Thursday, October 25, 2012

What kind of journal should you publish in?

You have a great paper to submit to a journal for publication. What journal should you pick? Should you aim high, at a top-tier journal, or try for a lower-ranking journal? Your chances are better at the latter, but the publicity and prestige are much better at the former. Sometimes lower-ranking journals are more efficient in getting papers reviewed and published, so in many cases you will have a publication in hand much sooner if you go for the lower-ranking journal. Even if the top journal is fast, a rejection means more time formatting and rewriting the paper for a new journal.

 We all face these choices, but they loom larger for graduate students and young scholars. They need quick publications, which would favor a lower-ranking journal. But a paper in a top journal looks awfully good on your CV. These questions are on my mind now as I begin looking over applications for an archaeology position in my unit. Candidate A has two papers in top journals, but candidate B (at the same level of seniority) has three papers in lower-ranking journals plus two book chapters. Yes, but candidate A has a bunch of papers in conference proceedings.

There is no easy rule of thumb for deciding where to send a paper, but here are a few thoughts. I don't claim to be an expert or to speak for anybody else; these are my personal opinions. If you are thinking about this question in relation to job searches, another complexity enters the stage: will search committees only count publications in hand, will they look at accepted papers, or will they also consider papers under review?

Journal ranking

Journal ranking is a major consideration. Top journals have much wider readership and much more prestige. I've talked about my experiences trying to publish in Science previously (and for some reason, that post is wildly popular, the only entry from this blog with a steady stream of thousands of hits a month. Maybe the thousand of authors rejected by Science find it comforting). My Science rejection ended up in PNAS, "Papers Not Acceptable to Science."  Oops, that should be Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Not a slouch of a publication (much higher ranked than any archaeology journal), but still not on the same level as Science or Nature. Journals are full of excellent published papers that were previously rejected from another journal, typically from a higher-ranking journal. Although I did just come across a paper rejected by a lower-ranking journal published in a higher-ranking journal.

Journals are often divided into levels. A typical scheme is:
  • International: A top journal with an international readership and reputation.
  • National: An excellent journal of national scope.
  • Regional: A journal with a regional focus. These are far more important in archaeology than in other fields, since our research has a strong place-orientation and since we have to publish a lot of data reports.
  • Semi-journal: A publication whose status as peer-reviewed is uncertain.
  • Newsletter: A non-peer-reviewed serial publication.
My typical advice to students is to aim higher rather than lower on the chart, but not too high. Try to get realistic feedback about whether a paper is likely to be considered seriously by a top journal.  The ranking of a journal is not any kind of secure measure of the quality of an article. In archaeology, some of the best work is published in regional journals - they can be quick and they are read by the regional specialists who may or may not read the higher-ranking journals. And some of the top journals contain a surprisingly high number of real stinkers of articles. I won't mention any cases here, but some journals today seem more interested in fashionable nonsense than in solid empirical research.

Non-English language journals

English-speakers who do research in other countries have to publish in local journals. This can be more difficult if it requires publishing in another language. I once translated a paper into Spanish for a Mexican journal. I gave it to a bi-lingual secretary in Cuernavaca who offered to check the translation. After looking it over, she asked if I would mind if she re-translated it from English. Wow. That was the last time I tried translated my own writing into Spanish; now I either write directly in Spanish, or pay for a translator.

But publishing in foreign journals has another downside. Many U.S. scholars without experience in international research or scholarship assume that foreign journals are not peer reviewed. I know of one case where it nearly cost an archaeologist tenure and promotion because the search committee did not want to count journal articles published in a Latin American country. But even if one's colleagues are not so biased as this, it can be difficult to evaluate how non-English language journals rank with respect to English-language journals. I know for a fact that many Mexican journals have rigorous peer review processes. So in evaluating whether to publish in other languages, one has to balance the benefits of publishing in the country of research  (for which there are many benefits and positive features) versus the potential downside of having others possibly evaluate one's publications lower.

Turnaround time

This is another very important factor in deciding where to publish. If you care about how long it will take to get into print, then you want a journal that is quick. I've commented previously about fast review times for the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology and for Urban Studies. And don't forget the three days it took Science to reject my paper! Can't complain on that measure.

It can be difficult to get accurate data on turnaround time. This information is rarely published in a public location, and it is in the interest of slow journals to suppress or cover up the actual record of their turnaround time. In my field, Mesoamerican archaeology, the two top journals are both VERY slow to get papers reviewed, and then to get accepted papers into print. It is hard to say just how slow they are, however. My judgment is based on my own experiences and on talking with colleagues, many of whom complain bitterly about the time delays. I could tell a few choice stories here, but I will refrain. I had a short descriptive paper on urban neighborhoods at Maya cities, and I didn't even consider those two journals because of the time delay. I was going to send it to a regional journal/semi-journal, but the editor of a French international journal expressed an interest and said they could review it quickly. I submitted it, and the process was quick, convenient, and of high quality (the Journal de la Société del Américanistes). I thought it would be better to get the paper out more quickly than to wait for it to come out in a higher-ranked journal with wider readership, and I think I made the right decision.

Edited volumes

What about edited volumes? It is usually much easier to get a paper into an edited volume, especially if it originated at a symposium at a meeting. But if you have followed this blog for a while you already know of my (low) opinions of most edited volumes in archaeology. The corollary of that view is that in most (but not all) cases, I would advise sending a good paper to a journal rather than putting it in an edited volume. See:

But the most important advice I can offer is to get off your duff and finish that article!


Jason Ur said...

Another data point for you, Mike: I just had a manuscript rejected by Current Anthropology NINE AND A HALF months after I submitted it. Absolutely unconscionable. In that space of time, the manuscript could have been rejected, revised, and resubmitted several times over at less prestigious journals. Another anecdotal case for avoiding the supposed top-tier journals when you want to make an impact quickly.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Jason- The thing that is hard to sort out is how much of these delays are due to tardy reviewers and how much is due to journal administration. All journals have problems with finding willing reviewers, and problems with delays in submission of reviews. To my outside eye, this problem seems to be worse today than in the past. But the administrative aspect is important, requiring both good organization (finding and bugging reviewers) and a level of hassling people to accept and complete reviews.

I have seen some creative practices by journal editors to deal with this problem. For example, the editor could get only one review back for a recent paper of mine, so he sent me the review (and some of his own comments) and suggested I use it for revisions. The manuscript was NOT called accepted, and the editor explained the situation. Then a second review came in, very late, after I had submitted the revised version. So I got the ms back again for another round of revisions. While I grumbled about this at the time, I now realize that the editor was doing his best to reconcile the need for adequate reviews with the need for a speedy process. In this case, the first review was superficial and not very helpful, while the second (late) review was insightful and helpful and led to significant improvements in the paper.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

I think that another factor to consider as you decide on a journal to submit a paper to as a grad student is how far along you are. If you're still early in your grad years, shooting for the stars so to speak can be a really rewarding strategy, professionally speaking. In my mind, the key is really to start publishing as early as possible... this has the added benefit of helping demystify the process that is arguably going to define the rest of your career.

I'd never heard of getting staggered reviews, like you describe in your comment... it'd probably drive me up the wall!

Michael E. Smith said...

Hi Julien! Good point. My first two publications (as a grad student) were in American Anthropologist and American Antiquity. They are probably a good part of the reason I landed my first academic job.