By Gordon Rugg
Every paper is special to its proud author. Some papers, though, are more special than others, and those papers can be hard to get published. Suppose, for instance, that you want to gift the world with your explanation for how the Egyptian pyramids were built using genetically engineered dinosaurs created by the Nephilim and controlled by implanted microchips. Traditional academic publishing can be very narrow-minded about such bold new ideas. This makes publication difficult. Difficult, however, is not the same as impossible.
This article presents a few modest proposals for ways of overcoming those difficulties, and achieving publication for that special paper.
Choice of venue is a major issue, where the right choice of journal, conference or publisher can dramatically increase your paper’s chances of acceptance. A few minutes of homework are an investment well worth making.
Suppose, for instance, a friend tells you that there are journals that publish articles about nude mice. You might think that those journals would be refreshingly open to radical new ideas, but a quick search on Google Scholar will rapidly disabuse you of that hopeful idea.
The image below shows a typical result. It’s a long list of traditional papers using the old, hidebound frameworks of formal experimental design and impersonal evaluation of conventional evidence.
Google Scholar favours the traditional, restrictive, reality-based paradigm. If you search instead on the more open-minded Google, you have a better chance of finding a suitable journal. Good keywords are journal plus controversial or bogus. These terms are often used by mainstream scientists to disparage open-minded publications.
Here’s an example of a paper from an open-minded journal.
This is a good example of how careful homework can help you find that special journal that’s right for your special paper.
Once you’ve chosen the journal, you need to think carefully about the presentation of your paper. I’ll go through the main points one by one.
A good title can make a huge difference to the plausibility and the profile of your paper.
A boring, jargon-laden title will probably only interest a handful of specialists. Who would want to read a paper with a title like “”Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” in preference to a title that starts with “Evidence of a Massive Thermonuclear Explosion on Mars in the Past”?
Your name and qualifications
Most people are more impressed by papers written by someone with a PhD, and with an impressive-sounding name, especially if the author appears to be male. You can solve the name problem easily by legally changing your name. A name such as Otto Chriek sounds a lot more scientific than, for instance, Ada Augusta Lovelace. As for PhDs, they don’t need to be as much work as people often believe. Some institutions are notably open-minded about accepting unconventional approaches to scholarship. For example, one famous PhD thesis includes the following lines:
As I was thinking on this subject, I wrote a poem to try to explain this, comparing blind men and atheists.
Two blind men argued well into the night
about the great question, “Is there really sight?”
Said one to the other (and quite fervently)
“There cannot be colors or else we could see!”
The abstract to your paper needs to give the reader a concise and compelling understanding of what they will find in your paper. Here’s a good example from a recent paper which was accepted for journal publication, and which received a great deal of favourable attention.
This is where you show that you know what you are talking about, and where you explain why your opponents are all wrong. You need to do that, because unless you can show that they’re wrong, your own case doesn’t look so strong.
An efficient way of doing this is to focus on the key points where your argument is stronger than your opponents’ arguments. Hidebound traditionalists sometimes try to smear this approach by calling it cherry picking, but a good maxim to help you get past these insults is to remember that cherries taste better than rawhide.
The Method section
Method sections in most disciplines use a highly standardised format, so you can save a lot of time by just copying and pasting your method section from a published paper that used the same method. This also makes life easier for your chosen journal’s copy-editors, since the copy-editing has already been done for that section. It’s a good idea to remember to tweak the text so it matches the actual numbers of participants that you used, etc, but realistically, if you forget to do this, only a few pedants are likely to notice, so it’s not a major issue.
The Results section
This should display your findings clearly. For example, if you found that your test group score was twice as high as the control group score, you should consider using a 3D representation like the one below, since this emphasises the difference between the two groups. The key point is that there is a difference; the precise details about the size of the difference will only interest a few specialist readers. You can put those details in the appendices, so as not to break the narrative flow of the main text.
A good source for ideas about ways of showing information in a striking visual way is Huff’s book How to Lie with Statistics (1993). However, it’s important to be aware that Huff wasn’t a professional statistician; he was actually a journalist, so his claims about best practice in statistics need to be treated with appropriate caution.
The Discussion section
This needs to emphasise the positive findings from your work, since there’s no point in telling the reader at length about something which didn’t happen, such as not finding the main effect you were looking for. Readers are busy people, so you shouldn’t waste their time by telling them about things that you didn’t find.
The Conclusions and Further Work section
This needs to further emphasise the positive findings in a clear, emphatic way that will catch the reader’s attention, and make your paper as memorable as possible.
Traditional academic writing is very bad at this. Here’s a typical example of an instantly forgettable closing line.
“It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”
Fortunately, the growth of open access publishing has encouraged authors to learn a more lively, accessible style that will increase public engagement with research.
The “further work” subsection should explain clearly why you have priority over your rivals with regard to ideas about future research, so that they need to cite you in their future publications. It should also establish your credentials for any follow-up research grant applications that you might want to make as a result of the work described in your paper.
You need to include references which are relevant (to show your knowledge) and prestigious (to show that the topic you’re working on is significant). If you spend a few minutes on Google Scholar looking at the reference sections of already published articles on your topic, you’ll see which references keep being quoted. Copying and pasting these references, rather than typing them in from scratch, has the advantage of saving the copy-editor’s time on your own paper.
From the viewpoint of best practice, there’s a debate about whether the references in a typical paper are anything more than a ritual activity with no practical use. It’s well established that a high proportion of the findings in published papers are actually not replicable, which raises ethical questions about whether citing non-replicated papers is actively misleading. Since most papers don’t contain replicated findings, this is a strong argument for keeping references down to a sensible number, rather than the large numbers typically found in a traditional paper.
This section is a convenient place for putting original data that you haven’t yet analysed, to establish your priority, and for mentioning inconvenient facts, to show your impartiality.
This is the last section of a typical paper, so as soon as you’ve reached this point, you just need to find some suitably striking keywords to bring your article to the reader’s attention, and you’re ready to send it off. Good luck!
This article was satire, and is emphatically not intended to be treated as a serious guide. Anyone who is tempted towards the dark side by some of the ideas above should take into account that serious reviewers, editors and colleagues are well aware of such shady approaches, and take a dim view of them.
All citations etc above are on a “fair use” basis, since I’m using them to make valid academic points in a humorous way.
The quoted text in the sections about titles and conclusions is from the Crick & Watson 1953 paper that first described the structure of DNA. All the other quoted text is also real, however improbable this may appear.
Also by way of clearing up any possible confusion: I think that research definitely should consider unorthodox possibilities. However, there’s a big difference between considering the unorthodox, and treating all ideas and evidence as being equally worthy of time and effort.
If you’re interested in what I actually think about best practice in academic writing and research, there’s a fair amount about these topics in the articles on this blog site, and in my books with Marian Petre (links below).
I hope that this article has brightened your day.
Notes and links
You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.
Why academic writing is deliberately not interesting:
Some of my own research into unusual topics (e.g. the Voynich Manuscript) is described in my book, Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese:
My books with Marian Petre:
A Gentle Guide to Research Methods:
The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research:
Links to cited articles:
The Crick & Watson DNA paper (downloadable PDF of the original paper):
Huff, D. How to lie with statistics (1993 edition)
The statement about most published findings not being replicated is actually true:
The full story is, as you might suspect, more complex, which is why I’ve linked to the Wikipedia article about Ioannidis rather than to his 2005 paper.
Overviews of the articles on this blog: