Advice for the Next Generation of Researchers in Psychology from an Experienced Editor

In April 2012, at the conference of the Austrian Society for Psychology (ÖGP) at the University of Graz, Robert Kail – experienced researcher and editor for one of the flagship journals in Psychology, Psychological Science – gave an insightful presentation and discussion targeted to give advice about manuscript preparation and the submission process to junior researchers in psychology. His presentation was organized around several key questions taken from a survey that students of the association for psychological science (APSSC) had conducted. The following main topics of his presentation will be discussed in this post: turning a thesis into a paper, writing a clear introduction, choosing the right title for a paper, and what to consider during the submission phase.

Turning a Thesis into a Paper

Often the first paper that a young psychologist is working on, is based on a thesis – either a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or even a Doctoral thesis. During his career as an editor for various journals, Dr. Kail has read many articles which he considers as being based on a research thesis. How can this can be concluded from just reading the article? Well, people who are working on their thesis usually are very proud of the profound knowledge they acquired about the topic, and therefore write immensely long introductions, covering all the basics their research question is based on. However, when turning the introduction of a thesis into the one of a scientific paper, one should keep in mind that a paper’s focus is not on convincing the readership of the author’s knowledge of the literature, but should focus directly on the question that the research tries to answer. Framing a study’s introduction effectively will catch the reviewer’s and reader’s interest from the first paragraph.

Writing Clearly

Concentrate on keeping paragraphs short from the start: Only one argument should be discussed within every paragraph (5-6 sentences). Moreover, those should be combined to extract your research question and hypotheses within often not more than 8-9 paragraphs (4-5 pages).

One strategy to start your introduction would be to cover the following questions within three paragraphs:

  • What is unknown?
  •  Why is it important to know it?
  • How does your study help to know it better?

As soon as you managed to set up these three paragraphs, you can add information until you have built up the framework to logically extract your hypotheses from. The essence of this advice: Stay as brief as possible (3-4 paragraphs), then make it longer, as necessary – but do not start from longer!

You can convey organization by using an appropriate number of subheadings. Also, you should avoid jargon and handwaving (e.g., “this is the first study to…” or “importantly”); instead, clear structure and using a lot of verbs (e.g., instead of “the focus of this work is on…” write “this work focuses on…”) will catch the reader`s attention to the important points and findings. Writers who are not English native speakers might consider readings which might help them keep their style clear (see e.g., Williams & Colomb, 2010).

Choosing the Right Title

When searching literature in a database, the title is the first thing you see and helps to determine whether you will read the paper or even its abstract. Therefore, consider your title carefully: Avoid too cute or too clever titles, but also do not make it too plain by using “effects of independent variable on dependent variable”-titles. Also “preliminary” in a title (and the whole paper) implicates to the reader that the findings might be “not the real thing”, which means too much honesty might make your findings seem less important than they actually are.

On a question from the audience targeting Psychological Science’s reputation of publishing papers with catchy titles, Dr. Kail suggested that there’s nothing wrong with catchy titles, but authors should not invest too much time in trying to be clever.

Submission Phase

When selecting a journal for paper submission, one should honestly rate the importance of the paper’s findings to decide which journal might be appropriate in terms of reputation and impact factor. Clearly, the decision should also be based on which journals publish associated research. Also, the editorial staff might be an influencing factor.

As an editor, Dr. Kail finds it very important that submitting authors follow the guidelines in the information for contributors. In the cover letter, you should never describe your paper’s importance. Rather, keep it lean and polite. Furthermore, it is a good idea to include preferred and non-preferred reviewers. As an author you will probably know who has the expertise to rate the quality of your research and give fruitful feedback. You should not ask for reviewers with whom you have worked, as these people have a conflict of interest

The “action” letter – that is, the response you will get from the journal you submitted to, will not just tell you if the paper is accepted or not, but give you important advice on how to continue with the submission process. You should read it carefully and follow the  editor’s instructions before re-submitting the paper. Only if the review is factually incorrect you should appeal to the editor to clarify facts that might have influenced the editorial decision.

Conclusion

Finally, Dr. Kail cautioned that his advice stems from 25 years of experience as a researcher and editor. However, it is only his opinion and not the truth – everyone should reflect it and decide on its relevance for their own work and situation individually. Personally, I found Robert Kail’s advice very helpful and I am always happy when experienced people are willing to share their knowledge with us young psychologists.

References and further readings

Williams, J., & Colomb, G. (2010). Style: The basics of clarity and grace (4th ed.). Boston: Longman.

An interview with Robert Kail reflecting five years of work as an editor for Psychological Science in the November issue of the APS Observer

Check JEPS bulletin entries for further information on journals in Psychology and how to write a good title for your journal article.

 

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Peter Edelsbrunner is a PhD student at the Institute for Behavioural Sciences at the ETH Zurich. He completed his Master’s degree in Psychology at the University of Graz. He is interested in conceptual change, reasoning processes, and strutural equation modelling. With his strong methodological background, he hopes to combine both cognitive theory and psychometrics in his future research pursuits.

About the author

Peter Edelsbrunner Peter is currently doctoral student at the section for learning and instruction research of ETH Zurich in Switzerland. He graduated from Psychology at the University of Graz in Austria. Peter is interested in conceptual knowledge development and the application of flexible mixture models to developmental research. Since 2011 he has been active in the EFPSA European Summer School and related activities.

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