Tips for getting published in a top academic journal

Editors from well-regarded accounting journals share their advice.

April 14, 2015

Tenure is the Holy Grail for many faculty members. Many professors are on a quest to have their research published in prestigious journals, because such publication is typically a tenure requirement. For accounting professors, that means submitting work to highly regarded journals such as the Journal of Accounting and Economics, the Journal of Accounting Research, and The Accounting Review.

Just what does it take to improve your chances of having your work accepted? We asked editors from several journals, which typically use a blind review process, for their advice. Here’s what they suggested.

1. Don’t skimp on the abstract and introduction

When writing a paper, it’s easy to think of the abstract and introduction as just items to cross off a to-do list. But they’re more important than you might think, according to Shane Dikolli, Ph.D., associate dean of faculty engagement at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and an associate editor at the Journal of Management Accounting Research.

He looks to those two sections first, and how well they’re written helps determine where the paper goes for review. “The abstract and introduction should make coherent sense—if they don’t, then I’m unlikely to waste an established high-quality reviewer’s time on the paper,” he said in an email.

2. Be original

The top journals aren’t that interested in research that builds on innovative ideas by other people. Instead, they want to see things that haven’t been tried before, concepts that will become the building blocks of other professors’ work.

“I tell people that sometimes, it’s easier to publish original work than it is to publish the incremental work,” said Stephen Brown, Ph.D., the David S. Loeb Chair of Finance at New York University’s Stern Business School and managing editor of the Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis.

3. Know your question

When preparing a work for publication, be sure you know what question you’re answering, and check to see if the paper makes clear for readers what that question is. If journals don’t know what problem you’re solving, they may find your research lackluster.

Michelle Hanlon, Ph.D., is the Howard W. Johnson Professor and a professor of accounting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and an editor at the Journal of Accounting and Economics. She said that journal editors can help you fix a problem in your methodology. But if the question is unclear—or worse, incorrect—it can be cause for rejection. 

4. Get feedback

Hanlon said the No. 1 mistake she thinks professors make when submitting to a top journal is neglecting to obtain feedback on their research. So share your work with other colleagues and receive their criticism happily. It may make all the difference in getting your work published.

Brown added that professors should try to present their research before submitting. Explaining what you discovered to a group of colleagues will teach you a lot about how far your research has come and how far it still has to go. “The intellectual exercise of getting up in front of a group of people and selling your research is valuable because what that does is make very clear to you where the weaknesses of the work are and where you need to work to improve,” he said.

5. Revise and resubmit

Many professors get discouraged when a journal asks them to revise and resubmit. But Brown cautioned that professors shouldn’t view a resubmit request as a rejection. Hanlon posited that authors should actually be happy about it. “It’s not a very high percentage of papers submitted that actually get a request to resubmit,” she said.

In fact, Brown said it’s rare that an article will be accepted without any changes. But if you are faced with the opportunity to resubmit, don’t take too much time to do so. Brown said the longer you wait, the lower your chances are of being published.

6. Don’t argue with the referee

If you do get asked for a revision, the reviewer—basically the journal’s equivalent to a referee—will explain what the paper lacks and what he or she wants to see changed. You might be tempted to get defensive or explain to the “referee” why he or she is wrong.

That’s a mistake, Brown said. “The worst thing you can do is say that the referee is wrong,” he said. “The referee is always correct.”

And if the editor does happen to have made a factual error, don’t point it out. When you resubmit, just address the issue in the new draft, Brown said. Getting into a power play with a referee will likely ruin your chances of publication.

7. Don’t give up

Just because your target journal rejects your paper doesn't mean nobody will want it. It doesn’t even mean other top journals won’t want it. It just means it hasn’t yet found a home.

“I don’t know a single person who has published every single one of their papers at the journal they first submitted to,” Dikolli said.

It’s important to take the rejection seriously, however. Whatever problems the reviewer had with your paper must be addressed; otherwise, other journals might balk at the same issues. Or you could even run into the same reviewer again. Just keep trying. Revise. Submit. Revise. Submit. While there’s no guarantee of publication, being tenacious gives you a chance that simply giving up doesn’t provide.

Alex Granados is a Raleigh, N.C.-based freelance writer.