stack of nature journal issues

13: Writing journal papers: Pros and cons

In the age of information technology, should you still be writing papers with the aim of publishing them in journals? Isn’t it a long, complicated and daunting process to write a paper and get it accepted in a journal? Wouldn’t it be far more relevant to publish on the internet, on social media or other modern channels that work much faster? We’ll tell you why we think it’s still worth it to write articles for peer-reviewed journals and give you the real run-down on the pros and cons on the issue below. 

With social media at everyone’s fingertips, writing journal papers seems a little old-fashioned. It can feel like something that researchers had to do before they had proper internet channels to self-publish their ideas. It appear to be outdated in this fast-moving world. Shouldn’t we publish our research instead on blogs, preprint-servers, or on websites where readers can easily and quickly access what we have to offer?

Yes, you could easily get the impression that there is no need to write and publish journal papers anymore. We have far more alternatives to communicate with our peers than ever before. Therefore, looking critically at the journal publishing process is absolutely required. There are many cons to be considered, but also many aspects that speak to the benefits of writing and publishing in journals. To fully comprehend this view, let’s first sketch the historical development of publishing journal papers before we dive into the pros and cons. 

I. The historical perspective of writing for journals

1. Early stages

Writing research articles that get published in international peer-reviewed journals is not a new phenomenon, but a process that developed over several hundred years. The first journals were founded in the 17th century in France and Britain, to facilitate knowledge exchange among academics. The first peer-reviewed journal followed in the early 18th century, and by the end of this century, almost 500 peer-reviewed journals had been founded. 

Prominent journals such as Nature and Science followed in the second half of the 19th century. For a more detailed overview, have a look at the Scholarly Publishing Timeline provided by AJE and the STM report on Scientific and Scholarly Journal Publishing .

2. Mid-20th century 

Yet, the journal paper boom first started in the mid-20th century, and in many disciplines and subjects, journals became the standard for publishing research. Since then, the writing and publishing activity has gained at lot of traction. It went from some academic associations that publish the research finding’s of their members and associates in two or three issues per year, to an industry with many professional publishers competing for academics to publish with them. 

3. Transition to 21st century journal publishing

Previously, academic journals had been run and subsidised by universities and research institutes, but also now increasingly, they are operated by professional publishers which charge readers subscription fees. The first online-only journals started in the 1990s and the first Mega-Journals (like PLoS One) in the first decade of the 2000s. 

The Open Access movement also took off in the beginning of the 2000s, under which journals operate using online-only papers that are freely available for the readers, but force submission fees on the authors (see the Open Access 101 blog at Harvard University and Suber 2009.

4. The current situation

Today, the exact number of journals is hard to determine, as definitions vary as to what constitutes a journal, but there is an estimated number of about 30,000 scholarly peer-reviewed journals in the English language today. 

Interestingly, this has led to a situation that feels as though the number of papers being published far exceeds researcher’s and society’s capacity to consume them. In 2010, estimates were that more than 50 million papers had been published since the mid-17th century, with about 2.5 million papers published annually as of  2013 (see Jinha 2010, Plume & van Weijen 2014, Ware & Mabe 2015). 

II. The cons: 10 common critical points on the paper publishing process

The development of publishing as described above raises a lot of criticism from within- and outside of academia. Common points of criticism are:

publishing papers in scientific journals - cons

1. Elitist

Writing and publishing papers in journals seems to be an elite activity. Only the best really make it in. Not everybody can access it. It seems to contradict the idea of research being free and open to everybody.  

2. Expensive

Publishing papers in journals is expensive, due to the high author fees and the amount of time that goes into preparing papers.

3. Slow

The process from writing the paper until reading it in the journal can take a very long time. 

4. Lower quality

It seems that (young) researchers are forced to publish with quantity in mind rather than quality. We see more papers of lower quality due to the high pressures to publish from institutions. 

5. Too many papers

With the publishing of so many papers per year, nobody can read them all. Getting papers into journals has become a goal of its own. 

6. Bias

The paper selection process can be biased and journals may prefer some people and subjects to others. 

7. Lack of transparency

The paper selection process for journal publication does not seem objective or transparent as to which papers getting accepted and which ones are rejected. 

8. Old-fashioned

Writing and publishing papers represents an old-fashioned mode of science communication. 

9. Non-interactive

Publishing in journals gives poor possibilities for interaction and comments. 

10. Commercial

Publishing journal articles has become a business where academics seem to work for free with others gaining the benefits. 

No question, these are critical points that need to be discussed and considered by academia. A lot of people play a role in the business of science communication. A good overview on the controversies s on the business and directional side of publishing academic results is available in the Editorial “Publish or Perish?” by Rawat & Meena (2014) or in the report “Untangling Academic Publishing” by Fyfe and colleagues (2017). 

However, we don’t want to dive into this discussion here, but instead focus on reasons it is still worth investing time to write papers and get them published in journals for individual researchers who work in the current academic system. If you are a young researcher searching for a job, a prolongation of a contract, or to build a reputation, the situation looks quite different. You might need to deal with the system as it is, otherwise you won’t be able to pursue an academic career. 

III. The pros: 10 reasons why you should write and publish journal papers

Let us give you 10 reasons here why writing papers for journals is still worth doing. 

publishing papers in scientific journals pros

1. Quality control

Submitting your paper to a peer-reviewed journal means that your manuscript will be scrutinised by experts in your field who can help you to eliminate the paper’s weak points. They will look through your paper and check its quality. Once approved by the reviewers and editor, your paper has passed a relevant threshold and is considered of a certain academic quality. You know now, your work is good enough to be published. 

2. Quality label

Once revised and accepted, your work gets an invisible quality stamp. Your paper, your research, and you will benefit from this label saying “good work!” You can take this quality label with you wherever you go and it will testify to your qualifications and excellence. A paper can help you to get your name out in a field of research and the increasing number of papers that you publish will help to build your reputation.

3. Trusted source 

Getting your work published in an academic journal tells your peers that your work was good enough to pass the expert’s quality check and therefore it is considered a trustworthy source. It adds a lot to the credibility of your research when it gets published in a journal. Researchers prefer trusted sources. 

4. Academic career development 

If your personal plan is to aim for a career in academia, as a researcher, lecturer, or any other scientific position at a university, research/higher education institute, then journal papers will be your currency to gain and keep such a job. These institutions face the battle of rankings. Their long-term existence and their reputation is built on performing well in the competition with other academic institutions. If you are a researcher who has published a lot, then you will help them to reach and keep a good ranking. You are an employee that is an asset for the university. 

5. Non-academic career development 

Even if you are heading towards a career outside academia, a good publication record can be helpful. Every employer is keen on having an employee who is productive. Any paper you have is more than a line on your CV, but signals that you can complete work, get it through a quality control process and out to its users. You show you produce a measurable outcome and can stand out in competition. 

 6. Funding body requirement 

Having a paper put in a journal is not an add-on at the end of your research project, but very often an essential requirement by the agency providing the funds for your research. Research projects are asked to feed back their findings to the academic community and journal papers are considered to be the appropriate medium to do so. If you publish in journals, you tick this box. 

7. Attracting grants 

As a researcher, you will face the need to write applications and proposals to research councils in order to get the funding for your research. The chances of your bid getting accepted will substantially rise if you can refer to a portfolio of published papers in the subject area of the grant you apply for. 

8. Get acknowledged 

Getting a paper accepted, having the printed version in hand or seeing your name on the PDF version is a great feeling. It is a – very quiet – shout of ‘’bravo” from your peers. It feels like a clap on your shoulder, when your colleagues tell you that you have done well. It is very satisfying and it boosts your confidence. If you made it once, your way of working is commended and you will likely publish again. A paper is also something that you can show around. 

9. Established infrastructure 

A large bonus of published journal papers is that you don’t have to worry about the medium of getting your message out. You don’t need to think about finding the right platform to place your research findings, or about the technical reliability of its system. You don’t need to worry about announcing, advertising or marketing your paper yourself; journals and publishers take this part over for you and do a pretty good job to get your research out to your peers. 

10. Established way of communication 

Last but not least, a journal publication has the large advantage for you as being the established way of academic communication and exchange of research findings. We all are used to looking for and consuming journal papers. We all know how it works to find papers and which journals are most relevant for us. The dissemination and accessibility of papers published in journals seems to work generally fine, despite all the paywall systems and barriers that are erected by publishers to stop free distribution of papers. Most academics still seem to find a way to get a hold of your paper once it is published if they really want to. Writing and publishing papers is also a main avenue for academics to find and establish communication with their peers. 

Conclusion: 

The pros and cons of writing and publishing papers might be contentious. There is nothing perfect about the system, and for you, there may be not black and white answer of the right or wrong thing to do. We hope our overview of the 10 pros and cons to publishing in journals gives you a better understanding of the discussion.  

Our view is that you should start and keep on writing for journals because the pros definitely outweigh the cons. The reward for your professional life can be tremendous. Clearly, academia needs to critically observe the ongoing development of the publishing circus, and it would be good if clear directions would be developed. Yet, we do not see journal publications as being in competition to other forms of making research results available to the public. 

We advise you to also make use of other modern communication channels parallel to publishing in journals such as social media, blogs and others to communicate your research. But, particularly if you are striving for an academic career, journal publications are inevitable and will help you to progress quickly towards the career track of your choice.

Relevant resources:  

More information: 

Want to receive more information on how to write papers and publish your research? Sign up to our newsletter and be regularly informed about new postings and free resources. 

© 2019 Tress Academic

Photographs by Tress Academic.

#WritingPapers, #PublishingPapers