Paper writing VI: Choosing the right journal for your paper

This should actually be one of the first posts in the series on paper writing, because my advice to writers is always to choose the journal before they write the paper. I received this advice several years ago, and it is really good advice. You may wonder why – surely you have to know what you have written about before you find a place to send it? I am arguing otherwise, and here is why.

In every piece of writing we do, we should be thinking about 3 things: audience, purpose and context. In other words: who am I writing to? Why am I writing this paper? And what is the debate/conversation/context my paper is part of, or that informs my paper? These questions need to be answered before you really get into paper writing, because if you don’t know the answers, you may end up writing a paper for yourself – a ‘writerly’ paper – rather than a paper meant to be read by your peers, so that they can engage with your argument, within your community or practice or research – a ‘readerly’ paper. The more reader-oriented your paper, the more likely you are to receive encouraging feedback from journals.

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Once you have clarified these three issues for yourself, you now need to think carefully about where to publish your work. Where are these readers? Where are these conversations and debates happening? Where is similar research featuring? Initial broader issues to consider in choosing a journal may include: national or international journal? Closed or open access? Can you afford to pay page fees (will your university cover these for you)? Deciding, for example, to publish your paper in an open access, national journal, with or without page fees, will enable you to do quite a purposeful search. There are thousands of reputable journals, so having focused search parameters will save you time.

Now you need to hone in on specifics, once you have a list of relevant journals within your initially set parameters. Start with the focus and scope: what kinds of research does the journal publish? Here’s an example from Studies in Higher Education:

Aims and scope
Studies in Higher Education is a leading international journal publishing research-based articles dealing with higher education issues from either a disciplinary or multi-disciplinary perspective. Empirical, theoretical and conceptual articles of significant originality will be considered. The Journal welcomes contributions that seek to enhance understanding of higher education policy, institutional management and performance, teaching and learning, and the contribution of higher education to society and the economy. Comparative studies and analysis of inter-system and cross-national issues are also welcomed, as are those addressing global and international themes. The Journal will publish annually two special issues on topics of international significance to higher education.

If you can see from this that your paper might fit within this scope, go a step further and check out a few of the recent tables of contents, and abstracts (or even skim a few full papers of you can access them). If you are not sure, this extra step should help you.

Then look at the Notes for authors/contributors. Here you will find specific instructions about how articles need to be laid out, the preferred referencing style, the word limit and so on. Under this section you will also find information about submission fees and/or page charges (also called Article Processing Charges or APCs). If this is a reputable journal, this information will be readily available (see here for information about predatory journals). Note for yourself, especially, how long the article needs to be (including or excluding references/bibliographic information), and any other specifics you should consider while writing, like the referencing style and format of the paper. Getting all of this right as your start can save you a lot of time and fiddling at the end, trying to reformat a whole paper.

Other issues to consider are:

  • How many issues are published annually? The more issues they publish, the less time you may have to wait to see your paper in print. If the journal has a call for papers out for a special issue, see if your paper will be a fit – special issues are sometime easier to be considered for because they receive smaller numbers of submissions than general issues.
  • Their peer review policy. Who do they send your paper to, how many reviews should you get, what is the wait time, etc? The more transparent the journal is about this, the better for you.
  • Print and online, or online only? Or print only? Journals with an online option will often be able to publish your work as it is approved for publication, even if it is not yet in an issue. It will have a DOI, and be counted as published. It will then later be assigned to an issue as well. In effect, this means good things for you in terms of visibility, because your paper actually ‘comes out’ twice :).
  • Who are the editors? Do you know any of them by reputation or by their research? Do they have areas of specialism that connect with what your paper is about? Remember, the editors will be choosing peer reviewers, and also reading the reviews to make a decision about your paper. If you are writing about theory, methodology, or case studies that have no obvious tie-in to any of the work the editors are interested in, or are doing themselves, perhaps reconsider. Try and find a journal where at least one editor has knowledge of the work you are doing.
  • Submission via email only, or an online platform? Email only is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that if the journal is slow and not great at communication (sadly happens too often), email is the only means of finding out about the progress of your paper through the peer review system. A friend of mine had to wait over a year for a response to her polite email requests for updates! Online submission systems enable you to check on the progress of your paper yourself, as they are updated at each stage of the process.
  • Wait times for publication. What is the average review period for the journal (how long do they think it will take them to respond with reviewer or editors feedback)? How long, on average, does it take them to publish papers from date of submission? Most journals should be able to indicate this. It’s a useful piece of information, because you need to know how long you can expect to wait. TIP: only ever write to editors and politely ask for updates AFTER the longest time they state has passed. I.e., if they say a maximum of 6 months, only write after 6 months.

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General advice to end with is to choose at least 3 relevant journals, that have similar word limits and submission guidelines. You may not be successful with journal 1, so having at least 2 back-up journals you have researched and know about makes the whole process less daunting, and less time-consuming.

You can write a paper and then ‘shop’ for a journal, but I think a more focused, purposeful and efficient way to go about this is to choose your journals (essentially your readers and context) first, and then be readerly in your approach to the paper. In my experience, as a writer and an editor, this leads in most cases to a more encouraging – and oftentimes successful – peer review process.

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