4 Tips for Engineers on Getting Published

For generations, the mantra in academia has been “publish or perish.” The idea is that researchers need to present their findings to the wider community, allow that community to poke holes in their theories, and use the feedback to push the science forward.
It’s no different for engineers in fields like mechanical and biomedical engineering, where academic work is common and new developments happen frequently. As a result, the concept of academic and business-to-business publishing, while foreign to many outside of the institutions, has emerged as a critical part of the modern engineer’s toolkit.
Where to start?
That was the question facing Bianca Migliori, now a Ph.D. candidate in neurobiology at Columbia University in New York City, several years ago when she was working on biomedical engineering research projects at Harvard. Her advisor at the time, Dr. Ali Khademhosseini, is well-published in the field and guided the process for Migliori and the rest of the team. Migliori was a named author on the journal article, a first for her.  Early in the process, it became very clear to her that the path from research project–or new idea–to publication isn’t always a clear one, thought it remains an important skill for many engineers to master.
“Right now, everything is based on grants, and all of those grants are based on publications,” she says. “To get more grants, you need to publish in very high-impact factor journals, and that's what everyone is aiming for.”
What should young engineers know about getting published, whether it’s in an academic journal or a more business-oriented publication? In addition to Migliori, we spoke with Cara Rivera, owner of editorial consulting firm Kaufman Wills Fusting & Company to get some suggestions for new authors. Below are a few key guidelines to follow when venturing down the publishing path, whether for the first time or the fiftieth.
Find the Right Topic: There is a difference between a subject that is interesting from a professional standpoint and something that will appeal to the wider audience of a journal or magazine. Typically, research that includes a new discovery or moves the field forward is going to be interesting to journal publishers on its own, but it’s always important to write up any article or submission with the right angle to appeal to readers. Think about your topic from the other side, as a reader coming across it in a publication. Is it interesting enough to grab five minutes of your attention? Would you want to learn more about it? Do you believe it is important enough to the field to warrant this kind of broad distribution? When pitching an article to a publication editor, they are going to want answers to these questions.
Find the Right Publication: Not every publication is the right fit for every story or report. For example, you wouldn’t write a story about the NFL draft and expect it to be picked up by a quilting magazine. The same rules apply with academic and business publishers. Each magazine and journal has its own target audience and readership, and they will all be looking for content that’s of interest and value to that group. In academic publishing, journals are loosely organized into “tiers” based on their reach and areas of coverage. Tier 1 journals are those at the top of the field, covering only the most novel, groundbreaking work. This is where you’ll find names such as Science and Nature; they are very selective and very high impact. Tier 2 includes other major, general journals, but those that are a little less selective and more targeted in their content. Tier 3 consists of high-level specialty journals which might not be as broadly distributed but are still well regarded. Below those are the sub-specialty publications, which are very tightly targeted but, as a result, may not be as widely read.
Follow the Guidelines: As a rule, most publishers will maintain a list of guidelines that contributors should follow when pitching a story or research report. Those can include everything from formatting guidelines for the document itself (MS Word, double-spaced, etc), to contact information for the editorial staff, to a deeper discussion of the topics that the publication covers. Publications publicly distributes this information to help authors get published and to ensure the submissions fit the publication. Do they expect you to submit a completed article or pitch them on the idea before you begin writing? Will you need to supply photos?  Read the guidelines and take their advice to heart.
Perfect the Writing: Migliori was lucky when she worked on her first published article because her lead researcher, Dr. Khademhosseini, knew exactly what he was doing and helped put together the article for the group in a clear, linear way. That proved to be critical for the success of the project, because it ensured that the paper would be published by a high-impact journal, in that case Advanced Materials. The confusing, jargon-heavy first draft likely would not have had the same impact or reached as wide of an audience, she says. Beyond the research itself, are you communicating your experience in the clearest way possible? Do you need more work to refine the wording and explain things more directly? Is the article the right length and the right format based on the publications guidelines? Does it look like what they tend to publish? Typically, editors will come back to authors with questions or changes after submission and before an article is published, but it always helps to minimize confusion and potential edits ahead of time. That makes the editor’s job easier and smooths the way for additional publishing opportunities in the future.
The truth is, sharing your work and having others build on it is absolutely a foundation of the scientific enterprise. The world is now so big and the hard sciences are so detailed that it’s critical for engineer–even those in non-academic positions–to be participating in the industry-wide conversation and putting their work out there.
Just like you can’t do science in a vacuum, it’s impossible to do engineering work in a vacuum. You always want to be building on what others have already done in order to advance the field. Publishing has always been the best, most efficient way for engineers to do that.
Tim Sprinkle is an independent writer.