Why you should choose a journal before conducting the research

Do you want to publish a lot and in top journals? Don’t we all? Then, you need to think about the paper you’re going to write and the journal where you’ll submit it before you even finish designing your studies. In this post, you will learn why considering an outlet for your research early on gives you a massive advantage for publishing in the best journals (to learn how to select a journal for your paper see this post).

At the beginning of my Ph.D. thesis, I thought that publishing in good scientific journals was primarily a matter of writing talent. I believed that skilled scientific writers could sell any study anywhere. In my naive and somewhat dishonest view of science, the packaging mattered more than the content. Twenty years later, I know that’s not true.

You can’t publish any research anywhere, just as you can’t dress up a duck and make it look like an eagle. Those who know both birds will be able to tell the difference. And so will experienced scientists when they read your article.

Me, in 2004, as I was starting my Ph.D. thesis. Note the eagerness of the first year Ph.D student, and the bottle of Laurent-Perrier champagne behind my back (the latter may have probably contributed to the former).

Why should you choose a journal before conducting your research?

The editors and reviewers of the journals where you want to submit your research have specific standards. The only way to convince them to publish your paper is to conduct studies that meet these expectations. Which standards am I talking about?

All journals have guidelines for the topics and methods they publish. If your research doesn’t fit into their scope, they won’t publish your paper. This seems obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I see papers rejected because the research doesn’t fit the journal it is submitted to. Be smarter!

When planning your experiments, gather the information you need to tailor your research to those sexy, top-tier journals. In the next paragraphs, I explain you how to do that.

What information should you look for in the journals where you want to publish?

On the journal websites, you will find information for authors that describes what editors and reviewers care about when reviewing articles (the same is true for grant proposals). To put the odds in your favor, look for the following information.

Journal’s research topics and audience

All scientific journals have a scope, meaning that they focus on specific research topics and audiences. So, if you want to publish in a journal, you need to make sure that your research falls within its scope and is relevant to its audience. 

Some journals provide on their website a lot of information about their scope. Here is an example from one of the best psychology journals.

Would you like to publish in high-impact journals?

High-impact journals, such as Nature or Science, aim for a broad audience. They focus on papers with vast implications, provocative ideas, and cutting-edge methodologies. If your project is only relevant to a small community, you won’t pass their screening; if you’re using standard methods to test hypotheses that have already received empirical support, you won’t make it through; if your research doesn’t solve a big problem, they won’t publish you.

Don’t get me wrong! I am not advocating that all research projects be sensational. On the contrary, I believe that science needs replications and focus on details to understand the complexities of a subject. I’m just saying that if your research project doesn’t have the wow effect that high-impact journals require, you should aim for specialized journals instead or change your project while there is still time.

Are you working on an original topic?

If you work on a topic that is unusual for your field, such as an interdisciplinary project, it is imperative to think during the planning phase about where you want to publish this research. Why? Because you may have trouble finding an outlet interested in that topic.

This situation has happened to colleagues of mine who work on the frontier between psychology and law. Their project is fascinating, it has tons of applications, and they replicated their results several times. Yet they keep on struggling to publish their papers (one of their papers was rejected seven times) because they do not fit into the scope of any journal.

Acknowledging that original topics can be challenging to publish does not imply that you should give up on them. It simply means that when you undertake this type of research, it is essential to think right from the start about where you are going to publish it. This will allow you to design your studies to blend in with the journals that best fit.

The methods the journal publishes

All journals have guidelines regarding the methods they accept. For example, many journals do not publish case reports or qualitative research. If you rely on these types of approaches, you should be aware that your publication range may be more limited.

The expectations of the reviewers who may evaluate your paper are another aspect to consider, especially if you work in an interdisciplinary field. Let me illustrate this point with a personal example.

I am a psychologist, and, in some of my experiments, I use monetary games to see how people make decisions when they interact with others and the stakes are real. To control as many parameters as possible while keeping the setting close to reality, I let the participants believe they are playing against another participant when, in fact, they are playing against a computer. If I want to publish my research in a psychology journal, this minor deception is acceptable as long as it doesn’t harm participants. But if I want to publish in a more general journal, I might be reviewed by economists, and economists categorically dismiss deception. So, when I design my experiments and need to decide whether to use deception, it is essential to ask myself if I want to publish them in a psychology or a more general journal.

The ethical and good scientific practices the journal requires

More and more journals promote ethical and best scientific practices. These practices range from obtaining an ethics committee’s approval to pre-registering your hypotheses and justifying your sample size with power analyses. These are excellent practices that lead to better science. But if you are not aware of these guidelines and do not consider them when planning your experiments, you won’t be allowed to publish in many journals.

What to do if you already have collected your data?

The best time to think about which journal you would like to publish your research in is at the beginning of the project, but if it is too late now and you have already run the experiments, don’t panic! There are still many things you can do starting with choosing a journal before writing the paper.

Nothing is more time-consuming than writing the first draft and having to rewrite everything because it doesn’t meet the journal’s requirements. The most effective way to write is to draft directly into the format given by the journal.

Moreover, different journals have different audiences, and your article must be tailored to appeal to these readers; otherwise, you won’t get their attention. Let’s say, for example, that you have developed a new diagnostic tool for a particular disease. An audience of medical doctors will want to know how this tool can help them in their practice, while an audience of engineers will be interested in the technical aspect of the research. How you present your research will depend on your intended readership. So, if you have already collected your data, choose a journal, identify its requirements and only then start writing.

Where to start?

I hope that by now, you are convinced that you have everything to gain by thinking early on about where you ideally want to publish your research. By choosing a journal before conducting your experiments, you will have a clear idea of the expectations you have to meet, and you will be able to design your studies and craft your paper accordingly.

To start with this process, download my Scientific Writing Kit. It contains a workbook to help you clarify formal and informal journal guidelines and structure your introduction to meet those requirements. You will also find in this kit a template formatted according to the APA standards to use as a draft of your article. Download it here: It’s free!

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.
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