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Tuesday 19 September 2017

Advice on Selecting the Right Journal

When I try to get something published in a journal, it's for the prestige and implied proof of quality.
Otherwise, if I wanted to write something and get attention for the idea quickly, I could write a blog post like this.

As such, I aim for a balance between the perceived importance of the journal and the chance of acceptance.

(Updated March 2019 with a section on predatory journals)

There are some obscure journals with few potential contributors that would accept almost any research paper given to them, but these journals typically have few readers and the quality of the research that your work will be compiled with may be of poor quality. The worst of these are 'predatory' journals which charge substantial fees for publication and promise very quick acceptance.

The fee isn't the problem (many open access journals charge a fee to authors instead of readers), the problem that any garbage that looks like research will be accepted by these journals; potential readers may assume your work is also garbage just from the journal name. In short, by aiming too low, you don't get the prestige that publishing provides.

On the other hand, top tier journals (Science, Nature) receive so many articles that even work that is truly groundbreaking only has a small chance of being accepted.

One popular measure for the prestige of a journal is 'impact factor'.

Impact factors are measures of the average number of citations, with various adjustments, that articles published in that journal have been cited by papers in other journals.The general assumption is that articles that receive more citations are more important or have had a larger impact on science.

Articles get cited for several reasons, including as an acknowledgement that the work is related or useful in the creation of the citing article. There are some political reasons for citation as well. Politics aside, some fields give, and receive, citations much more densely. Some types of papers, such as meta-studies, can end up receiving many citations for essentially summarizing previous work.
Personally, I feel that impact factor is an approximation of importance, but not a very good one; I doubt any single measure could summarize importance though.

Here's a good exercise, pick a journal and read or skim a few articles in it, ask yourself:

Q: Is the journal predatory?

There are good arguments that most major journals are less than altruistic, between the paywalls, unpaid labour, publishing and membership fees, and general parasitic relationship on public universities. I'm not referring to that. I'm talking about journals that are objectively worthless, and publications houses without academic merit.*

The added value that a journal typically provides is a seal of quality through peer review, an audience through publication, and improved presentation through proofreading and typesetting. Open-access journals will sometimes charge a publication fee for this added value, but for predatory journals, at best the audience is the entirety of that added value. Aside from that, there is little to no peer review process, and manuscripts will be posted even if they are rife, even infested with typos and grammar problems.

If you're just trying to get established as a researcher, this might be a tempting route. But at best it's a waste of your time. In evaluating research output, say for grants, promotions, hiring, and salary adjustments, many organizations will not count publications made on predatory journals. Some will even count them as negative publications if you include them on your CV.

It may be hard to tell at a glance of a journal is predatory or not, and sampling a journal's publications is time-consuming. To save time, be sure to check any journal you're considering against Beall's List of Predatory Journals and Publishers, as found here: https://beallslist.weebly.com/

*I used to volunteer for a predatory publication house, in my younger, more idealistic days. It was decent practice at learning the publication and editing process, but not worth the opportunity cost. My quitting story is here.

Some 'predators' are more successful that others.

 Q: Is the quality of this work comparable to my own?  

Is it so well done that you would be wasting your time by applying? Is it so bad that you would not want your work to be associated with it?

Avoid being too humble, a rejection isn't the end of the world, and you don't need to settle right away. Even if you get rejected, and you likely will, you may also receive excellent feedback from reviewers that have, hopefully, scrutinized your work extensively. Use rejections to improve the work, and go submit again quickly! Start at the highest tier journal that you have a reasonable chance at, and work your way down if/when you get rejected.

Also check the quality of the writing, and not just the science. This will get you used to the expectations of scientific writing in your field, and you may be able to use it to improve your own paper before submission. If there are more than a couple of typos and grammar errors in a published paper, then it's possible that the journal doesn't do its own round of copy editing. Copy editing is a service some journals do to improve their own legitimacy, as well as to add value to your paper. Having said that, fix all the errors you can find first rather than sending a rough draft; the paper you submit should appear perfect to you.

Q: Are the delays between submission, acceptance and publication reasonable? 

Many articles will include the date of submission and of acceptance, and the publication date can be inferred. Typical delays vary greatly between fields, but as a simple rule, more than six months between papers is an indication of a slow review process or of multiple revision rounds. Treat these long delays as red flags.

If you see other papers with long delays. It doesn't that many hours of work to review and edit a paper, so the length of delay has little to do with the time put into the review process. If there's a delay for them, there will be a delay for you. If you end up rejected, you've wasted more time waiting than you needed to.

You can always contact the editor and ask how long their backlog is, you may end up saving yourself a lot of waiting, and the editor some effort.

If you're early in your research career, speed of results should take priority over depth. Every year spent as a graduate student potentially costs you a year getting an industry or junior faculty wage. You will have time to do larger, longer work when your career is settled.

Q: Is my work within the scope of the journal? 

Is it relevant to the stated range of this journal's interests?

A good test for relevance to the journal is to find an article that's already published in the journal that you could put into the literature section of your article where you list similar work that has been done. Is there an article you could cite that would fit into your paper without being forced? If so, then that's a good indication that your work is similar enough to what has already been published in the journal.

Don't just see if the citation would fit, actually put it in your paper. This is a signal to any reviewer that your work belongs in the journal. There's even a chance that one of the reviewers was the author of the paper you cited. This is because previously published authors are often contacted to be reviewers, especially if the work is relevant.

Relevance can work for you tremendously. If a journal is focused on a small part of a field, in other words has a narrow scope, then there may be less competition for space in the journal. This lack of competition doesn't present the same implied quality problems as a low tier or as a predatory journal because there is a filter for such a journal. It just happens that relevance is a strict part of that journal's figure. Finding a journal with a narrow scope that includes your work is fantastic, but by their very nature, finding such a journal is unlikely.


You can't publish a paper in more than one place. You can write a second paper that's derivative of the first, but you can't take what's essentially the same work and put it in two journals. In fact, it's considered extremely poor form to even submit a paper to a second journal before you get a decision from the first journal. This is why turnaround time is important. It's also another reason to avoid predatory journals - once you put your paper in a trash-tier journal, it's stuck there!

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