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By Cally Guerin

At the end of June, I was lucky enough to attend the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) conference in Melbourne, Australia – the first face-to-face conference I’ve been to since 2019. This conference included a couple of papers directly related to doctoral education, but is focused on higher education more broadly. There were, however, many doctoral candidates reporting on their studies, many with a view to publishing their research.

With a little bit of time to fill in after the last session, I wandered into the State Library of Victoria to look at an exhibition of “rare, sacred and iconic” texts called “The World of the Book”. Gazing at these ancient manuscripts, I was reminded once again of the special beauty of physical books. In earlier times, when very few people were literate, the knowledge held in these scrolls and handwritten books was difficult to access. Printing and increasing literacy levels then gradually opened up these texts to a broader audience. And now in today’s digital world, of course, we are often overwhelmed by the ready availability of an ever-increasing onslaught of information.










These two contrasting images – PhD candidates reporting on their original contributions to knowledge alongside the knowledge held in ancient manuscripts – made me reflect on the challenges for doctoral writers. These writers are generating new knowledge in their disciplines, and seeking audiences and publication outlets to disseminate that knowledge. Formal publication in traditional academic journals is part of that desire.

In my role as incoming Joint Executive Editor of HERD alongside Susan Blackley, I participated in the HERDSA conference workshops about reviewing for and publishing in our journal.

The message we were keen to get across to both authors and reviewers is the central importance of paying close attention to any journal’s aims and scope (readily found on their webpages) and their stated criteria. While these might seem obvious starting points for authors, it is enormously helpful for editors and reviewers to make it absolutely clear in the manuscript that the research does in fact fit with the journal and the ongoing debates in its pages. An easy rule of thumb here is to notice whether the article cites anything from the journal – if it does, then that suggests this new piece is interacting with related existing material.

Also, a journal article should tell the reader precisely what it contributes to knowledge in the field. While most journal articles are not earth shattering or paradigm shifting, they do need to tell us something new or provide a new slant on the subject. This is what makes it worth reading and interesting for other researchers in the field. If it there’s nothing much new, it’s unlikely that the journal will use up the goodwill of reviewers by asking them to read it (reviewer capacity is an increasingly scarce resource in the world of academic publishing).

For those new to journal publication, the disappointment of a desk reject (that is, the editor returning it directly without sending it out to review) can damage confidence. For those writing a thesis by publication, the time delays of working through multiple journals can disrupt the planned schedule towards PhD completion (this is a particular problem if the university requires a certain number of papers to be accepted for publication before the thesis can be submitted for examination).

So, it is possible to increase the chances of publication by ensuring that:

  • the article matches the journal’s aims and scope, and
  • makes a clear, new contribution to knowledge.

This will get the article past the first step at the editor’s desk. Then, reviewers will judge articles against further criteria, such as appropriateness and integration of the theories employed, robust method and critical analysis of data, persuasive and relevant conclusions, and clarity of expression. I personally would also like to put in a bid for approachable titles (I see so many submissions with long, ungainly, incomprehensible titles that immediately make me wonder if the rest of the article will be equally impenetrable and unreadable). For more on titles, see this blog.

Doctoral writers are generating important new knowledge in their disciplines; disseminating that knowledge is also important. So, if you are working with doctoral candidates who are seeking to publish their work in traditional academic journals, remind them that their chances will be much better if they start by focusing on what the journal will be looking for in order to say ‘yes’.