How to write a good journal paper and get it accepted

How to Write a Good Journal
Abhijit A. Gosavi, Ph.D.
Missouri S & T
Doing the research
Writing the paper
Potential revisions
Some final thoughts
What I am going to present is what I have learned from my teachers, coauthors, and from personal experience; and also from helpful anonymous
reviewers: there are many people with generous hearts who are very helpful
when they realize you are a new author 
This presentation should not be considered to be a magic pill, since I don’t
have “ready solutions.” There is no such thing as a ready solution here 
Your advisor(s) should be able to provide you guidance in many ways.
Always seek advice from well-published professors in your department or
university. As a matter of fact, although I am very happy to do this
presentation, there are many people in my community, who are far, far more
successful than I am and have more useful pearls of wisdom.
Do not listen to folks who tell you that getting a journal paper published in a
good journal is all about who you know, where you got your Ph.D. from, and
whether your advisor is on the editorial board of the journal – rather than
about the quality of your research. Fortunately, good research gets published
in good journals (at least, I believe this to be true).
Doing the research
• Identifying a problem that has not been solved (perhaps obvious!)
• In order to get your paper accepted to a good journal, some acceptable
mechanisms for research are:
1. Solving a problem that has been solved before by others, but you want
to use a new method and show that the new method has advantages
over existing methods
2. Solve a new problem that has not been solved before (sounds easy, but
chances are that when you look hard, someone else has solved a similar
or related problem). Going to the industry to hunt for an unsolved
problem has led to many a path-breaking paper. Do note however that if
it is too trivial a problem, it may be hard to get that paper accepted.
3. You have a hypothesis, and you want to test it. Clearly, it should be an
interesting hypothesis, i.e., of interest to your academic/industrial
Bottom line: it is important to identify a gap in the literature, a gap
worth filling, and ensure that you are filling it.
Identifying the problem
• Identifying the problem involves doing a lit. survey,
and making sure you aren’t reinventing the wheel.
• In the initial stages, when you know what problem
interests you, it is necessary to read widely. Start
with conference papers (they’re usually easy to
read) and then move on to the seminal journal
papers (sometimes this kind of material can be
found in advanced books). But reading the
relevant papers is critical in the end!
• After you’ve identified a problem, you must work
hard  What does that mean?
What does the hard work involve?
1. You must test your methods extensively on the problem
domain. Wherever possible, benchmark it with existing
methods. If it’s a new problem/method, make sure that
your method generates the optimal solution, or a useful
solution if reaching optimality is not feasible.
2. If you are building a new management strategy or
proving/disproving a hypothesis, you must collect data, and
lots of it. How much is enough? That depends on the field.
In our field, mgmt and systems, 10-20 pieces of data don’t a
good paper make! Try to collect voluminous amounts of
data (e.g., exceeding 100 samples for each hypothesis).
Remember if you are in the medical world, even a few
thousand samples do not lead to a respectable study. Make
sure when you are collecting data that it will be useful later.
There are times when we can’t go back to the experiments.
Hence a thorough prior understanding of the statistical tests
that will be performed later is a must!
Writing the paper
• Doing the work is only half the work; writing it
clearly is the other half.
• Make sure you follow a proper format:
Abstract, Introduction, Lit. Review, Body of
Your Research (Method/Problem/Hypothesis),
Numerical Results, and Conclusions.
• The abstract should not be copied from the
introduction, i.e., avoid repetition.
• Should be of the proper length (author guidelines
will tell you the word limit)
• The abstract has to highlight the main
• The abstract should be rather general in the
beginning (introducing the broad field in one/two
• Should provide an overview of the paper
• Needs to be an expanded version of the abstract
• Some authors also include parts of the lit. review
in the introduction.
• Remember you aren’t writing a murder mystery!
Clearly tell the author, without providing all the
details but in broad strokes, what is coming in the
• In the last subsection of the intro., you can
provide a roadmap to the rest of the paper
(explaining what each section of the remainder of
the paper contains).
Lit. Review
Make sure you begin by citing some main references, e.g., seminal papers or
textbooks that contain the fundamental theory for your specific topic.
Then, introduce the relevant papers using a specific style of arrangement:
either chronological (safest, so you don’t offend a potential reviewer who
believes his/her research is “more important” but cited later for no obvious
reason!) or based on areas within the area you are working on.
Your lit. review should pave the way towards showing what the gap in the
literature is! This is the most important thing about how to organize the lit
Don’t forget to include the most highly cited papers in that area if they are
Remember with a high probability, one of the people you cite will be your
reviewers (who are almost always blind to you, though you may or may not be
blind to them).
However, don’t cite someone whose work is not related just because you hope
to have this person review your paper. That can backfire because the editor is
very likely an expert in the field and can see right through that.
Lit. review can cause rejection!
• Papers are regularly rejected because they failed to cite a closely related
work. In fact, if you know of some work that is closely related, you must
explicitly cite it and explain how your work differs from it.
• I am a regular reviewer for quite a few journals in my field, and I see that
inexperienced authors oftentimes fail to describe how their work differs
from existing work and what gap it is that they are filling. This is grounds
for rejection, or a major revision, because the reviewer is confused about
what the contribution is. Remember not all reviewers are people working
in the closely related area, nor are they going to necessarily read the
closely related papers. So if they are in doubt, they may reject.
Furthermore, if you don’t clarify that doubt, they will most certainly see
that as a weakness in the paper.
• Citing conference proceedings as seminal work is usually a poor idea!
Most seminal work eventually makes it to journals, and so take the effort
to find it. (There are some exceptions to this rule, e.g., Widrow-Hoff rule
paper or Littlewood’s rule paper from my field.)
• This is the most important section in your paper.
• Make sure you present the notation properly. Don’t use a symbol before
defining it. That can be aggravating to the reviewer.
• You can introduce the notation as you go along; a glossary with bulleted
items at the very beginning is also fine (but I personally don’t like it,
because at that stage the reader is not familiar with most terms).
• Your algorithm/method/problem domain/hypothesis must be clearly
defined. Do not assume the reader knows it already; the reader is not
trying to solve a murder mystery!
• A picture is worth a thousand words only if it isn’t confusing! I have seen
pictures that make no sense; if you have a co-author, ask his/her opinion
about it. Pictures should be convey something enlightening to the reader
at first sight, but what they depict must be also explained within the text
(for instance, Fig. 1 represents so-and-so).
• Organize this part into multiple sections/sub-sections as needed.
Some comments on writing
• Organize your material into short paragraphs. But how
short is acceptable?
• One or two sentence paragraphs (paras.) are usually
rare in technical papers. They are used in newspapers.
• However, very long paragraphs can make the paper
boring to read. If you have a long para. split it into
multiple paras. Note that each para. should be limited
to one idea.
• Don’t start a sentence with a symbol if it is in the
lowercase. “α denotes so-and-so” does not read well.
Instead say: “The symbol α denotes so-and-so.”
Numerical results
• Provide ALL the inputs needed for perform the
experiments you performed.
• Preferably use tables to show the inputs.
• Show all the relevant outputs that form the crux
of your research. Use tables and also graphs if
• Write this section clearly, because in some sense
this is examined very closely. It is usually tied to
your major conclusions and the gap you are
trying to fill.
• When you hear back from the editor, they will tell you one of the four things:
1. Accept as is (rarely, but this is the dream scenario)
2. Minor revision (sometimes)
3. Major revision (usually)
4. Reject (you don’t want this)
Major revision is nothing to get too worried about, but it means you will probably
need significant work, e.g., sometimes re-running your experiments and /or
making changes to your model. Sometimes, it is just a matter of writing it better.
For 2 and 3, you must submit a revised paper. It has to be accompanied by a detailed
report showing how you’ve revised the paper. Address every comment
thoughtfully and in detail. You don’t have to agree with every comment, but you
must explain (respectfully) why you disagree. Reasonable reviewers usually buy
your argument provided they think it is valid. The onus is on you to change their
If your paper is rejected, please don’t send a nasty email to the editor complaining!
Unless you feel that the reviewers are being unethical or extremely
Dealing with a rejection or harsh comments in a major
• Failure (i.e., rejection) is a part of the game. What is
important is to learn from it, i.e., carefully read the comments
provided. About 80% of the time, I have gotten very useful
comments in rejections that led to significantly improved
research (that got accepted in a lower-tier journal with some
additional effort). 20% of the time, I have gotten twosentence rejections (after a whole year – in the OR
community), which have to treated as plain bad luck (yes,
there is evil out there ), and one has to move on!
• When depression or panic sets in, you forget how to be
creative. Remember: creativity is at the heart of what we do;
if we lose that, we lose everything! If you think your research
is worthwhile (and you would not have started working on it
otherwise in the first place!), with additional work on that
paper (sometimes without it), you should be able to get that
paper published – most likely in a lower-tier journal.
Dealing with rejection (contd.)
• Develop a thick skin  Easier said than done, of
course, but there is no other way to put it. One
of my most cited papers in IIE Transactions (which
presented an algorithm that has been used by
others) was rejected at a top journal, and the
reviewers there (unanimously) thought that there
was nothing useful in my paper  Another time,
a reviewer said: “This paper should not be
published in ANY journal.” No human is qualified
to say that 
Dealing with a rejection (contd.)
• Don’t believe everything the reviewers say, but be
objective with your self-evaluation: learn to reject the
unfair criticism and accept the fair criticism.
• Finally: some human relationships don’t work. If we
refuse to accept it, we waste time. Similarly some
papers have to be buried because the research is not
publishable (i.e., they go into a drawer possibly never
to come out). Hopefully, something like that will not
happen when you are working on your dissertation,
because your advisor (who should have the
experience) will be able to foresee such an event and
prevent it from happening.
Some Final Thoughts
Don’t select a conference because of its location; rather go to a conference (even if
it is Cleveland, OH and not Paris, France!) if it is the main conference in your field.
Chances are that you will be able to hear some of the leading authors in your field
speak, which is very valuable because you may get insights from their talk that are
not visible from reading their published papers.
Read the seminal papers in your area (chances are they are old and not available
online) even if they are not directly related to your research and even if that
entails actually going to the library.
Identify the best journals in your field, and try to identify the characteristics of the
most cited papers from there.
Aim your research at the best journal in your field (not the lowest one with a very
high acceptance rate, e.g., one where you pay; all papers in the journal are opensource etc.).
Even if your work doesn’t end up in the best journal, try and do good research that
will get cited as time passes!
Your advisor should be able to guide you to a suitable journal (this is not
something you usually do as a grad. student).
Finally: May you be showered with success!

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