How to Write and Publish a Journal Article in the Social Sciences

This brief article offers suggestions that will help you to write and publish a journal article in the social sciences, including education, psychology, sociology, or political science, among many other disciplines.  If you are working to develop research questions, a problem statement, or research design, you will likely benefit by exploring some of the topics we address in previous articles.  However, if you have already completed your research and are in the early stages of writing or need to polish your finished draft and prepare it for publication, the following steps can help you to publish your work.

  1. In the early writing stages, the most important objective is to get words on the page.  Err on the side of writing too much content or more detail than you may require.  An editor can always help you pare the language down if needed, but he or she can only make suggestions about places that are unclear if you do not provide sufficient information.
  2. Try using a simple outline of the essential components for a standard research article.  These include, first, the introduction/background, which contextualizes your topic, addresses the problem at hand, and identifies the research questions.  Second, in your review of the literature, identify the theoretical or conceptual framework that explains the lens through which you are studying your topic.  When you discuss the related literature, try to focus on studies from the past decade and, if possible, organize your selected studies and discussion around your research questions.  A strong literature review will also provide critique and commentary that places your study in the context of previous work.  Third, the methodology section should clearly explain what you did and with whom in a way that would allow another researcher to replicate your study and reach the same conclusions.  In the fourth section, you will present your results or findings, which you can do according to the research question or hypothesis (quantitative) or themes and generalizations (qualitative).  Finally, close the paper with a discussion of your study by explaining how your work aligns or conflicts with that of previous studies and offer insights and recommendations for future research and practice.  
  3. Determine whether you plan to discuss the literature in present tense (Smith and Jones suggest) or past tense (Miller and Thompson argued), and use it consistently.  You also need to decide whether you want to write in the first-person (I or we analyzed the data) or the third person (the researchers surveyed). In academic writing, always avoid second person (“you”) unless it is inside a quote.  Changing either verb tense or point-of-view is unnecessarily confusing to the reader.  Finally, be consistent and use proper formatting (typically APA) for each heading, which will help your readers to follow the paper more easily.  If you need help with these issues, find an editor who specializes in academic work, and he or she can make sure your paper is ready for peer review.
  4. If you are unsure of where to submit your work, a good place to start is your reference list.  If you have multiple references from a particular journal, it is likely that your topic will align with the scope of that journal’s interest; visit the journal’s main page and look for “Aims” or “Scope” to see how your paper fits.  It is always acceptable to contact the managing editor of the journal; send him or her your abstract and express your interest in publishing your work—most editors are friendly and helpful.  If your paper is not a strong fit for what they want, many will suggest an alternative journal you might wish to consider.
  5. Before you submit your final paper, make sure it is free of grammatical or spelling errors, and confirm that it adheres to the journal’s particular guidelines (you can usually find these under a heading on the journal’s webpage called “Submission Guidelines” or “For Authors”).  Peer reviewers often evaluate work more critically when it unpolished or incoherent.  It can be well worth the investment to use a quality academic editor, which can make your publication experience much less stressful.  Finally, prepare yourself for the possibility of critical feedback and, depending on the selectivity of your target journal, rejection.  Peer review is blind, and humans can be subjective and unfair.  Receiving criticism of your work is part of the process; even the best writers and researchers experience rejection.  The most important thing you can do is to remember not to take it personally and not give up on your work.  Even if the feedback feels harsh, it is something that every great academic will experience during his or her career.

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