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What do editors really want?

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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 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.