12 Publishing Mistakes to Avoid

Graduate students probably feel they are given too much advice on their career goals, but it might be useful to list a few of the mistakes I see often while reviewing papers submitted for publication. Think of it as a cheat sheet to go over before final submission of a paper.

  1. Abstract. Write this first and under the realization that 95% of readers will only read this part of your paper. They need in a concise fashion the whole story, particularly for any data paper WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, HOW and WHY.
  2. Graphics. Choose your graphics carefully. Show them to others to see if they get the point immediately. Label the axes carefully. ‘Population’ could mean population size, population density, population index, or something else. ‘Species diversity’ could mean anything from the vast array of species diversity measures.
  3. Precision. If you are plotting data, a single point on a graph is not very informative without some measure of statistical precision. Dot plots without a measure of precision are fraudulent. Indicate at least in the figure legend what exact measure of precision you have used.
  4. Colour and Symbol Shape. If you have 2 or more sets of data, use colour and different symbol shapes to distinguish them. Check that the size of symbols is adequate for the reductions they will use in the journal printing. Journals that charge for colour will often print in black and white for free but use the colour in the PDF version.
  5. Histograms. Use histograms freely in your papers by only after reading Cleveland (1994) who recommends never using histograms. More comments are given in my blog ” On Graphics in Ecological Presentations”.
  6. Scale of Graph. if you wish to cheat there are some simple ways of making your data look better. See Cleveland et al. (1986) for a scatter-plot example.
  7. Tables. Tables should be simple if possible. Columns of meaningless numbers do not help the reader understand your conclusions. Most people understand graphs very quickly but tables very slowly.
  8. Discussion. Be your own critic lest your reviewers do this job for you. If some published papers reach conclusions other than you have, discuss why this might be the case. Recognize that no one study is perfect. Indicate where future research might go.
  9. Literature Cited. Check that all your literature cited in the paper are in the bibliography and none are missed. Check the required format of the references since many editors go into orbit if you use the wrong format or fail to include the doi.
  10. Supplementary Material. Consider carefully what you put in supplementary material. Standards are changing and simple excel tables of mean values are often not enough to be useful for additional analysis.
  11. Covering Letter. A last minute but critical piece of the puzzle because you need to capture in a few sentences why the editor should have your paper reviewed or decide to send it right back to you as not of interest. Remember that editors are swamped with papers and rejection rates are often 60-90% at the first cut.
  12. Select the Right Journal. This is perhaps the hardest part. Not everything in ecology can be published in Science or Nature, and given the electronic world of the Web of Science, good work will be picked up in other journals. If you have millions, you can use the journals that you must pay to publish in, but I personally think this is capitalism gone amok. Romesburg (2016, 2017) presents critical data on the issue of commercial journals in science. Read these papers and put them on your Facebook site.


Cleveland, W.S., Diaconis, P. & McGill, R. (1982) Variables on scatterplots look more highly correlated when the scales are increased. Science, 216, 1138-1141. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1689316

Cleveland, W.S. (1994) The Elements of Graphing Data. AT&T Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, New Jersey. ISBN: 9780963488411

Romesburg, H.C. (2016) How publishing in open access journals threatens science and what we can do about it. Journal of Wildlife Management, 80, 1145-1151. doi: 10.1002/jwmg.21111

Romesburg, H.C. (2017) How open access is crucial to the future of science: A reply. Journal of Wildlife Management, 81, 567-571. doi: 10.1002/jwmg.21244


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