3 Key Insights on Research Impact from Journal Editors

My take-aways from talks by editors of the journals Chemical Science and Nature Communications at the “Functional Nanomaterials Symposium 2019” in Berlin.


As I write this, it’s Tuesday, four days after attending the Functional Nanomaterials Symposium in Berlin. And this event was a little different than your typical scientific conference. Apart from researchers presenting their latest work, some other speakers were invited: I facilitated a workshop on scientific writing and two editors from top journals in the field talked about publishing and impact. In this blog post, I want to give you my three main take-aways on research impact from the talks by Dr Jeremy Allen, Deputy Editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) publication Chemical Science and Dr Margherita Citroni, Associate Editor at Nature Communications.


1.   What is impact and who decides?

It can feel like everyone in science is always talking about impact. But what really is impactful research? According to Margherita Citroni – who’s assessing papers submitted to Nature Communications daily – impactful studies open new lines of research, impact society directly and/or change the thinking in a field. All this is provided the underlying data is of high quality, which is usually the job of the peer reviewers to judge. Ultimately, editors and peer reviewers can only predict the potential impact of a study. It’s the readership that will decide how important the research is for science and society.

Citroni also had some tips on how to increase the impact of your research in your day-to-day research. One key ingredient, as she put it, is to focus: What challenge do you want to tackle and why? I’ve written many times about how important it is to define the problem you are solving in your paper and to describe why it is significant. Your study is likely to have a bigger impact if you are clear about these two aspects before you even start collecting your data – even though the focus of your research will often shift somewhat during the process. Equally important is to choose the most suitable techniques and collaborators to address the problem. This is best done, according to Citroni, by staying up to date with the literature in your field and by networking.

All this won’t allow your research to make an impact, however, if you cannot communicate your research and significance to a broad audience. I couldn’t agree more with Citroni. More about this in insight #2.


2.  How do you convey the impact of your work?

In almost all manuscripts I get to edit, I recommend strengthening the sentences that showcase the potential impact of the study. The paper’s significance and novelty may not be obvious to the reader. I was glad to find that Chemical Science editor Jeremy Allen agrees with me on this.

Scientific authors often seem to overestimate their readers. Jeremy Allen reminded the audience that the editor will probably not be specialised in the exact topic of your research. You should check the scientific background of the most suitable editor of your target journal and make sure the level of jargon and technicality in your cover letter and some crucial sections in your manuscript are appropriate.

So, what are those crucial sections in a paper that editors pay most attention to? According to Jeremy Allen, these are the abstract, introduction section, conclusions, references and of course the cover letter. In a cover letter, he recommends to not only include a summary of your work but also to state why your study is important, what impact it has on your scientific community and where you see its future potential.

By the way, an additional tip from Jeremy Allen was that editors like it when cover letters are addressed to them personally. Also, you leave a less good impression when you don’t include the correct name of the journal – apparently that happens…


3.  Which journal maximises the impact of your work?

What are your criteria when you choose a target journal for your research? One that most scientists consider is the impact factor of a journal. The journal impact factor, a metric reflecting how often the papers in that journal have been cited in the previous two years, can give an indication for how broad the journal audience is. But the impact factor shouldn’t be your only criterion, Jeremy Allen pointed out. He recommends checking whether your research is actually within the scope of the journal you submit to. In fact, one of the things I will do when you hire me to edit your paper is to study the “Aim & Scope” section on the website of your target journal and assess whether your paper seems to be the right choice for that journal. It may be that your research makes a higher impact in a journal with a lower impact factor.

Allen further recommends looking at where similar work has been published to get a feel for what journal to aim for. One important question to ask yourself is: Who would be interested in reading my study? Would it be a specialised audience or scientists from several fields? I also think it is useful to remember that journals with higher impact factors often have lower acceptance rates. The turnaround is, therefore, often slower too. So, if you want to get something out quickly, submitting to Science might not be the best route to take as I recently learned on Twitter, see below.

There are some other factors to consider when choosing a journal to submit your paper to. One of them is the peer review policy of the journal. I learned from Margherita Citroni that Nature Communications gives you the option to publish the peer review reports alongside your article. I think this is an excellent idea, which can make it easier for readers to assess a paper’s quality.

Publishing your paper under Open Access may be another route to increase the potential impact of your research by reaching a larger audience. This isn’t usually free of charge; publishers typically charge between a few hundred and several thousand euros for publishing open access papers. But some journals waive the article processing charges. One example is Chemical Science, the journal Allen works for, where the fees are paid directly by the RSC on behalf of the author.

PS: A snap of me during my workshop. Thank you, Michael Bojdys, head of the Functional Nanomaterials group at HU Berlin for organising and inviting me to participate in this inspiring event! (Credit: David Burmeister)

PS: A snap of me during my workshop. Thank you, Michael Bojdys, head of the Functional Nanomaterials group at HU Berlin for organising and inviting me to participate in this inspiring event! (Credit: David Burmeister)

Do you need help to get your paper in shape for publication in a high-impact journal? I can help you to craft a story for your paper and make your writing clearer and more concise, and I'd love to work with you! We can work together in the following ways:

  • I can edit your paper (for authors working on a topic within Chemistry-related fields)

  • I can give you advice on your paper in a strategy session

  • I can teach you and your peers how to write high-impact papers in a workshop.

Let's talk!


I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.

I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.

When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.

I’d love to connect on Twitter (@scientistswrite) and Instagram (@scientistswhowrite).