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How Do I Pick the Right Journal to Submit To?

March 27, 2017

You finished your draft. You reviewed the Introduction, Methods, Results, and Findings to make sure that all of your statements and arguments are clear and polished. You proofread. You triple checked that all of your references are formatted correctly. Give yourself a pat on the back - you've completed a manuscript of your research that is ready to submit to a journal!


But you are not done yet...Now you are faced with the difficult question:


Where do I submit my manuscript for publication?


Whether this is your 1st or 100th manuscript, selecting the best academic journal to submit your paper to can be challenging. Ideally, you want to submit your paper to a journal that:

  • Is most likely to publish your paper;

  • Will give your paper the best visibility;

  • Will publish your paper in a timely fashion;

  • Has a good reputation; AND

  • Is most likely to publish your paper (yes, I said that twice, but it's the most important!). 

Oftentimes, you have to sacrifice on one or more of these categories, depending on the manuscript you want to submit. Which do you sacrifice? And if you are new to academia and do not have a lot of experience publishing, navigating the thousands of journals that are out there can give you a headache! 


No need to fret! Here are some helpful tips on selecting the best journal to submit your manuscript to. 

1. Making sure your manuscript is a good fit for the journal. 


Just because the topic of your manuscript and the focus of the journal are within the same field doesn't mean that the journal editors will view your paper as a good fit for their journal's audience. First, identify which journals have published papers on the specific topic that your manuscript addresses. This can be as easy as reviewing your bibliography. Do you have multiple sources from the same journal? That might indicate a very good fit. 


Also consider whether the methods used in your research fit within the scope of what a journal typically publishes. For instance, some journals mainly publish control trials. Some journals do not publish qualitative research, conceptual papers or policy analyses. Read the journal's Aims & Scope and Instructions for Authors. Both are typically available on the journal's website and provide detail on what the journal wants and does not want, in terms of submissions. If the journal does not explicitly identify types of studies it is or is not interested in, search the journal's archives to see if it has published similar methodologies as what your paper presents. For instance, after completing a focus group study, I identified journals that were a potentially good fit for the topic and then searched "focus group" in the search feature. The journals that have published focus group data fairly recently went to the top of my list for journal selection.


Consideration of fit is also important when your paper reflects a very specialized field. For instance, those in gerontology may find that journals focused on "Family" and "Human Development" topics might be more likely to publish research on parenting and children's issues than issues of aging. So, a gerontological journal within the larger fields of social work, nursing, medicine, etc. may be better. Also, some specialized fields might only have a small number of journals that focus on their area, which can help with the selection process, but can be limiting to your publication opportunities.


2. Considering the visibility and prestige of a journal.


The whole point of publishing your research is so other scholars will read it and (hopefully) use your paper to inform their own research. For this to happen, you need to find a journal where scholars of similar topics will find your paper.  This is where specialized journals may be helpful. For instance, within larger fields, such as social work, public health, nursing, chemistry, and so forth, there are journals that focus on specific sub-fields within those larger disciplines (e.g. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, Journal of Rural Health, Cancer Nursing, Journal of Biological Chemistry). Publishing your manuscript in a journal that best reflects your manuscript's topic will increase its chances of being read, downloaded, and cited. This is increasingly important for scholars on the tenure track, now that some tenure committees will ask for the number of non-self citations your articles have received. 


There is also the issue of impact factors. Impact factors reflect how often articles published in that journal have been cited during the reported period of time. This number changes from year to year and many journals have single year impact factors and 5-year impact factors. A higher impact factor generally indicates how relevant or prestigious a journal is. Those under tenure review will most likely be asked to give the impact factor of the journals they have published their papers in (note that one should report the impact factor for the year or closest year of publication, not the current year, if the paper was published some time ago). 


Note that impact factors do not tell the whole story. First, editors encourage those submitting to their journal to cite articles from their journal and are more likely to accept your paper if you have cited articles from their journal. So, there is a small part of impact factors that do not represent organic citations. Second, there are journals that are considered prestigious and the flagship journal within their field, but may be too specialized to have an impact factor. Also note that expectations regarding impact factors vary across disciplines. For instance, social work journals do not typically have large impact factors. In addition to the impact factor, you can also review the journal's ranking and/or the tier of the journal. Where do you find information about impact factors and rankings? Search the Journal Citation Report or Web of Science databases available through your library. 


While impact factors and rankings are important, consider whether your manuscript reflects the same quality as articles published in the highest-ranked journals in your field. If it doesn't, you will be waiting for the editor and reviewers to make a decision on your paper that will most likely be a rejection. This is a waste of your time. If you think your manuscript is really stellar, you can try a higher-ranked journal and submit it somewhere less prestigious if it is rejected. 


While in your PhD program or early in your career, you most likely will not be expected to publish in the top journals in your field. In order to maximize your publication record, trying to publish a couple of papers in higher-ranked journals and submitting a larger number in reputable journals will lower (or no) impact factors. This may yield you the best results in quality and quantity come time for tenure review.


3. The skinny on open access journals. 


There has been a lot of negative publicity recently about open access journals. Open access journals are those that make their content free to everyone via the internet, and require authors to pay a fee for publishing their paper. As indicated earlier this year in a New York Times article, this has a resulted in a number of "predatory" journals that skip the peer review and publish papers with questionable quality.


Note that there are many open access journals that are reputable and utilize peer-review. There are also valid reasons for scholars to want to publish in open access journals. Manuscripts with significant policy or practice relevance will be more accessible to non-academics through open access and therefore research findings may more easily translate into practice. Also, scholars conducting research in developing countries can have their research more accessible to other scholars who are native to or located in those countries. Regardless, the general negative perception of "pay to play" has tarnished open access for many, so be judicial about submitting your manuscripts to them. 


Personally, I have published a paper in open access, because the topic of the journal was highly specific and the journal was considered reputable and utilized peer review. Also, because the journal was requesting papers on a specific topic, they reduced the open access fee. Check with your university librarian about the quality of open access journals. They will let you know if an open access journal is reputable or not. Some universities also offer funding to cover the open access publication costs for faculty and students. 


4. Keep an eye out for Call for Papers!


Many journals regularly feature issues on special topics and plan to publish papers only on that topic for that issue. Many times, the editors (or guest editors) do not receive a large number of manuscripts on that specific topic. This increases your paper's chances for getting published! Check the websites for individual journals within your field on a regular basis to see if there are special Calls for Papers on your topic. There is often a deadline for such manuscript submissions, so you may have to hustle to get the paper in!


5. Consider the amount of time a review will take. 


Some journals boast quick turn around times for initial review. Generally, 6-12 weeks is a standard amount of time for an initial peer review. Remember that reviewers are volunteers and fitting manuscript reviews into their schedule can be challenging! That being said, if you are asked to review a paper for a journal, be considerate to the authors and review the paper in a timely fashion!


While some journals have improved their review times, other have terrible, lengthy turn around times. This will not be posted on the journal's website and can only be learned from word of mouth. So, ask your colleagues and faculty about the journals you have short-listed for your manuscript. They will tell you what they know about how long the journal takes for review and how many reviewers were assigned your manuscript. This can give you an idea about how long a review will take. 


For instance, I once submitted a paper to a journal that took almost a year to review the manuscript and ended up rejecting it. What a waste of my time!?!? The paper was ultimately published in a different journal, but the paper would have been published elsewhere more quickly if the journal hadn't taken so long for review. Anyone who asks me about that specific journal, I tell him or her about my negative experience. I also promote journals where I have experienced good turn around times to scholars. 

Publishing research is a tricky business and scholars are under pressure to publish more and more articles than ever before. It can be frustrating and rewarding all wrapped up into one. My advice is to diversify your submissions - by discipline or focus of the journal (when appropriate) and by level of prestige. For me, this has resulted in a highly productive publication record with most (but not all) of my articles published in journals with impact factors. Achieving the balance of high quality and quantity is key. 


Try to identify your journal choice or short list of journals early - journals have different requirements for length and style. By making your selection early in the manuscript writing, you can maintain the requirements outlined in the journal's Instructions for Authors as you write the manuscript and avoid lengthy edits later. 


Need help and support with making publication decisions? Contact Nicole today and set up a consultation where you can discuss your publishing options and develop a strategy for improving your publication record!

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