal to move onto something different.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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