#38: Why you need a publishing strategy

When it comes to publishing papers, many academics lack a strategy to draw on when they consider important questions like: how many papers do I want to publish from my project? Is that plan realistic? Do I know which journals to submit to? Open access or not? How long it will take to write the papers? How can I ensure that someone reads them later? Do I know what’s required by my employer or degree? What kind of publication would be most helpful for my career? And so on. If you still need answers to these questions, you NEED to make a publishing strategy! 

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We’ll give you an example to illustrate why academics need strategies to work for their specific needs: Lorna is a postdoctoral researcher in neurology, Richard, a third-year PhD student in molecular biology, and Christine just started as a doctoral candidate in applied chemistry. They share one common goal: they need to publish papers to get ahead with their academic careers. While they sit together in our paper writing course all three realize they have no clear answers for questions like: 

  • How many papers do you want to write this year?
  • How many papers do you have to write? 
  • Which type of papers can you write at different stages of your research?
  • Which journals would be the most appropriate for your papers? 
  • Does your institute require you to publish in open access journals?
  • Is it more important to go for a prestigious journal or get the paper out as quickly as possible? 
  • Would you like to share your papers on social media? 
  • What type of publication would help accelerate your career? 

Lorna, the postdoc, says that she simply aims to write as many papers as she can in the best possible journals. Richard, the third-year PhD student, is still missing two papers for his degree, but his time is up very soon. Christine, the new PhD student, is not sure yet how many papers she wants or even has to write and is hoping that her supervisor will help sort it out. There’s still plenty of time to find it out, she thinks. 

In our course “How to publish in peer-reviewed journals” we ask these types of questions not only to researchers like Lorna, Richard and Christine but to participants at all career stages. After having held this course several hundred times already, we know that most course participants including Master and PhD students, Postdocs, Senior Researchers and Professors, don’t always have a clear idea how to answer them. Creating a publishing strategy helps you deal with all these questions. It gives direction for how to approach your own publishing goals and ambitions. 

Our job is to help students define what they need to do in order to benefit the most from publishing their papers. Lorna, Richard, and Christine understood how to answer the questions above after taking our course and the importance of a good publishing strategy. For those of you who have not had courses with us, let us tell you why we think it is extremely beneficial for you to have a publishing strategy. If after reading this post, you want to put things into practice, jump to our free worksheet “My publishing strategy”. 

What is a publishing strategy? 

A strategy is a framework that gives you direction for how to make decisions in order to reach a certain goal. Let’s assume your overall goal would be to double your publication output within one year. A publication strategy would give an overview on all the possible steps and considerations you’ll need to take to reach your aim. 

A strategy is not a plan, a distinction made clear by Watkins (2007) and Latham (2017): Strategy provides an overall set of guiding principles and decisions to reach the goal, whereas a plan is the roadmap to reach a specific goal with all the steps included. In other words, a strategy addresses the reasons why you aim for something, the plan then tells you how you’re going to achieve it. 

Thus, a publishing strategy defines the overall goal you want to reach. It’s also flexible. You can make such a strategy for a specific time frame, e.g. the next three or five years, or for any number of contributors e.g. you can make it for you alone, or for a team or research project. 

In a publishing strategy you answer questions like: 

  • Which time period do I want to cover? 
  • On which topics from my work can I publish?
  • How many publications and what type of publications (papers, books, others) would I like to produce?
  • Will I have co-authors and if so whom?
  • Which journals would I like to submit to?
  • What type of papers would I like to publish?
  • When should the publications be ready for submission/fully published?

… and more. 

If these questions are ringing a bell for you, check out our free worksheet “My publishing strategy” to start working on your own. 

6 reasons why you need a publishing strategy

You probably think, “Hey, is it really necessary to sit down and devise a publishing strategy? Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to use that time to start writing my next paper?” 

Good point! But, setting up a publishing strategy is not something that will take weeks, it can be done in a rather short amount of time and be modified as you go. However, creating a publishing strategy might indeed save you a lot of time, time that you should then surely use for writing papers. Here are the six reasons why we think you would be better off setting up a publishing strategy: 

1. A publishing strategy helps to plan your project and its outcomes

In every research project we need to produce deliverables or outcomes and these are most often papers in peer-reviewed journals. How do you determine how many papers you are going to write? 

A typical dilemma you face in research projects can be that there is simply not enough time left in the project to produce the outcomes. Thus, you should be thinking about what you want to publish already in the early project phase so that you can allocate some time for this task. 

Besides the number of papers you have in mind, the publishing strategy will also sketch out the time estimates for these publications. It is then a great monitoring tool for your progress in your research project. If your overall goal is to write two papers and your strategy shows you are falling behind, then you have the chance to intervene and think about the changes needed to reach your goal. 

2. A publishing strategy helps to set realistic expectations 

Of course, we all have many ambitions and want to always perform to our fullest potential. But, what is that? What does it actually mean when postdoc Lorna says that she “wants to publish as many papers as possible”. How many are “as many as possible”? It could be just one, or four, or even seven? 

How will Lorna find out whether she is doing well in her job as a postdoc? If she publishes two papers that would be good, right? If she published three that’s even better, no? But what about if she published four? More always sounds better, but is it also realistic for her to do that? 

For us, a publishing strategy comes in handy here, because you must first sit down and think through all the difficulties of your work and the chances of getting stuff published. It gives you a reference or framework to which you can always come back to and see where you are. It helps you to keep expectations (your own or others) on a realistic level. A publishing strategy defines the boundaries of what is realistic as well as desirable to achieve. 

For Christine, the new PhD student, it would be very helpful to define her publishing goals as soon as possible. Then she would know for herself what and how much she needs to do. 

3. A publishing strategy helps to identify the right journal for your paper

Choosing a journal for your papers is a critical but also a difficult decision. Many factors play a role here: 

  • Who is my target audience and what journals do they read?
  • Shall I go for a prestigious journal or a lower-ranked one?
  • How high is the risk of that journal rejecting my paper?
  • Is the journal interested in my work at all?
  • Does the journal charge any publication fees?
  • How would my audience prefer to access the paper?
  • Shall I go for a paywall journal or an open access option?
  • How long does it take to get a paper published in a specific journal?
  • Does the journal have to be indexed in a specific database?
  • How may I use my paper and the figures after publishing it in a journal?

Many of these questions have a practical or career-related component and depending on what your take is, it would make sense for you to choose one or the other journal. With a publishing strategy, you clarify these questions based on your own criteria so choosing of the “right” journal becomes much easier. If you want more help on picking the right journal, have a look at the “Publishing strategy” guide from Jönköping University, to help you deal with any similar unanswered questions. 

4. A publishing strategy helps to amplify the impact of your research 

We write and publish papers with the intention of informing our peers. We want to let our communities know what we have discovered and how our research can potentially help them. In the busy research world, which consumes hundreds and thousands of papers a year, it is still very difficult to make sure that your paper will reach its intended audience. Sure, choosing the right journal helps, but it is no longer enough to assume the paper will be read by your peers because it is in this one specific journal. 

Our papers compete with thousands of other papers and articles displayed on online platforms with new ones being added every day. So, what measures can you take to make sure your paper will have an impact? 

Think about which rights you have when publishing your paper with a particular journal? Can you reuse your content and your illustrations and share them, e.g. on social media platforms? 

Are you considering sharing your pre-print work on institutional servers, blogs, or networks like ResearchGate, Mendeley, Academia.edu or others? Do you want your paper to be easily found by Google Scholar, meaning you might have to consider Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) requirements already when writing your paper? All of these goals could be put down in your publishing strategy to help you realise them. 

5. A publishing strategy helps you meet your employer’s/funder’s requirements

It is often not enough if you “just publish” papers from your research projects. Your university, your institute, your department-manager or your funding body may have more extensive expectations towards your publication outcome. It might be that they want you to publish papers only in ‘open-access’ journals or at least make sure that your paper is publicly available after a certain period. It could also be that a national funding body wants you to publish only in journals of a specific ranking (impact factor), or in journals that are listed in specific databases or even in journals that are part of a specific selection which could again be based on research council’s criteria. There is a growing trend of employers and funders increasing the list of potential requirements for published papers. 

For our new PhD student Christine, it would be good to hear from her supervisor and university what specific requirements her written publications are expected to be fulfilled. Do the PhD regulations require her to hand in a collection of journal papers or a monograph thesis, or is it up to her to choose (read more about it in our blog post #6: Dissertation dilemma? Hand in a monograph or papers?)? She has to find this out and fix it in writing n her publishing strategy.  

6. A publishing strategy helps put focus on your career

An important aspect of publishing journal papers, particularly for young and less established researchers, is career development. Papers are a kind of academic currency you need for any academic job hunt and they serve multiple career goals. 

Do you already know where your career path is headed? Do you know what you want to do after this contract is up? Do you want to stay in academia or are you considering a path outside of universities and research institutes? Whatever you decide, it will have an influence on and should be reflected in your publishing strategy. 

For Richard, the third-year PhD student, it would be necessary to know what he wants to do after this PhD. Then, he can devise a publishing strategy that supports his career goal: First of all, he needs to publish two more papers, so how can this be achieved in a decent time frame? They must be published as soon as possible, so it is not very sensible for him to play the high-risk card and only submit to very prestigious journals. The risk of rejection is higher than lower-ranked journals and he doesn’t have time to spare resubmitting elsewhere. Second, which paper types and which journals would serve him best for his next career move? (For more on the types of papers he can choose from, see our blog post #28: What type of journal paper to write? )

A publishing strategy is the perfect place to get all these questions on the table and address them one-by-one. Whatever your career choice is, and even if you don’t know yet and want to keep your options open, be aware of the upcoming choice and start considering it in when you make strategic decisions for your next papers.   

Conclusion

A good publishing strategy can really move the needle and improve your career choices. However, the time you can invest in research and publishing papers is limited. Instead of just heading from one paper to the next, sit down and sketch out a time frame for your strategy. Think about what you could do to meaningfully connect the different outputs so they all serve a larger purpose: your next career move. 

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