In science, publication is everything. Publishing a lot in high-impact journals is the royal way to build an academic career and disseminate your research. That’s the dream, but the reality is more complicated. Sending your article to the wrong journal can delay your publication for years and cost you months of unnecessary work. In this post, I review the criteria to consider in selecting a journal for your paper.
If you are currently writing a paper and want to give yourself the best chance of publishing in a good journal, I recommend downloading my writing package. You will find writing instructions that will help you identify the journal’s requirements to which you are considering submitting your paper and increase your likelihood of being accepted.
How to find the journal of your dreams?
Finding the right journal to publish your research is not always easy. The number of scientific journals has exploded over the past few decades. In PubMed alone, you’ll find 30,000 journals listed. In addition, the last few years have seen an explosion of predatory journals, i.e., journals that cash huge fees to publish research without abiding by the practices that characterize quality research (e.g., peer-reviewing). So how do you identify the right journals for your research?
Read your references
The best strategy for finding out where to publish your paper is to see in which journals the articles on which your research is based have been published. If you notice that certain outlets appear multiple times, they are probably also suitable for your paper.
Search literature databases
You can also enter your keywords into a literature search engine, such as Medline or PubMed. Journals that appear multiple times in your search result are probably good candidates for your research.
Ask your advisor or colleagues
Choosing the right journal can be challenging for young scientists, but experienced researchers usually know their way around. They know the reputation of the journals, their scope, and sometimes the editors. They may also have informal information such as the chances of being accepted or how long it will take to get a response. So don’t hesitate to ask for their opinion!
Imitate researchers you admire
The best way to learn is to observe others who have succeeded at what you are trying to achieve. This is true in all areas of life as well as in scientific writing and publishing.
Who are the scientists you admire? The ones who have the kind of careers you would dream of having? What are they working on, and where have they published their research? If their publications helped them become famous and have a great career, this might work for you too.
Check the journals that have a good reputation in your field
In every field of research, there are top journals, i.e., journals that everyone knows and regularly reads. Publishing in one of these journals will give your career a big boost and make you and your research more visible.
What are these journals in your field? Would they fit your research?
How do you know if a journal is right for you?
Selecting the right journal for your article is more complex than it may seem at first glance. Why? Because there are several parameters to consider.
Scope and audience
When considering submitting your article to a journal, the first thing to check is its scope and its intended audience. The journal’s scope tells you what topics and methodology the journal covers, as well as the type of articles it publishes. The audience can be researchers (including the editor and the reviewers), practitioners, lecturers, students, and sometimes lay readers interested in the topic. Most journals have a page on their website explaining their scope and describing their audience. You can see some examples here and here.
Submitting your paper to a journal whose scope and audience do not match your research guarantees the rejection of your paper. Therefore, you should check these two parameters before spending too much effort writing an article for a particular journal.
Checking the journal’s scope and audience is especially important for interdisciplinary projects. Projects at the frontier between different research fields are thrilling, but they can be tricky to place. They are usually less clearly identified with each field of research and often deal with unusual research topics or employ original methods. In addition, different audiences have different expectations and norms that determine how research projects are performed. Thus, if you are working on an interdisciplinary project, I would recommend thinking early on (i.e., before even conducting the research!!!) about where you want to publish your results and consider the scopes and audiences of these journals. These considerations may change how you plan your studies and will eventually increase your chances of getting accepted in a good journal.
The best-known metric of a journal is its impact factor, but there are a variety of other scores such as the H-index, the eigenfactor, influence scores. Publication metrics reflect the frequency with which articles published in that journal get cited and thus quantify their reach: The highest the impact, the better.
Where can you find these metrics? Most journals publish their impact factors on their website. You can also search for it in various databases, such as SJR.
Researchers dread acceptance rates, especially if the journal ranks high. And there is good reason to fear these numbers, as they can be tiny.
Scientific journals with the highest impact factors, such as Science or Nature, accept around 7% of the articles they receive, which means a rejection rate of about 93% (I know you know that, but it feels different to read it that way, doesn’t it?). Excellent more specialized journals have an acceptance rate between 10% and 20%. From then on, it goes up as the reach and demands of the journal decrease.
Some journals publish their acceptance rate on their websites, but not all do it. If you can’t find the acceptance rate of a given journal, you can ask more experienced researchers. They can usually provide a more or less realistic estimate.
The reputation of a journal correlates with its publication metrics, but not perfectly. If you work in a small research field, journals won’t have large impact factors because they only address a small community. However, they may have an excellent reputation within that community, and researchers in your field will appreciate their publications (including those who read your CV when you apply for positions).
The reputation of a journal is informal information. Unlike the impact factor, you won’t be able to find it online, but your colleagues will know about it. So, if you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to ask them.
To increase the visibility of your article, make sure the journal where you’re submitting your paper is indexed in the most central databases in your field. Your target audience will search these databases when looking for papers like yours.
Scientific publishing is outrageously costly. Authors pay to publish their articles, and readers pay to read them. As reviewers do not receive a penny for their work, almost all of it goes in the publisher’s pocket. A lucrative business, isn’t it?
If your paper is accepted, the publisher will charge you several fees, such as figure costs (color figures are usually more expensive than black and white ones) or open access fees.
Many universities offer financial support for publication, so don’t hesitate to ask yours. But if you are on a tight budget, read the guidelines carefully and make sure you will be able to afford these fees.
Open access is a publishing practice that makes scientific articles available online at no cost to the reader. This kind of publishing allows you to reach more readers and therefore increases your chances of being cited. It’s an advantage, but it is also expensive for the author.
The big scientific publishers such as Elsevier, Taylor and Francis, or Springer give you the choice: if you want to publish in open access, you will have to pay a fee of around $3000.
Other journals, called open access journals, only publish in open access, you have no alternative. Their publication fees are also between $1000 and $3000. These journals generally have a high acceptance rate but also the reputation for being less stringent regarding the quality of the articles they publish.
In any case, if you have the opportunity, I encourage you to publish in open access and seek financial support for it. Many universities have funding for open access publishing, as do funding agencies.
Required format and backup journals
Being rejected from a journal is a real pain if you must rewrite the article to resubmit it elsewhere. If your backup journal addresses a different audience or requires another format, you should expect consequential rewriting. Experienced researchers think about this in advance and often go down a list of similarly formatted journals: If their paper is rejected by the first journal, they can immediately resubmit it to the second or third.
Which formatting elements should you consider?
– The length of the articles published in that journal. Some journals publish 3- or 4-page articles (e.g., Nature, Science) while others expect 15 to 20 pages. You may be able to publish your research in both journals, but switching from one to the other will probably take several months of work.
– Citation and formatting norms. Scientific journals require authors to format their paper according to specific norms, such as APA, Chicago, MLA styles. These standards dictate how references are cited, the paper’s font, headings, tables, etc. Changing the style of an article may seem like a detail, but it is actually a lot of work. So, if possible, pick a backup journal that follows the same norms as your initial choice.
The tradeoff between impact and chances of acceptance
The journal’s impact factor and acceptance rate constitute an essential trade-off that scientists must consider before choosing a journal. If you manage to publish your paper in a highly ranked journal, then congratulations: You’ve hit the jackpot! But let’s face it: The odds are against you. What is most likely to happen is that you will be rejected and will have to try elsewhere, which can come at a huge cost for several reasons.
Be aware of the time you may lose by submitting to a top journal
If your article is sent for review, the process will take several months, during which your paper will not be published. The journal’s editor may even ask you to revise and resubmit your article several times only to reject it at the last round.
This situation happened to a friend of mine. Her paper went through three rounds of revision and resubmission at a prestigious marketing journal before the editor decided to reject it. The whole review cycle took a year and a half and a lot of work. In the end, she had to resubmit it to another journal and start again from scratch.
Be aware of the extra work that submitting to a top journal may cost you
If your paper is rejected from a top journal, you probably will have to rewrite a good chunk of the article. High-ranking journals are intended for a general audience and publish short format articles. For example, Science articles are 3-5 pages long, including methods and results. If, after being rejected from such a generalist journal, you decide to submit your paper to a more specialized, longer-format journal, you will probably need to rewrite the introduction and discussion to fit the new audience and format requirements.
My personal experience
Several years ago, I found myself stuck in a hellish cycle of submission, rejection, and rewriting. I had found exciting results, and so my supervisors and I decided to submit the article to Science. Two hours after pressing the submit button on the Science’s website, I received an email saying that it was desk-rejected.
We thus decided to try PNAS, and I worked on adapting the paper for their format. Again, it got desk rejected.
Then I rewrote the paper for Psychological Science (one of the top psychology journals) and learned with delight that it had been sent to reviewers… who decided to reject it.
After several nervous breakdowns and a pep talk from my supervisor (I’ll never forget the mixture of embarrassment and pity that I could read in his eyes), I rewrote the whole thing. I sent it to the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (a good neuroscience journal), and after two revisions, they finally accepted it. The entire operation had cost me two years, a whole lot of work, and a life aversion for “Submit” buttons.
I’m not sharing this story to discourage you from trying high-ranking journals. The decision is yours and depends on your current situation, the time frame you have to publish your research, and your surplus. I tell you this story so you know that this type of rejection is common and should be expected, regardless of the quality of your paper.
Finding an outlet for your research can be challenging. In this post, we go over the most important criteria as well as strategies for finding the right journal.
Once you think you’ve found your match, save yourself a lot of unnecessary work and download my free scientific writing package. In this package you will find a workbook to identify the journal’s requirements and audience. It’s the best way to tailor your article to the journal criteria and put all the chances on your side to get it accepted.
How to write your introduction + template
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Writing a good introduction is essential to getting your paper published in a top journal and captivating your readers. It’s essential… and challenging! With this template for writing your introduction, you will find:
- Pre-writing instructions
- Writing instructions
- Explanations on how to use the template
- A checklist to make sure you have included all the important elements for your introduction.