There is a great deal of discussion on the internet these days about impact factors of journals (e.g. Stephen Heard’s take and or the tongue-in-cheek response to fluctuating impact factors at MEE in various years). Most people are quick to point out (very correctly) that impact factors were designed to measure journals, not papers or scientists. But what about when you are choosing which journal to submit your own hard won manuscript to? Then surely journal metrics are relevant. But if you can only know one thing about a journal in considering which journal to submit your paper to, what would it be? I would argue that you should think most about fit, and the rest (including impact factor) will take care of itself.
Part of the reason I’ve been so quiet on Dynamic Ecology of late is that I have taken over as Editor in Chief at Global Ecology and Biography. This has been made much easier by two wonderful deputy editors in chief (Maria Dornelas, Richard Field) but it is a lot of new things to learn, all while never let the flow of manuscripts stop. My central job is looking at the manuscripts that are submitted (about a dozen per week) and deciding whether they should be sent out to an associate editor or not, and if so which associate editor. Like most journals, we have to have a first editorial screen with a decent fraction rejected without review (30-50% at most journals and as high as 90% at journals like Science, Nature and Ecology Letters).
As you might imagine this is a whole different perspective on publishing and indeed on the state of the field of macroecology, which is why I was eager to do the job. But I think the single biggest surprise to me is just how important fit is in these decisions and how clueless many authors seem to be about its importance. Don’t get me wrong, impact factor matters some. We have a system where every paper gets discussed by two of the EiC team to try to make editorial rejects more fair and less arbitrary.So our thought process is verbalized and pretty explicit. And we definitely say things like “this is a really nice paper – we’re lucky to get it at GEB” or “there is nothing wrong with this paper but it is not novel enough for GEB” (which is essentially an indirect conversation about impact factor). But way more of the time we talk about whether the paper is a good fit to the journal.
Like every journal the type of content we want is spelled out on our guidelines to authors page. And with the launch of the new EiC team we have given an even more detailed description of what we are looking for. I won’t repeat the whole thing here but basically we want something that is about ecology, about large scales and represents a conceptual advance. That’s it – we’ll take papers on any of the 10,000,000 species on this planet, on any continent and any time period (we cover hard rock paleo stuff through the quaternary to future predictions). So on many fronts we’re not picky. But we really do care about it being ecological and large scale. And we’re pretty clear about that anywhere somebody bothers to look. Conversely, if you’re going to submit to Auk it better be about birds but might be ecology or evolution at scales from the planet down to the cell.
I am amazed how may papers we receive that just ignore fit. Quite a few papers are clearly falling down the ladder of impact factors when they try us (e.g. papers with 2500 words probably went to Science or Nature first). I’m fine with that, and happy they thought of us, even if we were their second choice. But it is also clear a lot of those papers are only looking at impact factor and paying no attention to fit. We get lots of papers that have no ecology or are at scales that are interesting but totally don’t belong in a journal titled GLOBAL Ecology and Biogoegraphy (pro tip: if your paper doesn’t even fit within the remit of the title let alone the detailed author guidelines, you shouldn’t submit it there). And the authors seem completely unaware of this mismatch. Its a waste of their time and my time.
Ultimately a journal is a brand and has a niche. It is important for a journal to play to that niche. In this era of publication primarily on the internet rather than a bound journal, that is the main value of having a journal. I know that for me personally I am going to be interested in a very high fraction of the papers in Global Ecology and Biogeography (and Am Nat and Journal of Biogeography and a few others). And I will skim the general purpose journals like Science or Ecology or Ecology Letters for the fraction I am interested in. But I can pretty safely (for myself) ignore a journal on ecosystems or forestry or indeed a bird journal (notwithstanding an occasional paper of interest to me in those journals). Thats what a brand does. Its a shortcut that connects the producers with the consumers most interested in their products. And an Editor in Chief ignores their brand at their peril. And I can tell you that unequivocally it is what the editorial team at GEB spends most of its time talking about when deciding whether to send a paper out to review or not. Not coincidentally, this gives values to the author too as it helps to deliver readers who are likely to be interested in your paper.
Interestingly, Tim Coulson who just took over as editor-in-chief at Ecology Letters also had an introductory editorial in the January issue where he said “Most immediate reject decisions are not criticising the way the science has been done, but are made on how well we consider the work fits the journal’s remit.”
So I would like to suggest that when you think about where to submit your paper (whether it is the first journal you try or a subsequent journal), that you pay a lot more attention to fit. I suspect you will have more success and be happier in the long run if you worry more about fit to your manuscript and less about what journal has the highest impact factor that you could possibly sneak into.
How do you determine fit? Usually its not hard. Journals are pretty explicit about what they want in the author instructions. Plus if you’ve made it past your first two years of grad school when you should do a lot of reading, you probably have well formed opinions of the type of paper published in different journals.
I would even argue that what we often confuse as impact factor (e.g. a really good paper should go to Science or Nature) is really a question of fit. They actually have a clear niche too – namely as an interdisciplinary journal publishing articles that are of interest to scientists from all disciplines. So fairly big picture but also easy to grasp what is going on and why it is important. A really complex story that requires insider knowledge to appreciate why it is important is a bad fit no matter how earth-shakingly important it is.
So when you are deciding where to submit, stop guessing what impact factor your paper deserves (something that is almost impossible to do with any accuracy anyway), and think about what journals are the best fit for your paper. You’ll waste less of your time and get a carefully selected set of readers predisposed to like your paper.
UPDATE: I just saw Peter Linder’s editorial as he takes over as EiC of the Journal of Biogeography. Guess what – he comes at things from a different angle (talking about the role of journals in the age of google search), but ends up strongly emphasizing fit! There is a theme here people!