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Preparing Research Articles$

Bruce A. Thyer

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195323375

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195323375.001.0001

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The Importance of Journal Articles

The Importance of Journal Articles

(p.1) 1 The Importance of Journal Articles
Preparing Research Articles

Bruce A. Thyer

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter explains how and why journal articles are generally according greater prestige and merit within the scientific community, relative to other forms of disseminating research findings through venues such as books, book chapters, weblogs, and presenting papers at professional conferences. Published journal articles typically have gone through a rigorous screening process known as blind peer review, whereby independent experts provide the author with critical commentary and suggestions to improve their final paper, prior to publication. Most print journals are now widely accessible over the internet and are relatively easy for others to access. Articles submitted to journals usually appear in print sooner than books or book chapters, and continue to be accorded greater influence in promotion and tenure decisions within academia than alterative means of distributing information. Articles published in peer reviewed journals are likely to remain a very important means of distributing research findings for the foreseeable future.

Keywords:   journals, peer review, blind review, books, chapters, conference papers

In professional and scientific fields such as social work, the publication of an article in a high-quality peer-reviewed journal is viewed as a contribution to disciplinary knowledge that stands somewhat above other forms of scholarship. Why is this? Is it fair? Should this epistemological privileging of certain ways of disseminating research over others be endorsed and supported by you and the profession at large? In this initial chapter, I review the status of research articles as a form of professional contribution in social work, and I try to explain the rationale for valuing such articles over other ways of contributing to knowledge in the field. In later chapters I discuss considerations regarding locating and selecting an appropriate journal to submit your work to; how to prepare and submit your research manuscript; and your obligations as an author after your manuscript has been submitted, accepted, and published. My intent is to help clear away some of the mysteries, or at least little-understood processes, of publishing research articles, and to enhance your success in that area. In turn, I (perhaps immodestly) hope that the general field of social work scholarship will be enhanced. I have accrued some of this information(at times painfully) by working as a moderately successful researcher myself, by serving (p.2) on the editorial boards of various social work and non–social work journals, by authoring and editing some social work research books, and by editing one reasonably well-regarded social work research journal for some 18 years. I have made many mistakes and have had some successes. By conveying these experiences to you, perhaps I will enable you to better evade the former and promote the latter.

The next section outlines some reasons for why the authorship of articles in peer-reviewed journals is accorded greater distinction.

The Peer-Review Process

Most professional social work journals have adopted the publication style developed by the American Psychological Association and described in a very important reference book called the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (American Psychological Association [APA], 2001), as have journals in a wide array of disciplines in the behavioral and social sciences. In addition to requiring that manuscripts submitted to a given journal be physically formatted in APA style, most social work journals have also adopted a process to aid them in the selection of articles for publication; this process is called “peer review” and is also outlined in the APA style manual. Briefly (and discussed in a later chapter in greater detail), manuscripts are submitted to a journal's editor (or editor-in-chief). He or she sends the author (i.e., you) a postcard, a postally mailed letter, or an e-mail acknowledging receipt of the paper and assigns the work a number for future correspondence purposes. The editor invites two or more individuals with some background in the subject matter of your paper to read it. These reviewers may be members of the journal's formal editorial board, or they may be guest reviewers selected for their specialized expertise. Before it is sent out for review, all identifying information (name, institutional affiliation, etc.) is removed from your submission. The reviewers are thus “blind” when they critique your work. This helps guard against gender bias or chances of the institution you are with (say, the (p.3) University of Michigan, which has a highly prestigious social work program, versus, say, Rustic State U., of lesser distinction) biasing the reviewers' appraisal.

In due course the editor receives several reviews of your paper, each of which will, apart from providing a narrative qualitative and quantitative critique, recommend that it be accepted for publication, revised by you and resubmitted for further review, or rejected. Revised articles resubmitted to the editor may or may not be subjected to further review by the original reviewers (or others). Many journals simply have the editor evaluate the extent to which your revision satisfactorily addresses the reviewers' suggestions, and the editor alone then accepts or rejects the work.

It is widely held that selecting articles for publication in this manner, using blind peer review, is superior to alternative methods, and this is why almost all journals in social work use blind peer review. And it is this element of constructive critical appraisal and (usually) suggestions for revision by presumptive experts on your paper's topic that elevates the article selected for publication in peer-reviewed journals above other contributions to disciplinary scholarship. There have been a couple of empirical studies evaluating the merits of using blinded versus nonblinded reviewers (that is, reviews in which the author's identity is either masked or not), and according to them blind review did not seem to enhance the quality of the reviews or the time of processing reviews to medical journals (e.g., Justice, Cho, Winker, Berlin, & Rennie, 1998; van Rooyen, Godlee, Evans, Smith, & Black, 1998). And to be honest, I am not aware of any controlled evaluations empirically demonstrating that articles chosen for publication on the basis of peer review are of higher quality than articles published in journals either that are open-access (meaning they accept pretty much everything that is submitted to them) or whose editor is solely responsible for selecting which ones to accept, without any peer-review mechanism. But even absent such data, it is almost axiomatic in the research communities of all disciplines that article selection via peer review enhances the quality of what is published.

(p.4) Journals Are Superior Vehicles for Disseminating your Findings

Your research and findings are valuable to the scientific community only to the extent that other scholars are able to come into contact with your work. An article published in a quality peer-reviewed journal will appear in the hard-copy issues of the journal received by individuals and libraries that subscribe to that journal. Articles are also increasingly Internet accessible through Web sites maintained by the publishers of journals, through institutional libraries that have an electronic subscription to the journal, and through various databases and indexing services. Nowadays, anyone wishing to find out what a given person has authored can simply insert that person's name into a search engine (e.g., PsycInfo, Web of Science), and voilà—an up-to-date list of the articles that person has authored will appear. Most major university libraries now grant faculty and students (and sometimes alumni) access to complete copies of articles published in journals subscribed to by that university. What this means pragmatically is that an article appearing in a journal that supports a concurrent or slightly delayed electronic version of each issue is almost instantly available to anyone with Internet access. Your journal article has a near worldwide audience.

Books and book chapters do not, as yet, possess this level of ease of accessibility; hence, as a means of disseminating your research, the journal article is head and shoulders above these other two means of conveying information. Presentations at local, state, regional, national, and international conferences are typically made to a relatively small audience, whose members may dutifully pick up the hard copy of the paper or PowerPoint presentation you offer them; with the exception of those hardy souls who actually heard you at the conference, though, most other folks with an interest in your topic will have no practical way of coming into contact with your work. Very few conferences publish complete “proceedings,” or contents of all papers presented at that meeting, and those that are published tend to consist of many pages of dissimilarly formatted papers photocopied and bound, with little careful editing. Some conferences make their papers available on DVD, or even on the Web, but this is rare, and the careful editing and proofing as- (p.5) sociated with the publication of a journal article is usually lacking. Also, many conferences have a very high acceptance rate for submitted proposals. Part of the reason for this is simply that conferences are a success only if people attend them, and the more papers they accept, the more folks pay to attend the conference. Some international conferences have exceedingly high acceptance rates, as do some national specialty social work conferences in the United States. This is another reason why papers published in high-quality journals that use a selective peer-review system have greater prestige than research papers presented at conferences.

Journals Are Quicker

In many fields, speed is of the essence: the sooner a new discovery is communicated to the professional community, the better. Much social work research lacks this element of time pressure. While we of course want our work to emerge in print sooner rather than later, this is usually not due to our fears that someone will “scoop” our discovery or beat us to the punch (unlike some fields, such as high-energy physics). While there is variation, of course, it usually takes a shorter time period for an article to move from initial submission into print than it does for a book or book chapter. Some of the very best science journals can move submitted papers from review to acceptance and into print in a couple of months, but no social work journal has this expeditious a publication mechanism in place. About 1 year is the fastest that the best of the social work journals can move in this regard, and some are quite slow. In a survey of authors who had published an article in a social work journal, we found that some journals took as long as 2 years to inform authors that their article had been accepted (Thyer & Myers, 2003)! This is inexcusably long. I had the Winter 2007 issue of the Journal of Social Work Education at hand as I wrote this book, and I found that the first article in that issue had been accepted in September 2004 (a 27-month lag), the second article had been accepted in March 2005 (almost a 2-year lag), the third in July 2005 (over 18 months), etc. As sadly slow as (p.6) this process often is, though, it is usually speedier than moving a completed book manuscript through the steps of submission, acceptance, typesetting, production, and publication. Hence, for reasons of both dissemination and speed, journal articles are preferable over other models of communication.

Promotion and Tenure Decisions Within Academic Social Work

Nowadays, the modal model for a social work faculty member is someone who has earned the MSW degree or its equivalent (e.g., MSSW, MSSA, MA) from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE); has several years of practice experience; and has earned a PhD in social work or a closely related field such as psychology, education, sociology, political science, etc. These folks typically are hired into a tenure-earning position as assistant professors. They will usually spend 5 to 7 years as an assistant professor and then apply for promotion to the higher rank of associate professor, at which time they will be awarded tenure. “Tenure” means that a faculty member can be dismissed only for cause (e.g., consistently bad teaching, substance abuse problems, abusing students, committing a felony), and even then only after a prolonged review process, complete with suitable venues for appeal. It does not mean that one has a job for life or that one cannot be fired.

When applying for promotion and tenure (P & T), one usually prepares a P & T dossier, a compilation of one's accomplishments in the areas of teaching, research, and service during one's appointment as an assistant professor. The variables used to document one's research achievements include such things as copies of articles that have been published in peer-reviewed journals, manuscripts of articles that have been formally accepted but not yet printed, published or in-press book chapters, edited books, authored books, and other lesser bits of evidence of one's scholarship. Included here are things such as book reviews; editorials; prefaces; letters or comments appearing in professional journals; and papers delivered at state, regional, national, or interna- (p.7) tional conferences. Surveys have been undertaken asking academic faculty and administrators to rank these various forms of scholarship, and in social work, as in most disciplines, having authored an article that was published in a peer-reviewed journal is seen as the highest, most creditable evidence of scholarship, relative to the other indicators mentioned above. Within this broad category, varying amounts of credit are given for being sole author (higher credit) versus one of a series of authors (lesser credit), first of a series of authors (higher) versus being farther down in the list of authors (lower), having an article appear in a higher-quality journal versus a lower-quality journal, lengthier articles versus brief ones, articles containing sophisticated statistical analyses of collected empirical data (higher) versus a secondary analysis of data originally gathered by others or one that uses less complex inferential tools (lesser).

Seipel (2003) conducted a survey study using a random sample of 189 social work faculty employed at programs offering the MSW or the MSW and PhD degrees. The survey addressed the relative importance of various types of publications, and Seipel found empirical support for many of the opinions mentioned above. Here are some illustrative quotes from this report:

  • “[P]eer-reviewed work should be given the greatest weight for tenure consideration…the respondent's ratings for peer-reviewed publications were from one third to one half greater in value than their ratings for non-peer-reviewed publications…social work educators who are beginning their careers should work towards publishing in peer-reviewed or critically-juried publications” (pp. 81–82).

  • “[A] single-authored publication was given the highest value of any form of authorship” (p. 83).

  • “Beginning social work educators should strive to be a sole author, or the first author of a collaborative project” (p. 84).

  • “[P]ublishing an empirical paper was slightly more valuable for tenure considerations than publishing non-empirical work” (p. 85).

(p.8) The above guidelines are very general indeed; of course individual social work programs may choose to emphasize some contributions over others, and indeed individual senior faculty (e.g., those with tenure) appraising P & T dossiers may apply their own preferences at variance with those officially endorsed by their program. But be that as it may, these guidelines, fair or not, are those most commonly endorsed within academic social work, and their existence is a pragmatic reality that faculty aspiring to promotion should take into account in calculating their chances for being promoted.

Hasn't the Internet Made Print Journals Outmoded?

Far from it. In fact, contrary to the seemingly gleeful prognostications made by Internet enthusiasts a decade ago of the demise of hard-copy publications, the Internet has dramatically increased the impact of hard-copy journals! Two concurrent developments have brought this about. Gimlet-eyed commercial publishers, with so much financial and human capital invested in their stable of print journals—journals from which they reap immense profits—are not about to let their golden goose escape. What they have done is make available Web-based versions of their print journals, parallel with the publication of the hard-copy version. Individual subscribers now are often provided with a choice—buy a print subscription, which will be mailed to them; buy a lower-cost Internet subscription, which is often available a few weeks prior to the appearance of the print version; or buy a concurrent subscription, one that provides a hard copy of each issue and concurrent access to a Web-based version. The Web-based versions are a win–win for the publishers. Internet publication of a journal costs very little, far less than producing a print version. Publishers have no printing or mailing costs associated with their online subscriptions. The articles were being set up in camera-ready PDF (portable data file) format anyway, as part of the hard-copy production process, so making PDFs of each issue available online for a subscription fee is a pretty easy way to earn additional income.

(p.9) Many social workers continue to prefer to read a research article from a hard-copy journal rather than from a computer monitor. You can make annotations on the printed page, use a yellow highlighter, underline sentences, etc., and having a row of journals neatly aligned on one's office bookshelf is validation that one is truly a legitimate scholar! If you have only an electronic subscription, it can be hard to access articles while, say, on the beach (plus, sand can get into your drive slots). Frankly, nothing beats relaxing in a hammock strung between two palm trees and sipping a frozen daiquiri while perusing the latest, exciting hard-copy issue of your favorite journal. Unexpectedly, the revenues afforded by Internet subscriptions have, paradoxically, supported the existence of print journals in the face of rising production and mailing costs.

Another factor contributing to the perpetuation of the print journal has been the revenue-enhancing practice of “bundling.” Let's take a major publisher such as SAGE Publications, which produces over 450 print journals, including the one I edit, Research on Social Work Practice (RSWP). A single subscription to this journal currently costs a library about $430 a year. That seems like a lot, but keep in mind that an individual subscriber is charged only $130, and anyone joining the Society for Social Work and Research (www.sswr.org) for $100 a year can get a free subscription to the journal as a membership benefit at no additional cost. Say the university library has noted that RSWP is used a great deal and it, not surprisingly, wants to renew its annual institutional subscription. SAGE also produces the social work journal Affilia, which is less widely read and cited than RSWP, and the library is inclined to drop its institutional subscription to Affilia. The wise marketers at SAGE will opt to “bundle” together a large collection (some in high demand, others less so) of social work and behavioral science journals and offer an electronic subscription for the whole collection at a price dramatically lower than the cost of individually subscribing to all the journals in the bundle. Libraries have tended to snap up this offer, with two effects. Gradually, the proportion of libraries offering solely hard-copy access to journals in their periodicals collection is dropping relative to that of (p.10) those offering online access to a larger-than-they-could-otherwise- afford collection of journals. Again, the result is that, while hard-copy subscriptions are remaining stable, online subscriptions are dramatically increasing due to the financial incentives involved in bundling. Thus, low-cost (to the publishers), Web-based subscription access to journals is directly subsidizing the continuing existence of the more expensive hard-copy versions of journals. The number of institutional libraries subscribing to RSWP hovered around 400 for many years, but since the implementation of electronic bundling that number has more than doubled; over 900 libraries now subscribe to the journal, and they usually provide faculty and students with the capacity to download articles for free. For example, in 2006, over 74,000 copies of articles that were published in RSWP were downloaded (most for free, via university subscriptions, but some via pay-per-view) by scholars. These Web-based developments have really facilitated the ability of scholars to access social work research—and this is a good thing for all journals.

There has yet to appear a well-known social work journal that began and is maintained exclusively online. But most of the social work journals that originated in hard-copy version are transitioning to concurrent publication of hard-copy and online versions, and this is generally a positive development. I recently had an article (Thyer, 2007) published in the Clinical Social Work Journal. The online version was available in November 2006, while the hard-copy journal did not appear in print until February 2007. The PDF version was made widely available to subscribers through the journal's Web site several months in advance of the print publication, and freely to folks affiliated with my university (which has an institutional library subscription). Individual articles are also available for purchase on a pay-per-download basis to social workers who do not subscribe to the journal or who lack library access but wish to obtain a copy of this particular article.

We may well see the eventual demise of the print journal, but we are a long way from it. For now, publishing in traditional hard-copy journals (that support concurrent online versions) remains the first-choice option for social work scholars. I will have some more to say about the pros and cons of publishing in exclusively online journals in Chapter 2.

(p.11) Journals Lend Themselves to the Correction of Errors

An article appearing in a journal will be read by many persons, not a few of whom will be carefully scrutinizing it for mistakes, errors of omission such as failing to cite some seminal prior research, or errors of commission such as applying the incorrect method of statistical analysis or of misinterpreting data. And sometimes, after publication, the original author will realize that he or she made a mistake! Most journals recognize these realities and provide venues for corrections. Minimally it can take the form of the author publishing, in a subsequent issue of a the journal, an erratum notice—an acknowledgment of a mistake in the original publication along with a few corrected sentences, a reanalyzed statistical test, or a table containing corrected figures. Or a reader, Dr. X, may be motivated to write a more elaborate critique of the original piece, outlining its errors and providing presumptively corrective information, and then send this to the journal's editor with a request that it be published in the interests of scientific accuracy. If the editor accepts such a response, he or she will usually invite the authors of the offending piece to prepare a rebuttal defending their original work or (rarely) a grateful response acknowledging that they did indeed make a mistake and are ever so pleased that their mistake has been graciously corrected by Dr. X. In this way research errors can be corrected promptly, rather than exist uncorrected for decades. This self-corrective potential exists to a far lesser degree with other forms of scholarship such as a book chapter or a conference paper, and it represents another advantage of journal articles over other types of research contributions.


Publishing journal articles has been and likely will remain for the foreseeable future the most prestigious and productive means of disseminating the results of social work research. Journal articles reach more readers more rapidly than most other ways of communicating research information, and the process of blind peer review used to select (p.12) manuscripts for publication is believed to be a screening mechanism that produces articles of higher quality than other ways of choosing what research articles to publish. Accordingly, publishing journal articles is the more valuable currency (at least in the social work academic community) relative to presenting papers at conferences, posting research papers on blogs or personal Web sites, or reporting original research in books or book chapters. This “pecking order” has been in place for decades, and the contingencies that gave rise to it remain operative. Thus, the relative status of journal articles as the “leaders of the pack” is unlikely to change in the near future.