Publishing in top ranked journals


Doctoral and emerging researchers often believe that they must, from the very get go, publish in highly ranked journals. Where does this idea come from. Well sometimes word of mouth. Sometimes universities may try to point researchers in the top ranked journal direction. Some universities actually offer clear instructions about what journals to choose via little apps where the researcher can type in the title of a journal and get back an institutional approval rating. You know like … Excellent choice, Well if you really have to and Don’t even think about it.

Of course there are a few disciplines where there are ranked journals and everyone uses the same list. And there certainly are occasions when journal metrics count for something. Like national policy regimes which reward universities on the basis of metrics. But generally, with the exception of the disciplinary case, institutional audit measures are IMHO a pretty poor reason for emerging and doctoral researchers to choose one journal over another. In Australia, a number of recent reviews have said as much, and in the UK, audit is still generally based on the paper or book itself rather than where it is published.

But lists exist. Now, I reckon that these lists of desirable and less desirable journals are not a great idea. Lists have counter-productive effects. They have consequences – some topics at the top of the list are over discussed, and others languishing near the bottom don’t get enough attention. Some journals struggle to keep up with the volume of submissions, and others just struggle. And if researchers aim for particular kinds of journals with particular interests then it’s likely that their research, their methods and their analyses are being covertly steered, may be even skewed. It may even be that what researchers don’t write about is as, if not more, important than what they do.

Now this won’t be the view of institutional gatekeepers who worry about reputation and rankings. But this is my blog and I get to say here what I think.

So if rankings are not how to choose a journal, what do you do? Aside from the obvious avoid predatory journals.

Here’s my top three things to think about when choosing where to publish:

1. What journal community are you already part of? If you regularly read and cite particular journals then you know the field they cover, the kinds of topics they are interested in, whose work is important and often used and what style of writing contributors generally use. And you also have an idea about what doesn’t get into the particular journals and the kind of writing that doesn’t appear. Put another way – think of the journal you use a lot as a conversation. It is one you are already in, as a listener. And you are now ready to say something for the first time. Who do you want to speak with? Who is interested in what you have to say? They’re probably already here in this journal community. And of course, it’s always possible to ask your supervisor, a mentor, an examiner or more senior colleague who knows your work, what conversation you’re in and need to be in, and where they think would be a good place for you to write for.

2. Where does your work fit? There are often journals which appear to cover the same topic, but are actually different. Your work will fit in one or some of them, but not all. Put another way – the journal is a knowledge building community. Do you think of any journals as being your scholarly home? A place you know you can always find something of interest? Where you have something to contribute? What body of knowledge does your work speak with, add to, reframe, challenge? If the latter, is the community ready for your contribution? It’s always possible to email an editor to see if the kind of paper you are thinking about is of interest. And indeed there are a few journals that operate this way – they have a process where you basically make a pitch and the editor says whether to bother writing or not.

3. What constraints do you have? If you fear rejection, then you need to understand that top journal rankings are in part achieved through having high rates of rejection. That’s not an entirely logical thing – quality is not necessarily about the number of papers you don’t publish. But that’s how it is. So your odds of getting rejected are higher in a more highly ranked journal. And if you are in a hurry, say you’re doing a doctorate by publication or you need publications to get a job, then it is unlikely that the most highly ranked journals are going to deal with you in a hurry. They are highly ranked because they have a huge set of papers they need to get through and it will likely take a while for your paper to get sent out to reviewers. But it’s always possible to email an editor and ask about rejection rates and the time it takes to get to review.

So what am I saying? I’m not saying don’t ever publish in highly ranked journals. Not at all. Go for it if the journals are a good fit and you have something to say to their community of readers and if you understand the time and rejection business.

But if you think the priority at the start of your academic career is to get your work out there to interested readers, then don’t make top ranking the top of your choice list – use the community, conversation and fit criteria. And take non vested interest advice. Check with the journal. And don’t be put off by any institutional frowning at your publication choice – that’s an institution looking after itself first, and you second.

And you can always put that top ranked journal on your bucket list. You’ll get there, just maybe not straight away. You don’t have to set the bar sky high right at the start.