There are a lot of journals in the world, and new ones are starting all the time. How do you decide where to submit your paper? Commenter Becky asked for advice on this, so here it is!
I can’t give you a concrete recipe or formula to follow here. All I can suggest are some considerations to keep in mind. Personally, the first three are the most important for me.
UPDATE: I can already see via Twitter that some open access (OA) advocates are misreading this piece, or at least skirting the edge of doing so. So if you’re an OA advocate, I mean what I just said above: all I’m doing here is suggesting considerations, and describing to readers how I–an admittedly old, conservative sort when it comes to this sort of thing–and people like me weigh those considerations. If you want to weigh those considerations differently, by all means do so! I have no problem with that at all! This post isn’t arguing against you! Now, the post does note some potential consequences for you if you prioritize OA. Like it or not, if you submit everything you write to PLoS One, people my age and older may be less likely to read your papers. I’m not saying that’s bad or good, I’m just saying that’s the way it is right now (maybe it will change in future). And in saying this, I doubt I’m saying anything most OA access advocates don’t already know. This post is mostly aimed at new students and others still just learning the ropes of how science is done currently, for better or worse. In the comments, by all means please describe or link to reasons to weigh these considerations differently than I do. But please do not misread this piece as arguing for one particular weighting of these various considerations. This piece is purely descriptive, not prescriptive. It lists various considerations and describes how I personally weigh them. So please don’t comment that I’m trying to argue against OA, because I’m not. And please don’t comment that I’m wrong, because I’m not. I have indeed correctly described how I personally weigh these considerations–I’m not wrong about what my own weightings are!
UPDATE #2: It’s linked to in the comments, but not everyone reads the comments so I wanted to highlight it here. Over at Jabberwocky Ecology, Ethan White has a very nice response to my post, offering his own (quite different) perspective on where to submit your paper. You really should read both my post and his; they’re a very complementary pair. Thanks to Ethan for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully (and quickly!)
UPDATE #3: And now Tim Poisot has chimed in with his own thoughts over on his blog. Tim’s thoughts differ both from mine and Ethan’s (for instance, Tim thinks “fit to journal” is irrelevant!), and are interestingly unorthodox in other ways. For instance, Tim is an open access supporter–but also doesn’t care whether or not the journal claims to only look at technical soundness, because in his experience Plos One doesn’t actually do that (FWIW, my admittedly-limited experience with Plos One is like Tim’s in that respect). So go read what Tim has to say too!
- Aim as high as you reasonably can. Whether you like it or not (and I know some people don’t), lots of people use journal identity as a filter to decide what papers to consider reading, and even as a quick and dirty way to provisionally judge papers that they haven’t read. So if you’d prefer for more people to read and think highly of your paper, you should aim to publish it in a selective, internationally-leading journal. But don’t aim too high. I have heard a rumor of someone in ecology and evolution who submits everything he writes to Nature, then after rejection immediately resubmits with little or no revision to Science, then to PNAS, etc. Maybe the rumor’s true, maybe it’s not. But the point is: do not be that person, unless you don’t like any of your colleagues and don’t care if they don’t like you either! Because you’re really going to annoy everyone involved in editing and reviewing your papers. Plus, even from the most narrowly self-interested point of view, your rate of publication matters as well as the prestige of the venues in which you publish. If you want a career in academic science, ruthlessly trying to maximize venue prestige, with no consideration for the amount of time you waste having your papers repeatedly rejected, is probably not an optimal approach. How can you tell how high to reasonably aim? Experience (as a reader, author, and referee), and input from your coauthors and other colleagues. And if you ever find yourself thinking “I want to take a shot at Journal X, I know it’s a real stretch but maybe I’ll get lucky”, you’re probably aiming too high.
- Don’t just go by journal prestige; consider “fit”. Journals differ in lots of ways besides impact factor. This reflects, and shapes, their readerships. So choose where to submit not just based on journal prestige, but also on the “fit” of your paper to the journal. Has the journal published other papers on this topic? Does it often publish papers using the methods you used? Etc. Even nominally “broad” journals often have topics on which they publish a lot, and other topics on which they publish little or nothing. For instance, Ecology publishes relatively little purely theoretical work, not (I think) because their editors don’t like theory, but because ecological theoreticians who want to reach a broader audience than just their fellow theoreticians tend to go to American Naturalist. I don’t know that there’s any rational reason for that, but it’s just the way things are, and such “traditions” are naturally self-perpetuating. For a long time, Nature used to publish more, and (in my view) better ecology than Science, making Nature a better choice for ecologists (although I think that may be changing). I’ve heard that Journal of Animal Ecology publishes a lot of bird papers because many Brits (both professionals and amateurs) are really into birds and so flood JAE with papers about birds (is this true?) And many other examples could be given. Often, your decision here will require you to emphasize one aspect of your paper over another. For instance, if your paper has lots of gene sequence data, do you want to reach others using similar methods and aim for Molecular Ecology? Or do you want to reach others addressing the same question but using different methods, and so aim for a general ecology journal that publishes relatively little molecular work? Do you want your paper to be read by others working in the same system (in which case maybe you want a system-specific journal)? Or by others working on the same question (in which case maybe you want a general ecology journal)?
- How much will it cost? Do you want to pay for open access, either at a purely open access, author-pays journal, or at a journal that offers the option for authors to pay to make their paper open access? If not, do you want to pay the page charges that some journals, but not others, charge? Do you have access to a funding source that will pay the charges (e.g., my university has a fund to which faculty can apply to cover the author fee for open access, author-pays journals)? Can you get any charges waived (e.g., because you’re a member of the society that publishes the journal, or because you can truthfully claim to have no money to pay)? People who tell you that cost is a total non-issue are people who have big grants and who have somehow forgotten that most people (including lots of very active researchers, like me) don’t.
- How likely is the journal to send your paper out for external review? Selective journals these days increasingly use editorial rejection without external review, but they do so to widely varying degrees. Even Science and Nature differ substantially in their rates of rejection without external review (Nature sends a larger fraction of submissions for external review, IIRC). I don’t like this trend towards increasing use of rejection without review, I think it introduces too much stochasticity into the peer review process. This is why I sometimes don’t bother with Ecology Letters, where rates of rejection without review seem to be especially high. I know their editorial rejections come fast, and that their post-review decisions come fast too. But frankly, if editorial rejection is sufficiently likely, at some point it becomes a question of why bother submitting at all, no matter how fast the decisions are. I admit my attitude here may not be completely rational, and I emphasize that it is purely personal. Don’t get me wrong, I submit to Ecology Letters fairly regularly. But it is not my automatic first choice.
- Is the journal open access? This isn’t a consideration I personally care about much, but I know others do. So if supporting open access journals is important to you, you need to decide how important it is compared to the other considerations on this list.
- Does the journal evaluate papers only on technical soundness? There are those who feel strongly that selecting papers on the basis of “interest”, “novelty”, “importance”, and other such attributes is a purely arbitrary business with no place in science. I don’t take that view. But if you feel that way, you need to decide whether you’re prepared to live by your principles and submit all your work to Plos One or other unselective journals, given that many of your colleagues do not share your views and may not view your cv very highly. Of course, a principled view on the appropriate function of the peer review system isn’t the only reason to submit to an unselective journal. Maybe you have a paper that you’ve repeatedly failed to get into a selective journal, so now you just want to publish it somewhere and be done with it. Maybe you have a paper that you know will be difficult to publish in a selective journal (e.g., the paper reports negative results, or it’s a small pilot study that you just want to be able to cite in future). Etc.
- Is the journal part of a review cascade? It’s increasingly common for selective, non-open access journals to pair themselves with an unselective, author-pays, open access journal as part of a “review cascade”. Authors of mss rejected from the selective journal are offered the option of having their ms, and its reviews, transferred to the non-selective journal. The idea is to make it very easy and quick for authors of rejected papers to just “get them out there” in a non-selective open access journal, with the publisher profiting from the resulting author fee. I’ve never done this myself and I can’t see myself ever wanting to. Typically, if a selective journal rejects my paper, I revise it in light of the reviews and submit to another selective journal. But if you attach more importance to publication speed and convenience than I do, you may find review cascades an attractive option.
- Is it a society journal? Submitting to journals published by scientific societies is one indirect way to support the societies themselves. Revenue from journal subscriptions is an important revenue stream for many scientific societies, such as the Ecological Society of America. Those revenues are higher if the journals are better and so in high demand from subscribers.
- Have you had good experiences with the journal in the past? There is a leading ecology journal to which I used to submit regularly, but which I haven’t gone to in a while. In part that’s because twice in a row they had microcosm papers of mine reviewed by hardcore microbial ecologists, who (predictably, in my view) didn’t understand my work at all. There are enough similar journals out there (in terms of audience, prestige, etc.) that I decided not to bother with them for a while. Again, I admit that my attitude here may not be totally rational. What can I say? I’m human.
- Is there anyone on the editorial board who’d be a good person to handle your paper? If you can’t really identify anyone on the editorial board who seems like they’d be a good “fit” for your paper, that may be a signal to consider a different journal.