Thursday, May 22, 2014

How to Publish an Article in an Academic Journal: Avoid Rookie Mistakes

If you are reading this, I likely don’t need to tell you about the importance of publishing scholarly articles to get an academic position or, if you have one, to secure tenure or promotion. Instead, I’d like to offer you some tips that might help you get your research published.

I am writing this post because I have reviewed an insane amount of articles over the past few months, and have noticed that many of these articles should never have been sent out for review, because they were missing key components.

The authors of these articles thus waited three months for someone to tell them that they do not have a clear argument, that there is no literature review, or that they need to describe their ethnographic methods. Sometimes they waited this long or longer only to hear other fairly generic advice.

I am in the process of submitting an article to a journal. I am thus writing this post both to make sure that I practice what I preach, and to offer some examples from my own writing that might be useful as you prepare your own article.

Some questions to ask yourself

First of all, before you send an empirical social science article out for review, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is your research question?
  2. How is your research question related to the current literature?
  3. How will you use your data to answer your research question?

Before you send a piece off, make sure that a) you can answer these questions; and b) that anyone that reads your paper also can answer these questions.

I have reviewed twenty papers and books in the first half of this year. Many of the articles received rejections because the articles did not have all the necessary pieces or because the pieces did not have the necessary elements. Thus, make sure that your paper has all of the following elements.

(This post is primarily directed at authors of empirical social science articles, but let me know in the comments how this might be adjusted for other fields.)


The introduction should contain a brief summary of the literature with which you will engage, a research question that derives from that literature, and a brief explanation of how you will answer that question.

For example, I am writing an article that engages with two distinct bodies of literature: scholarship on race and incarceration and scholarship on immigrant incorporation. My introduction has one paragraph on each of those bodies of literature, followed by a statement of the research questions and the methods.

“This paper brings the literature on immigrant incorporation into conversation with the literature on mass incarceration through a consideration of these two research questions: 
  1. How has mass deportation affected the incorporation trajectories of black male immigrants?
  2. What role does gendered structural racism play in blocking the mobility of black male immigrants? 
I draw from interviews with 83 Jamaican and Dominican immigrants to answer these questions.”

I then use two more paragraphs to define the conceptual terms I am using – particularly “gendered structural racism.”

Literature Review

Some of the papers I reviewed simply did not have literature reviews. Others made the rookie mistake of a serial literature review – where the author discusses one piece of scholarship per paragraph yet does not put the works into conversation with each other. The literature review must synthesize the literature and point directly to your research questions.

You can tell you are doing this if you have sentences that look like this:
“Immigration scholars argue that there are distinct paths to becoming part of society and refer to this process as segmented assimilation. These sociologists argue that immigrants who arrive in the country as youth experience either 1) assimilation into mainstream society; 2) selective acculturation; or 3) downward assimilation (Portes and Zhou 1993; Zhou 1997; Portes and Rumbaut 2001).”
You are not doing this if you have several paragraphs that each begin with: “Portes and Rumbaut (2001) argue…. Zhou (1997) argues…..” Synthesis is key here.

My literature review begins with a section on the collateral consequences of mass incarceration, which ends with the statement:
“As scholars get a handle on the collateral consequences of mass incarceration, it is crucial to also pay attention to the collateral consequences of mass deportation.”
The next section is on crimmigration, where I explain how immigration and criminal law enforcement have merged. This section is more background than literature review, and I have gone back and forth about where to put it. For now, it is between the first main section of the literature review and the last, which is on deportation and immigrant incorporation.

The subsection on immigration incorporation begins with:
“Whereas scholars who write about the urban African American experience often highlight the impact of mass incarceration, those who focus on black immigrants rarely mention heavy policing or mass incarceration. Whereas immigration scholars often focus on attitudes and identities, scholars of mass incarceration argue that, regardless of your attitude, U.S. drug laws are so draconian that it becomes difficult for any black or Latino male youth to avoid the criminal justice system, particularly if he lives in a primarily non-white neighborhood (Alexander 2011; Western 2006). This raises the question of how gendered structural racism affects the incorporation trajectories of black male immigrant youth.”
This is followed by a discussion of the prevailing literature on immigrant incorporation - the segmented assimilation discussion mentioned above.

Make sure that your literature review points directly at your research questions.


Every article needs an argument. You can state your argument in the introduction, in the abstract, and/or in the literature review. You need an argument, however, in order to get published. Here’s mine:

“I argue that a primary factor contributing to their arrest and incarceration was gendered structural racism – not oppositional attitudes. Neither ethnic cohesion nor Anglo-conformity protected these black male immigrants from being funneled into the criminal justice system.”
Note: If your paper is quantitative, you will need hypotheses. In my view, you don’t need these for qualitative papers.


My article is based on ethnography and interviews, so the methods section is pretty straightforward. I discuss how long the ethnographic research lasted (9 months); how many interviews (83); and the case selection – why I interviewed deportees in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, and why most of my interviewees are men.

Data and Analysis

This is the meat of your paper – where your original contribution lies. The main trick here is to make sure that you deploy your data to answer your research questions.

In my paper, I am trying to show that black male immigrants who were on a path to mainstream assimilation, who engaged in selective acculturation, and who experienced downward assimilation all met a similar fate – they ended up arrested, incarcerated, and deported. My objective is to show that their attitudes about school and their future goals were not the reason they were deported. Instead, they were deported because they live in heavily policed neighborhoods, were racially profiled, and faced a punitive legal and immigration system. Thus, I divide my discussion of data and methods into those three sections.

Many qualitative papers fail to analyze their data. You not only need to tell us what you learned from your interviews and ethnography; you also need to analyze each piece of data you provide. Tell the reader what it means and why it’s important.


I have not thus far rejected an article for not having a good conclusion – although I did receive one that completely lacked a conclusion. And, that did not look good.

In any event, a good conclusion can only strengthen your article and make it more likely that your findings will be understood and disseminated.

In my conclusion, I reiterate my findings, mention any possible limitations, and explore directions for future research.

Here is my restatement of my main argument:
“Some of these youth assimilated to the local subcultures in their neighborhoods. Others maintained strong ethnic ties. Still others had high aspirations about becoming part of mainstream society. None of these paths, however, could protect them from the consequences of heavy policing in their neighborhoods.”
I think I am nearly ready to submit. How about you?


  1. My reserach is about the black characters in Faulkner's novels Absalom Absalom and The Sound and The Fury.