One of the most common questions that scholars confront is trying to find the right journal for their research papers. When I go to conferences, often I am asked: “How do I know if Political Analysis is the right journal for my work?”
This is an important question, in particular for junior scholars who don’t have a lot of publishing experience — and for scholars who are nearing important milestones (like contract renewal, tenure, and promotion). In a publishing world where it may take months for an author to receive an initial decision from a journal, and then many additional months if they need to revise and resubmit their work to one or more subsequent journals, selecting the most appropriate journal can be critical for professional advancement.
So how can a scholar try to determine which journal is right for their work?
The first question an author needs to ask is how suitable their paper is for a particular journal. When I meet with my graduate students, and we talk about potential publication outlets for their work, my first piece of advice is that they should take a close look at the last three or four issues of the journals they are considering. I’ll recommend that they look at the subjects that each journal is focusing on, including both substantive topics and methodological approaches. I also tell them to look closely at how the papers appearing in those journals are structured and how they are written (for example, how long the papers typically are, and how many tables and figures they have). The goal is to find a journal that is currently publishing papers that are most closely related to the paper that the student is seeking to publish, as assessed by the substantive questions typically published, the methodological approaches generally used, paper framing, and manuscript structure.
Potential audience is the second consideration. Different journals have different readers — meaning that authors can have some control over who might be exposed to their paper when they decide which journals to target for their work. This is particularly true for authors who are working on highly interdisciplinary projects, where they might be able to frame their paper for publication in related but different academic fields. In my own work on voting technology, for example, some of my recent papers have appeared in journals that have their primary audience in computer science, while others have appeared in more typical political science journals. So authors need to decide in many cases which audience they want to appeal two, and make sure that when they submit their work to a journal that appeals to that audience that the paper is written in an appropriate manner for that journal.
However, most authors will want to concentrate on journals in a single field. For those papers, a third question arises: whether to target a general interest journal or a more specialized field journal. This is often a very subjective question, as it is quite hard to know prior to submission whether a particular paper will be interesting to the editors and reviewers of a general interest journal. As general interest journals often have higher impact factors (I’ll say more about impact factors next), many authors will be drawn to submit their papers to general interest journals even if that is not the best strategy for their work. Many authors will “start high”, that is begin with general interest journals, and then once the rejection letters pile up, they will move to the more specialized field journals. While this strategy is understandable (especially for authors who are nearing promotion or tenure deadlines), it may also be counterproductive — the author will likely face a long and frustrating process getting their work published, if they submit first to general interest journals, get the inevitable rejections, and then move to specialized field journals. Thus, my advice (and my own practice with my work) is to avoid that approach, and to be realistic about the appeal of the particular research paper. That is, if your paper is going to appeal only to readers in a narrow segment of your discipline, then send it to the appropriate specialized field journal.
A fourth consideration is the journal’s impact factor. Impact factors are playing an increasingly important role in many professional decisions, and they may be a consideration for many authors. Clearly, an author should generally seek to publish their work in journals that have higher impact than those that are lower impact. But again, authors should try to be realistic about their work, and make sure that regardless of the journal’s impact factor that their submission is appropriate for the journal they are considering.
Finally, authors should always seek the input of their faculty colleagues and mentors if they have questions about selecting the right journal. And in many fields, journal editors, associate editors, and members of the journal’s editorial board will often be willing to give an author some quick and honest advice about whether a particular paper is right for their journal. While many editors shy away from giving prospective authors advice about a potential submission, giving authors some brief and honest advice can actually save the editor and the journal a great deal of time. It may be better to save the author (and the journal) the time and effort that might get sunk into a paper that has little chance at success in the journal, and help guide the author to a more appropriate journal.
Selecting the right journal for your work is never an easy process. All scholars would like to see their work published in the most widely read and highest impact factor journals in their field. But very few papers end up in those journals, and authors can get their work into print more quickly and with less frustration if they first make sure their paper is appropriate for a particular journal.