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What do editors really want?

By Margaret Adolphus

Introduction

Is it possible neatly to sum up what the editors of academic journals are looking for? The quick – and slick – answer, is that it depends on the journal. And any intending author should certainly do their research to make sure not only that the topic fits a journal's editorial philosophy, but also that they understand its quality variables.

According to Professors Parker and Guthrie of Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal:

"Authors should carefully evaluate the subject areas, philosophies and methodologies exhibited by journals in order to target those with the best fit to their work. They should also look for indicators of quality required including identity of the editorial board, number of revisions indicated for published articles over recent years, extent of empirical evidence, literature referencing and level of theorizing in articles published."

However, if you examine the desired qualities described by a number of editors, you quickly find that there are surprising commonalities – most, for example, want something "new" and "fresh", while editors of research journals are looking for rigorous methodology. And, whilst making sure that you are within your chosen journal's editorial scope is important, knowing the plus factors preferred by many editors will certainly help you land in the review pile and then sail through it.

Emerald is a long established publisher with over 200 journals and a wide range of serials, series and books in a variety of disciplines. A good source of in-depth information on writing for an Emerald publication is available on this website in the "Meet the editor" interviews section. The interviews provide information on a publication's mission, the community it serves, and the sort of contributions it is looking for.

Reading through the profiles gives a good indication of the sort of answers you might get if you got a panel of editors together in a room, and asked them the sorts of things that really get them excited about a submission.

Articles usually follow a fairly particular template, with the following features:

  • The introduction: what is the purpose of the paper, its scope?
  • The research methodology used – which one, why, and how.
  • A literature review – an examination of what has gone before, a situation of the research within a theoretical framework. The preference is generally for coherent discussion of a few authors who are significant to the research.
  • The findings from the research, with an explanation of why those findings were extrapolated from the data, perhaps with a brief account of the analysis.
  • A conclusion which restates the purpose of the research, encapsulates the main, and most interesting, findings, and looks at their implications.
  • References to the literature quoted, which should be complete and in the style used in the journal.

An article may tick all these boxes, but to stand out it needs to have something a bit special. What makes it "special" is examined in the following sections.


Important note for readers

All editors' comments quoted in this guide are taken from the relevant "Meet the editor" interview. Whilst the author has taken care to ensure that the views expressed are still current, when targeting a particular journal, you are advised to check with the editor that he or she still values these qualities when you write in with your proposal.

Research papers: what do editors particularly value?

Common themes running through Emerald's "Meet the editor" interviews are described below, and most apply to all types of articles, although concern about research methodology is obviously most important to articles that draw on empirical research.

1. Originality

The desire for something original, which looks at things with a fresh perspective and raises questions not previously asked, was something mentioned again and again in the interviews. The editor of Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal put it most succinctly:

"The 'So what?' question is absolutely crucial and often invoked by AAAJ reviewers. It is the ultimate test of a paper's significance. Who should care? Why should they care? What difference does it make?"

The originality can be in the content – for example coverage of a Cinderella service (elder care) contributed to one paper winning an Outstanding Paper Award (Donoghue et al.; 2005) – but it can also involve looking at a problem with a fresh perspective, such as applying a different research method or fresh disciplinary lens. Topicality may help: for example Joyce Liddle, editor of the International Journal of Public Sector Management describes how an article on Katrina, the hurricane that devastated New Orleans, was rushed through review for timely publication.

If you are aiming at a well established journal, it helps to make the originality of your submission stand out. This is how John Peters, Emerald's former chief executive officer and editor of Management Decision puts it:

"As to what gets a paper on a suitable topic into the review process, look at it this way. We publish over 100 papers a year, out of a total of around 1,000 submissions. So, a paper needs to stand out as interesting, challenging and different. And the place it needs to stand out is up front, in the title, the abstract and the front page. If the interest only occurs half way through the paper, it may get missed. It's the same principle as a job application, or a piece of marketing literature."

There's also a general expectation that papers should make a contribution towards knowledge, open up the debate, and reveal opportunities for further research.

2. Research rigour

It's fairly obvious that rigour in research comes high up the wish list for an editor of academic journals:

  • the methodology should be appropriate,
  • the conclusions drawn should be justified and relevant, and
  • the research systematic, well planned and well executed.

The research should also be based in a theoretical background with a discussion of relevant literature, and all works cited should be correctly and thoroughly referenced.

Most editors are quite open about the research approach: there is certainly no bias towards quantitative research and in fact some editors particularly welcome a qualitative perspective. This is not only the case with topics where the study of behaviour is important, such as leadership or change management, but also those disciplines where qualitative approaches have been less common, such as strategic management or accountancy.

Journal of Strategy and Management; Qualitative Research in Accounting and Management, and Managerial Auditing Journal are all examples of titles which welcome qualitative methodologies rigorously executed. According to Deryl Northcott, editor of Qualitative Research in Accounting and Management, mixed method research, which uses both qualitative and quantitative techniques, is emerging as an important approach in its own right.

It can be taken as read that the research behind the article should be sound and presented as such, but how much detail is needed?

There is no hard and fast rule and it's important to check with the individual journal as to whether a section of methodology is required. However, there seems to be a fairly general view that authors provide enough information to back up their case, but not so much that it overwhelms.

Wesley Johnson, editor of Journal of Business and Industrial Marketing, suggests that:

"The data should be there in so far as it is necessary to the case or thesis, but does not need to be reported in full unless the author has used a particularly novel methodology, and the emphasis should be on applications."

Brian Jones of Journal of Historical Research in Marketing argues that the methodology should be "transparent":

"... while it isn't necessary to include a separate research method section, there should be some explicit discussion of sources and their selection".

Other editors, such as Bo Edvardsson of Journal of Service Management, and Lawrence F. Travis III of Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, take transparency to mean that the user could replicate the study, and check credibility.

The "point" of the article, however, should not be the research itself, but its implications, particularly for practice. Richard C. Leventhal of Journal of Consumer Marketing and Journal of Product and Brand Management probably speaks for quite a few when he dismisses research that is done purely for the author's gratification, while Göran Svensson of European Business Review says:

" ... statistical and methodological technicalities should support the topic of the paper, not be a window dressing where there are no sound implications, conclusions and contributions".

3. Relevance to practice

Much of the above is probably common to most academic journals; relevance to practice may be more unique to Emerald, reflecting its particular values of "research that makes a difference" and the belief that a better managed world is a better place.

Thus, many editors explicitly stress the importance of stating the implications of the research for practice: how can managers use the work in their day-to-day lives? Research should not be discussed for its own sake, but for the difference it can make. Some journals require a specific section, or an executive summary, so the busy manager can flip through and take what is immediately relevant; all require the link with the workplace to be made explicit.

Wesley Johnston of Journal of Business and Industrial Marketing will not publish any paper unless there is a strong section on managerial implications. He provides a couple of examples of papers which combine rigorous research with application:

  1. Deeter-Schmelz and Kennedy (2004) who not only provide empirical data in a study of the role of the Internet in buyer-seller relationships, but also discuss the ongoing role of the salesperson, and
  2. Hunt and Derozier (2004) who provide a strong conceptual framework in their article on resource advantage theory, and use it to analyse recent forms of competition.

Some articles are actually rooted in practice, for example providing a particular analysis of some business-related activity; others provide a rich description of a particular situation as a case study. Some journals encourage practitioners to submit their research, perhaps teamed up with an academic and hence providing complementary perspectives. If you are a practitioner working on your own, it's worth contacting the editor to check what level of research detail and literature review is expected.

4. International

Emerald is an international publisher, and an international outlook is particularly important for all its journals, so if your study is located in one country, consider its broader implications so that an international audience will want to read it.

One way of doing this is by comparative studies, looking at different practices across different countries. For example, an editorial in International Journal of Managerial Finance commends a paper examining the differences in debt financing between international and domestic industrial firms operating in Turkey, Germany and the UK (Michayluk and Zurbruegg, 2005).

Editors are genuinely looking to be comprehensive in their coverage, so if you notice that a journal has few contributions from your part of the world, then you may be sure that the editor will want to hear from you, providing you also fit in with the stipulations mentioned above. It may be, too, that you will be able to provide a different perspective: Bob Doherty of Social Enterprise Journal, for example, is conscious that in North America, there's more empahsis on enterprise, whereas Europe stresses the social.

5. Clarity of argument and style

There is a certain type of academic writing which is not noted for its clarity, however clarity and readability are just what many editors want.

There are two aspects to clarity and readability:

  1. the language itself, and
  2. the structure of the paper.

Editors look for a good, clear structure and an argument that is logically presented. Having to write an abstract can help here: for guidance, see the instructions for writing a structured abstract for Emerald in the "How to... write an abstract" author guide.

If you follow the suggested headings, you will have a structure for your paper:

  • your purpose in writing it,
  • the research design,
  • your findings,
  • the limitations of the research,
  • its practical and social applications, and
  • its originality and value.

You should have a clear purpose statement, and the conclusion should wrap up the argument and not include new material, apart from the significance of the research and further avenues to explore.

It is also important that the argument should flow smoothly within the sections: paragraphs should follow on logically with no breaks in sense, or sudden, unexplained jumps.

Many editors talk about "well written" articles – which means more than just grammatically correct. David Nicholas, former editor of Aslib Proceedings, highlights some particular contributions which can be used as a benchmark:

"If you want some examples, Robin Hunt, who set up The Guardian website, did four articles for us, Peter Cole, the deputy editor of The Guardian, wrote a couple, and there's also Robert Withey, a librarian. They all write so brilliantly and beautifully, they manage to convey great ideas really simply, they are really aspirational figures in trying to change the tortuous prose that is often typical of our field."

"Tortuous prose" is unfortunately a feature of many academic disciplines, but the ability to convey complex ideas simply and in such a way as can be understood outside a small circle is a very important quality. For more information, see the "How to... write more simply" author guide.

If your first language is not English, you may be reading this with a sinking heart. Don't worry, we are talking about the ideal and many editors are strongly committed to working with people who may not be able to express themselves perfectly, providing they have good ideas. If you are in this position, it's a good idea to drop a line to the editor of the journal you are targeting to find out whether they are prepared to help. Further guidance can be found in the guide, "How to... prepare papers if English is not your first language".

Other types of papers

Although much of what was discussed in the previous sections applies generally, we have so far referred mainly to empirical research papers. Editors always welcome good research, but they are also looking for other sorts of papers, such as case studies, conceptual pieces and papers useful for teaching.

Case studies

Case studies are welcomed because they provide rich description and in-depth analysis, and are of great interest to practitioners. For journals with a strong research orientation, the case needs to be situated within a literature review and/or some sort of theoretical framework (this may be less the case for a more practitioner oriented journal); evaluation and critical reflection is also useful. Marie McHugh, editor of Leadership & Organizational Development Journal, puts it thus:

"I would consider a case study if it was rooted in a framework which was drawn from the literature. For example, if it concerned a change situation it would need to be linked to change models. It would not necessarily contain empirical research, although it would need a section documenting in a systematic way, the process of change programme, how it was managed, and the sequence of events, and there would also need to be a critique and some reflection. In other words it would need to take an analytical approach and answer the 'why' question."

A case study does not need just to focus on best practice; it can sometimes be valuable to dwell on what went wrong and why. Mistakes, after all, can be learnt from.

Teaching material

More and more, editors are looking at the needs of students and are keen to provide good teaching material. The editors of Indian Growth and Development Review are keen to supplement the inadequate teaching of economics in parts of India: short pieces on a particular algorithm or statistical technique, for example.

Others value case studies for teaching: the editors of Journal of Advances in Management Research, citing Adivar and Yurt (2009) as an example, welcome cases with strong research methodology and plenty of insights, as well as questions with detailed answers.

Conceptual pieces

These are pieces which are based on research, but which are not empirical. They should be more than mere summaries of existing knowledge of a topic, but rather they should move the knowledge base on to a higher level, for example putting forward a new framework. Slawomir Magala of Journal of Organization Change Management describes three types of conceptual article:

"The first is the Holy Grail, and is when someone gives a new theoretical framework, an alternative to and better than the existing one, more inventive and more creative, etc. However these are few and far between. The second is the article that takes existing theories, and creates a framework within which cases can be studied, because he or she manages to make these approaches complementary rather than mutually exclusive. You could say that it helps to economize the construction of knowledge. Thirdly, the article which takes what appears to be paradoxical or irrational, and provides a plausible explanation by direct extension of theoretical knowledge or its application in a given case (for instance a paradox of more free, more autonomous, more enabled and empowered employees who break down much more often than their less free predecessors)."

Just as some journals are more practitioner based, so others have a distinct slant towards the theoretical, as opposed to empirical. Examples are Society and Business Review, and critical perspectives on international business.

However, not all "conceptual" pieces need to have a literature review, whilst not all literature reviews need to put forward new frameworks. Some editors like "blue skies thinking" – for David Nicholas of Aslib Proceedings, these pieces reflect the speed at which we are moving due to developments of the Internet. The editors of critical perspectives on international business like "soap box" pieces, in which authors air their views on particular topics of current interest.

Grant Jones of Journal of Global Responsibility, pointing out that Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech would not have passed the review stage if submitted to an academic journal, thinks that the academic template for articles can be stifling: he likes,

"provocative, cogent argument that really takes you somewhere that you weren't before you started to read it".

At the other end of the spectrum is the review article, which provides a concise survey of a particular field and can be particularly valuable. For example, Professor Chris Griffith, editor of the British Food Journal, co-authored a review of food safety studies over a period of 40 years, which evaluated research methods used, study size, country of origin, and year of completion. The article, "Consumer food handling in the home: a review of food safety studies" (Redmond and Griffith, 2003), was published in the Journal of Food Protection, becoming one of the most cited articles the journal has published, and a basis for future research (see Professor Griffith's interview).

Summing up

In general, editors are looking for something that answers the "so what?" question, has clarity of argument, rigour of research design (if appropriate), relevance to practice, international appeal, and a genuine contribution to knowledge.

This is, however, only general guidance: you should always take into account the subject matter and general philosophy of the journal concerned. An approach to the editor, with a brief outline of the proposed article, is always worthwhile. Most editors are often all too pleased to help.

References

Adivar, B.O. and Yurt, O. (2009), "Line-haul optimization of OFLT Inc.: A teaching case study", Journal of Advances in Management Research, Vol. 6 No. 2, pp. 206-219.

Deeter-Schmelz, D.R. and Kennedy, K.N. (2004), "Buyer-seller relationships and information sources in an e-commerce world", Journal of Business and Industrial Marketing, Vol. 19 No. 3, pp. 188-196.

Donoghue, J., Graham, J., Mitten-Lewis, S., Murphy, M. and Gibbs, J. (2005), "A volunteer companion-observer intervention reduces falls on an acute aged care ward", International Journal of Health Care Quality Assurance, Vol. 18 No. 1, pp. 24-31.

Hunt, S.D. and Derozier, C. (2004), "The normative imperatives of business and marketing strategy: grounding strategy in resource-advantage theory", Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing, Vol. 19 No. 1, pp. 5-22.

Michayluk, D. and Zurbruegg, R. (2005), "Editorial introduction: the value and scope of the financing decision process", International Journal of Managerial Finance, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 5-7.

Redmond, E.C. and Griffith, C.J. (2003), "Consumer food handling in the home: a review of food safety studies", Journal of Food Protection, Vol. 66, No. 1, pp. 130-161.