Why fit is more important than impact factor in choosing a journal to submit to

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!


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About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

25 thoughts on “Why fit is more important than impact factor in choosing a journal to submit to

  1. Brian – I agree completely. I do think about impact factor (for reasons explained in the post you linked to), but only secondarily to fit. There is no point having your paper appear, but not be read or cited, in a journal where OTHER papers that fit better are holding up the impact factor! And of course that probably won’t happen anyway because editors like you make the right decisions. So when there are multiple journals with “fit” (and there usually are), then the conversation can turn to the impact factor (and perhaps to its evils..) – but only then.

  2. Agree with everything you say here, but just wanted to add that I love your policy of not mandating specific formatting requirements for the initial submission. It’s silly to make authors waste time on the formatting (within reason, of course) when the paper hasn’t been accepted yet!

  3. I agree totally about fit – at MEE it’s a big reason for immediate rejects (importance/novelty is another). I think the problem of fit can sometimes be subtle, e.g. is a paper better suited to GEB or J. Biogeog.?

    • I agree that fit is a continuum. Some paper-journal combinations are an obvious misfit. But there are usually multiple journals which would be a good fit. And that is a good thing for the author.

  4. “Most people are quick to point out (very correctly) that impact factors were designed to measure journals, not papers or scientists.”
    – It is very correct, but it not how the vast majority of scientists think about impact factor, and that is what matters. I mostly agree with your very clear post, but I would argue that nobody ever said “She publishes in journals that are an excellent fit for her papers”. They mostly say “She published in journals with very high impact factor, therefore she must be a very good scientist”. Despite what some loud voices say on twitter, it is how it works (and shouldn’t work).
    I mostly work on fish and birds for answering questions in ecology and evolution, thus (for fish) every paper I write could be submitted to a discipline-specific journal such as Journal of Fish Biology, which is an excellent journal, has a very long and prestigious history, but it is a fish journal. What would you think of my publication history if all my papers were published in a fish journal? Or in Auk, Journal of Ornithology for birds (very good journals, but same considerations as above)?
    Journal Editors are interested in the journal brand (importance and fit of papers), scientists in their brand (impact factor and number of citations). Incentives differ, strategies differ.

  5. You know what would be really awesome? If someone compiled the mission-statement paragraphs from all the ecology (and related fields) journals in one spot. I think it’s hard for early career people (especially students) to have a good feel for the broad scope of what the goals of all the various journals are. And there are a *lot* of them. This is one area where I am constantly asking other people for advice, because I don’t feel like I really have a good sense of all the journals’ aims — or even what journals exist. I think this would be less of a problem for me if I were a specialist.

    Also, what do you think about pre-submission inquiries? (Maybe worth its own blog post sometime…) I’m finishing up a MS, and have a specific journal in mind (because I think the fit is best there). My postdoc advisor suggested emailing the EiC a pre-submission inquiry with a short description the paper. This is something I would not have thought of myself, as I didn’t even know was a Thing. It was great! The EiC was very clear in explaining the audience and the journal’s mission and what I would have to do (and not do) to make the MS one worth considering by the journal. I found it very helpful. Is this practice something that EiC’s generally like? Should I make a habit of it? Only for some types of MS’s or some types of journals?

    • Margaret, I think that it was what advisors and colleagues are for.
      I do not think it is a good idea to ask for pre-submission opinions (PLoS Biology has a formal pre-submission step with an extended abstract and how the paper submitted will change the state of science. As far as I know, the only suggestion when they reject is to send the ms to PLoS ONE, which is a journal of the PLoS family that publishes etc. etc.). Desk rejections normally come back in one week or so, and without reading the paper, the Editor may have just some general suggestion about how to “angle” the paper to be ready for submission for that journal. But first it is your work. Second, it is a paper that will be published. I think the order is important and it is somewhat lost in the chase of prestige, impact factor, and perceived relevance.
      I think the way to go is minimum formatting requirements and fast turn-arounds.

    • When I started this post, I had a brief summary of fit for a dozen or so journals, but I lost my nerve. Some aspects of fit are controversial. For example – on the surface Ecology and Oikos taken the same papers (all of ecology) but I have definite opinions about what is a better fit to Ecology and to Oikos. But they are subtle, often unspoken and more part of unofficial journal policy, and thus could be easily disagreed with and might be offensive to some, and I just decided not to go down that road.

      Definitely read the homepage and author guidelines pages carefully. Most journals say a lot and mean what they say on those. Beyond that, yeah I guess you have to ask somebody for the more subtle versions.

      Presubmission inquiries are normally required for review and opinion pieces. For regular research, I think they are going to be hit or miss. Editors are under a lot of time pressure and may not always give you as helpful an answer as you apparently got. I can say personally, when I get one if I can tell it is somebody early career I try to slow down and spend some time to be helpful, but might not for somebody more experienced. Usually I will at least read the abstract and tell the author what boxes that ticks and flags that raises vs fit in my mind. However, if every author did a pre-submission inquiry on every submission, it would break the system (at a guess less than 1% do so right now if you don’t include the reviews and opinions). So I guess I would say if genuinely in doubt, go for it, but don’t overuse it.

      • “But they are subtle, often unspoken and more part of unofficial journal policy”

        Yeah, there’s a lot in the publishing world that seems to work this way. It’s very mysterious to new people, and those who are experienced often forget to tell their trainees (or don’t have the words to do so, because it’s more of a “feel”).

    • As an editor, I like pre-submission enquiries, but I agree with Brian that not everyone should do one. Usually it’s clear that the author isn’t sure about the fit of their paper, so it’s quicker to read the abstract and email and give advice than to consider a full submission. If the work looks marginal, than it’s better to point out the problems and how they could be addressed, and if the author doesn’t want to go in that direction, it’s fine.

      If you’re happy that your manuscript is within the scope of a journal, and reaches the quality/importance/novelty threshold then just submit it.

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  8. I wonder, have you come across the interesting suggestion from Athena Aptikis that journals should keep records of who are good reviewers (prompt, constructive etc) and then when those people submit papers, selectively associate them with other good reviewers?

    It’s described thus in her recent paper in Evol Applic http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/doi/10.1111/eva.12303/epdf
    “…. cooperation is enhanced when cooperators can preferentially interact with one another …… reviewers could be given a score based on speed of reviewing, rate of reviewing, or other pri-
    orities of the journal editor. Authors would then be paired with reviewers who have similar scores …….This solution to the problem of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ of peer review (Hochberg et al.
    2009) has not been taken up yet by any journals (to our knowledge)…..”.

    It’s a particular application of what you mean by “fit”, and an elegant application of theory for sustainable cooperation

    • Interesting idea.

      Personally, as someone who reviews several times as many papers as I submit (or co-author), and who submits quite thorough reviews that are mostly on time, I be thrilled if my papers would be preferentially sent out for review, rather than ever being rejected without review.* No need to also match them with the very best reviewers–just send them out for review! I’d be substantially more likely to review for and submit to any selective ecology journal that chose to implement such a policy. That would be a *much* bigger incentive to review than a few months of free access to the journal or whatever.

      *In my experience, editors at leading ecology journals say that desk rejects are for papers that are *obviously* poor fits or *obviously* not good enough for the journal. That’s not always true. I know because I get desk rejected a non-trivial fraction of the time, despite having a very good sense of what’s a good “fit” for any given journal (as evidenced by having often published in said journal in the past) and never “reaching” when I decide where to submit. I’m not claiming I’m infallible (I’m not!), or that editors are describing their own editorial practices dishonestly (they’re not!). All I’m saying is that it’s not *obvious* that my desk rejected mss weren’t suitable. And the same presumably goes for many other people. Don’t misunderstand, I totally get the need for lots of desk rejects. And I really like having selective journals, I don’t think editorial decisions as to “fit” or “importance” or etc. are some kind of crapshoot that ought to be done away with. And I’m perfectly comfortable with with my papers getting rejected; it’s part of life in a competitive world. I just wish journal editors wouldn’t claim, falsely, that every paper that gets desk rejected *obviously* shouldn’t have been submitted to the journal in the first place. Because that implies that anyone who gets desk rejected doesn’t know what they’re doing, and frankly, I know what I’m doing. Rather, journal editors are making professional judgment calls on which there’s scope for reasonable disagreement.

      • I agree that while editorial rejects are necessary they are not always obvious. Its a continuum – some at one end are obvious send out to review, some at the other end are obvious rejects, but there is a healthy group in the middle. I suspect the “its obvious” is to present a wall of certainty to avoid protests.

    • That’s a pretty interesting suggestion. It certainly seems “fair”. And probably more practically implementable than many reforms to peer reviewing. The keeping records of reviewer quality already occurs to some degree. Although you might want to implement this across all journals.

      I suspect the biggest challenge would be to get an equal quality reviewer to agree to take a paper on.

  9. As an E-i-C totally agree with you on how many authors obviously just go by impact factor rather than fit – you would think that when your journal called Insect Conservation & Diversity that people would not send you papers about pest management, but they do!

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