Have you ever stopped to consider your audience in academic writing? Do you write to impress the journal editor and peer reviewers? Or are you focused only on the “ultimate “consumers” of your paper, researchers from your field or related fields?
Journal editors and peer reviewers play a crucial role in deciding the fate of your manuscript. As a first step, ensure that your submission package is complete in every respect. How to write to the editor of a journal matters a great deal. The cover letter must clearly and succinctly explain why your manuscript is a great fit for the journal. Once the manuscript gets the green flag from the editor, it enters academic peer review. Experts will carefully read your paper and examine the data to check the methodology, veracity of the findings, ethical compliance, etc. The back-and-forth of peer review might get repeated a couple of times. It can be frustrating, but the process helps bring the manuscript to its best version possible.
Writing (and waiting) to be read
Let’s say your manuscript has passed academic peer review. Your paper now appears in the journal of your choice, ready to be read by your target audience. But like every other researcher, you worry that your paper might remain uncited, even unread. A study revealed that one in five papers from the academic literature recorded in the Web of Science (WoS) from 1900 to 2015 hasn’t been cited yet.1
When your paper remains uncited for years, you wonder: Is your research inconsequential? Is it even being read? Hang in there! Here are some heartening reasons why this might happen.
- Not being cited doesn’t mean not being read: Did you know that academics are influenced by many more papers than they end up citing? Uncited articles might still be viewed and downloaded hundreds of times. The results might be finding uses in practice rather than in furthering the field.1
- You might not know where you are being cited: The sources that cite certain work might not appear in traditional citation databases, e.g., obscure journals, books, and gray literature.
- “Nothing more to do here!”: What if a paper shows how something is not worth pursuing further? Says chemist Niklaas Buurma of his uncited paper that showed that new information cannot be obtained from a certain type of experiment: “We set out to show that something was not worth doing — and we showed it”.1
Such papers have an impact on research, albeit invisible!
- It’s all about the field: Citation rates vary by discipline. A paper might identify specific problems rather than provide work for others to cumulatively build on. This is why “uncitedness” is higher in engineering and technology fields rather than biomedical fields.1
Similarly, niche and super-specialized fields might have lower citation rates because of a very narrow readership. This should not be a cause for worry because field-wise citation indices provide a more realistic picture of a researcher’s impact within the field.
In this hypercompetitive environment, where citation indices and measures of impact determine success,2 do not fret about not getting read or cited. Latest research shows that the proportion of uncited papers is declining.3 What’s more, the Internet and the open access movement together are making it increasingly easier to find, read, and cite relevant papers.
Maximizing the chances of your paper being read
Here are some ways to increase the visibility of your papers and help them reach the right audience.
• Get feedback early: Even before your manuscript reaches the journal editor and enters the academic peer review system, have a colleague peruse your paper to ensure academic rigor.
• Choose well-known journals: Papers published in lesser-known journals tend to be cited less.1
• Hook readers with the title and abstract: For your paper to show up in relevant searches, include important key words and phrases in the title and abstract. Craft a clear yet impactful title and abstract to reel in readers.
• Do not skip crucial background information: Do not assume that your audience will know your topic as well as you. The Introduction section should be appealing to a reader unfamiliar with the topic.
• Publish on preprint servers: Peer-reviewed articles uploaded as preprints tend to garner more citations than articles without preprints.4 Such articles tend to be shared more on social and traditional media as well, expanding your potential readership.
• Improve your writing: Get all the help you need with writing and language editing. A clear and natural-sounding text is more likely to be read than an unclear one.
• Include interesting display items: Many readers like to look at the figures, tables, and data before they start to read the paper. Ensure that these features are appealing and impeccably presented.
It is important to know and write for your audience in academic writing. But it is also essential to ensure that your manuscript is of the highest quality, meeting the key submission criteria defined by the target journal. The first readers of your finalized but unpublished manuscript are the journal editor and peer reviewers. Create a lasting impression on them to ensure successful publication. Only after your paper is published in the right venue can it finally be read by the intended audience.
- Van Noorden, R. (2017). The science that’s never been cited. Nature 552, 162–164. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-017-08404-0
- Singh, S. (2021). Citations in publishing and the academic career. Researcher Life Blog. https://researcher.life/blog/article/citations-publishing-academic-career/
- Larivière, V., Gingras, Y., Archambault, É. (2009). The decline in the concentration of citations, 1900–2007. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.21011
- Fraser, N., Momeni, F., Mayr, P., Peters, I. (2019). The effect of bioRxiv preprints on citations and altmetrics. (preprint) https://doi.org/10.1101/673665