Selecting a journal for your scientific paper

You have completed your research, collected and analyzed your data, and written a thesis chapter or presented a poster session. Now it’s time to prepare the paper for submission to a journal. One of your first questions will be, which journal should I choose? There are many factors to consider, not only about the journal, but also about you.

Although you may be tempted to submit your manuscript to the most prestigious journal, you should think about which journal is most appropriate and so most likely to publish your paper. Every author needs to consider such factors as the audience, whether a journal is general versus specific, or regional versus international. Other considerations about the journal include impact factors and other rankings, open access, acceptance rate and speed of publication. Your choice of journal will also depend on the stage of your career.

Journal quality

Sorting journals by impact factor in the Clarivate Analytics Data Citation Index,  an online subscription-based scientific citation-indexing service on the Web of Science research platform published by Thomson Reuters, will help you rank journals in your subject according to their ‘quality.’ If you think your manuscript is excellent with very interesting results, you may want to consider the top-ranked journals. However, there are a few things to consider first, such as:

  • The top-ranked journals may only publish certain kinds of articles, such as reviews, or may accept manuscripts by invitation only.
  • The top-ranked journals may be in a different subject.
  • High rankings may only be temporary.
  • Rankings may not be available for some journals.

But most important, it is much more difficult to publish in highly ranked journals. For all these reasons, I find that rankings are most useful in comparing journals with a similar audience.

Information on journal impact factors and other journal metrics is available in the Journal Citation Reports®. Although the Web of Science is not free, it is probably available at your university library. For an assessment of journal quality, I find it easiest to look at the group of journals for a particular subject (e.g., ecology) and sort by impact factor. Impact factor, the most common measure of journal quality, is the average number of citations per article in the previous two years. Explanations of the calculation of various impact factors and other data can be found in the Clarivate Analytics Data Citation Index. Measures such as the Cited Half-Life and Immediacy Index might also be important to some authors.

How to find your audience

Sometimes publishing in the ‘best’ journal possible is not actually the best choice. Even if your paper is published in a high-ranking journal, if it does not reach the right audience, it will not be well-cited and, therefore, not as successful. You need to decide whether you want to target an audience for your specific or general field (e.g., plant community ecology vs. general ecology), and whether you want to reach a regional or international audience. Here are some questions to help you decide:

  • Would your research interest someone who lives on the other side of the world?
  • Would someone working in the same general field, but in a different sub-discipline, be interested in your results?
  • Would your study be considered basic or applied research?

You may or may not be able to change the answer to some of these questions by rewriting your manuscript (e.g., make it more applied by discussing management implications). There is also nothing wrong with publishing research in regional journals in specific fields. This is common for graduate students, and even senior scientists don’t have all their publications in Nature or Science.

After you have decided on the type of journal (e.g., international plant ecology journals), you can come up with a few alternatives by simply knowing the journals in your field, or looking up the journals of your references. The next steps are to look at the impact factors (see above), and also read the Aims and Scope, and Instructions to Authors for these journals. Consider the type of article (e.g., review or regular research article), page lengths, which can be modified by rewriting, and page charges. You might also want to consider whether journals are entirely or partially open access if this is important to you. Overall, you will probably want to target the top-ranked and most appropriate journal for your audience.

Which journal is best for YOU

HOWEVER, there is one other consideration . . . YOU. Specifically, you should think about the importance of this paper to your career.

  • Do you want this paper accepted as soon as possible so you can add it to your CV?
  • Do you want this paper published as soon as possible so people will see it quickly?
  • Do you want this paper to be cited a lot, but don’t mind how long it takes?

Some of the answers to these questions on journal selection depend on the average time for acceptance and publication. You can determine this for recent articles using the dates of receipt, acceptance and publication that are printed on the first page of articles for most journals. Early in your career, it is probably more important to have your first manuscripts accepted and published quickly rather than waste time trying to get published in high-ranking journals. For example, most of my Canadian graduate students submit their manuscripts to Canadian (e.g., Canadian Journal of Forest Research) or subject-specific journals (e.g., Plant Ecology, Polar Geography). Later in your career after you have more publications, it might be worth the extra time to try for the high-ranking journals. I have been working on a multiple-authored synthesis paper for years that I plan to submit to high-ranking journals until it is accepted.

You need to decide what is most important to you: time to acceptance, publication speed, number of citations, or the right audience. First, choose the group of possible journals for the audience you want to target. Then decide on your journal based on publication speed, impact factor, and other characteristics that are important for your paper and for you.

© Karen Harper, PhD, and Oxford Editing, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Harper, PhD, and Oxford Editing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.