PhD Chat: how do you write a journal article or a conference paper?

From the Phd Chat page

[Update 30.3.21 I trimmed the preamble to make it less depressing and get to the point more quickly. Please note that our PhD group was in politics and policy, and my advice is not as relevant to people in other disciplines]

Giving conference papers is a key part of the PhD process, allowing you to:

  • write up your ideas in a shorter format than the PhD
  • generate useful feedback
  • meet people with similar interests.

So how do you do it? Here are some questions that arose in our group:

  1. What is the difference between a conference paper and an article? The simple answer is that the stakes are lower at the conference, and the paper is often the first of many drafts of an eventually accepted article. Generally, in my field, once your paper is accepted in principle onto a big annual conference, people don’t really monitor its quality – and many of the people that turn up to your panel will not have read it. However, a workshop is a different matter: you don’t want to annoy people when everyone is expected to read everyone’s papers. My advice in that case is to make the paper shorter and punchier, since many of your colleagues will be reading the whole set on the train/ plane to the workshop (the same goes, perhaps, for a panel discussant at an annual conference). You might even get a pat on the back, since people will have read at least one rotten effort from a more senior colleague. It also comes in handy later, when you have to meet the short word limits of major journals.
  2. Article writing is a skill that develops with practice – but is it part of the PhD training? In some fields, it is taken for granted that the data you produce will be used by your supervisor, perhaps within a research team, and that your name might go in the middle of a very co-authored paper. This seems less common in social science, and in my field you claim ownership of the material, often publish it on your own, and might end up learning by doing. If you are inexperienced, you may want to work with a more experienced colleague to help you through the often-tough process – but should it be your supervisor? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. It is fraught with difficulty, since there is clearly an imbalance of power in the supervisor/student relationship. I know of supervisors who do it routinely, and sometimes it is bound to look like the supervisor is getting some free research. In my case, I simply offer the possibility of co-authorship to PhD students – suggesting that, if they want 4 articles from their PhD, I could contribute to two (perhaps with both of us taking the lead on one paper). It seems to me to be part of the training process and a way to help PhD students get a leg up. However, it is not for everyone and I wouldn’t push it too hard.
  3. Work on the hook, structure and coherence. We talked about how to get started, discussing the idea that you should just get writing what you know (to stop you worrying over every word) and edit later. I read about this advice quite a lot. It’s not the advice that I tend to give. Instead, I recommend starting at the start: producing the 150-word abstract, and seeing if you can describe the whole thing in a short, concise way; then, producing the introduction to see if you can ‘hook’ people in with the opening rationale for the study (focusing on the theory or the case), articulate a research question in a concise way, and present a coherent structure in which you will lay out the argument. In my view, the danger with the ‘just write’ advice is that you end up with 12000 words before you try to work out how it all fits together in 8000. The advantage in starting from the start is that you become immediately aware of the need to present a short and punchy piece of work and describe it to people who don’t have the knowledge of the topic. For me, even taking a whole day to write the introduction is worth the effort, since the rest may only take a few days to draft (if you know exactly what you are doing). This is the same sort of advice that I’d give before doing a literature review: it will take half the time, and far fewer words, to explain something if you have a clear research question and small number of objectives from the start.
  4. Quantity or quality? I also have my own views on this topic, and they are not shared by all of my colleagues. It’s not too controversial to say that skills develop with practice, but there is a big quality/ quantity question when you decide how many times to develop your skills. The ‘quality’ argument is that you should take your time to get the data and the argument right, even if it means a smaller number of outputs. Later in life, this approach will come in handy if you are submitted to the research assessment exercise (which will require 1-4 of your best outputs), but I’m not sure you’ll ever get to a point where you think that the submission is perfect (and then the reviewers will let you know it’s not). The ‘quantity’ arguments are maybe harder to justify: keep it simple and go for one-paper-one-argument; tie the same data to multiple research questions and relevant literatures; and, recognise that the quantity of publications on someone’s CV may have a bewitching effect (particularly if people haven’t read the articles and are not specialist enough to know the status of the publications). I also like the argument that quantity helps produce quality.
  5. Develop a thick skin – and know the meaning of ‘major revision’. In my experience, conferences are generally OK and people are generally polite and helpful (and often more so for PhD students), but presenting a paper can be a bad experience if you get some arsey colleague determined to make a point. To some extent, this is useful practice for when you submit something to a journal – at least when the journal uses anonymous peer review. It is possible that the comments will be scathing or will appear to be scathing when you read it for the first time. It is difficult not to take reviews personally, but it can be done if you read them once (immediately after receiving the editor’s email) and then wait for a while and read them again. Or, better still, read the comments on someone else’s work (if they let you) and see if they seem so critical. In some cases, you will get a desktop rejection or a post-review rejection, which is just a part of normal academic life. In others, you will be asked to make a major revision. This really just means that the revision is not minor (an extra sentence or two, and fix some typos – this decision is not common). It requires you to look at how the editor boils down the comments and construct a response which addresses most of the reviewer’s concerns. You don’t have to make all of the suggested changes, but you should say why you chose to respond in a particular way (e.g. if reviewers give you contradictory advice). This takes a lot of work, but it is now standard stuff – a substantial post-referee revision is something that you should plan to do each time.
  6. Choose the journal wisely. It’s an obvious point, but it is easier said than done. In my field, you might consider these factors: country (e.g. some US journals have a reputation for publishing more quantitative work); approach (e.g. some journals will expect a ‘critical’ approach or to make reference to well-established theories or concepts); history (in other words, look through some back issues to see if yours would fit, or if you would even read the articles); status (which is hard to gauge, but some journals have higher rejection rates and/ or it takes longer and more investment to get something in there); and, theory or case (for example, you can tie any case study to some general journals if you use an established theory, or just use a theory to help explain a case in a specialist journal).

See also: 3 Common Reasons Editors Reject Articles Without Review

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