Ten steps to publishing a research paper in a peer-reviewed journal

The Plants for Bugs team has recently submitted the first research paper from the four-year study so we thought it might be time to shed some light on this somewhat mysterious process

Ever wondered what it takes to write and publish a scientific (research) paper? Or questioned why there is often a long delay between completing the data collection stage of a research study and getting the first paper in print? Or simply what ‘peer review’ means? We’ve condensed it down to 10 steps;

Step 1. Design a replicated scientific experiment with a clear hypothesis and sound methodology. Run the experiment and collect data according to strictly followed protocols. In the case of our Plants for Bugs study, the period of recording lasted 4 years, from 2010-2013.

Step 2. Analyse the data using statistical analysis software. Depending on how large and complex the dataset is (i.e. number of records), this can take several days to many weeks or even months. Care is needed because if the analysis is wrong or inaccurate, the paper will not be accepted by the journal. The Plants for Bugs team spent much of 2014 getting the statistical analysis correct; which with a dataset of over 80,000 recorded records this is perhaps not unsurprising.

Step 3. Example graph from Plants for Bugs analysisChoose a suitable journal for publication – the journal should cover the topic area of the research undertaken. The journal will want to see evidence that the work is to a high scientific standard and novel.

Other considerations will include whether it is topical, exciting and that the results can be used to influence management and policy.

In Plants for Bugs we are seeking to inform gardeners, landscapers and policy makers on the best plant choice when selecting native and non-native plants for garden wildlife and we considered various journals covering aspects of entomology and ecology.

Step 4. Write up the findings (or a particular aspect of the findings). The write up is often spread between a number of authors who have been actively involved with the experiment. A scientific paper is made of up of several elements, generally including; title, summary (or abstract), introduction, materials and methods, results, discussion, acknowledgements, references and appendices. Each section requires specific formatting for the journal concerned, even the layout of tables and images has specific instructions. This stage can take many months and involve many drafts of the paper.

Step 5. Submit the paper to the journal of choice.

Step 6. Wait nervously with fingers crossed… The editors of the journal may decide to reject your paper outright, although they may give some feedback. If so, it is back to the drawing board to first see if the paper needs rewriting and then submit to an alternative journal. On the other hand, after a few weeks you may hear that your paper has progressed to the next stage, review by independent scientists. These are experts in the field of your particular topic and is what is meant by ‘peer review’.

Step 7. More nervous waiting… It again can take several weeks to hear back from the reviewing authors (some are faster than others!). Their comments can include questions and may suggest minor or major changes to the paper, occasionally a complete rewrite and outright rejection is still a possibility. If rejected it is back to stage 3. Only once the original authors have made the required amendments and responded to all comments will the journal consider publishing the paper. Three to six months is the average time for a paper in a peer-reviewed journal to take between submission and acceptance.

Step 8. Receive the unedited proof. At this stage the authors ensure no mistakes have crept in during the publication process.

Step 9. Your paper is finally published (usually on-line at first). Lots of celebration and merriment. The authors will usually have a few weeks advance notice of the publication date. This time can be taken preparing interpretation material around publication of the results. Today such interpretation material is important; even if the paper is what is known as ‘open access’ (i.e. any member of the public can read the paper for free), the wording of the scientific paper isn’t always easy to understand or apply to real life. We plan to offer short online bulletins on each Plants for Bugs results paper that is published as a guide for gardeners.

Step 10. Repeat steps 2-9 for every subsequent paper. The dataset of Plants for Bugs is large enough to mean we are likely to have three or more results papers to write.

This may seem a long-winded affair but without this degree of rigour, we wouldn’t have the same degree of confidence around the messages from scientific experiments like Plants for Bugs. So we ask for a little patience from everyone eagerly awaiting our findings. We have currently reached Step 7 so it hopefully won’t be too much longer.

Read about the Plants for Bugs study

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.