How To Pick An Outlet for Academic Publishing

Crazed man with wild hair typing at a computer with wadded up papers around him to illustrate academic publishing

When I was a graduate student, there were only a handful of peer-reviewed journals in my field of industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology. I remember once looking at the reference list in an I-O textbook and being struck that almost all the items were from two journals: Journal of Applied Psychology (JAP) and Personnel Psychology (PP). That made it easy to decide where to submit papers. Early in my career I started with JAP and if unsuccessful tried PP next. But today there are dozens of good choices, and people do not limit their scope to JAP and PP. With so many choices, people wonder how to pick an outlet for academic publishing.

Why Did People Focus on So Few Outlets?

Before online access to electronic databases to do literature searches (for I-Os it is PsycInfo), it had to be done in person and by hand. To do a literature review, I had to go to the campus library and look up sources in Psychological Abstracts, a printed periodical that came out each month. A thorough literature search took days of going through hundreds of issues, looking up keywords that directed you to the abstracts. If the abstract looked promising, you had to find the issue of the journal in the stacks. It is not surprising that people limited their scope to two journals. Before online access I had personal subscriptions to JAP and PP to save on trips to the library. And it wasn’t unusual to scan tables of contents for those two journals rather than consulting Psychological Abstracts to find what you needed.

How Much Does Outlet Really Matter?

In the pre-web days visibility of your work depended on where you published. If your article wasn’t in a small list of top journals, it was unlikely anyone would find and read it. This meant your article was unlikely to have much impact on the field because if people couldn’t find it they couldn’t cite it, that is mention it in their own articles. Thus outlet mattered. Today in terms of impact, outlet is far less important. Just within my field of I-O and management, there are hundreds of academic journals that contain relevant work. If I do a search in PsycInfo or Google Scholar, I have access to sources from all of these journals. Sometimes I find a highly relevant paper in a journal I never heard of. Publishing in JAP or PP is not the advantage that it once was in terms of visibility. Of course, it is still likely that many academics follow the top journals and do not just rely on online searches. I used to be one of them, but as the volume of papers has increased exponentially, I started relying on keyword online searches to keep up with topics of interest.

How To Pick An Outlet for Academic Publishing

There are two goals that inform how to pick an outlet for academic publishing: Impact and Prestige. Impact is based on visibility–maximizing eyes on your work to borrow a phrase from digital marketing. This means you have a wide range of choices to publish your work. From an impact perspective, choosing from a narrow list of what are considered “top” journals is not so important. Choosing an outlet should be based on two factors–where it is indexed and journal impact.

There are many databases that follow the content of journals in specific fields. Journal websites will prominently list where they are indexed, that is, whether or not their articles are contained in a particular database. If a journal is indexed, a search for a keyword topic will include its articles. One of the most important is Clarivate’s Web of Science. Clarivate not only allows for keyword searches on topics, it tracks how many times each article is cited by others. Each year it publishes the average citation impact of each journal. You can choose a field (e.g., applied psychology) and get a ranked list of journal impact. This is often used to inform where to submit papers.

Prestige is a different issue. This means publishing in journals based on their status in the field. Which journals do people most want to be associated with? Which are consider the “top” and most prestigious outlets. In business schools there are journal lists that explicitly indicate which journals are the most desirable, such as the Financial Times 50 or the University of Texas Dallas 24. This is based on reputation rather than citation impact, which is not the same thing.

There are several factors to consider in making the choice.

  • Career Rewards: If you are an academic in a top research university, career advancement (promotion and tenure) and rewards (merit raises and workload) are determined not only by publishing, but by being seen in the “right” outlets. This doesn’t mean every paper, but hitting one of the coveted outlets every few years is important.
  • Being Strategic: I have seen colleagues focus so much on the top outlets that they let it drive their research activities. Each project is designed to maximizes chances for top journal success. It seems to me that this is the tail wagging the dog. I prefer to focus first on finding what I consider an interesting issue or question, and then planning out a series of studies and papers to address it. Often the first paper is too exploratory and tentative to go into a top journal, so I aim lower. The goal is to get the work out there as soon as possible, and then to build on it as more and more studies are completed. Often new ideas are first seen in lower-level journals that are more forgiving of papers that might provide more questions than answers.
  • Consider the Audience: It is important to think about who might be most interested in your topic. I have a line of research on nurses, and some of those papers have appeared in nursing journals where they are more likely to be seen by nursing researchers, and in some cases, by practicing nursing managers. This means the impact is not limited to academia.
  • Fit To the Outlet: Even within the same field, some journals are friendlier to a topic than others. Articles in JAP, for example, focus extensively on theory and complex statistical methods. A paper that does not have these features will not likely receive a warm reception, such as an intervention study that merely compares group means on some outcomes. Examining recent articles in a journal you are considering can be helpful in deciding if it is a good fit.
  • Speed of Publication: The publication process can be extremely slow for the prestigious journals. Even if you are successful, you will go through several cycles of submission, revisions, and resubmission. This can take more than a year. I was recently part of a team that published in an on-line only open access journal, Frontiers in Psychology Organizational Psychology. We chose it because it had good impact and we wanted to get the work in print quickly, having spent over a year trying a more prestigious outlet. From initial submission to publication was less then three months, including peer-reviews and revision.

How to pick an outlet for academic publishing can be a complex decision in balancing several factors. A strategic approach is best, thinking not about getting every paper into a top journal, but in sprinkling work across an array of outlet to broaden the impact. Top journals in organizational sciences engage in unethical practices of inviting revisions and then rejecting them, wasting the time of authors who are under the gun to get papers published. Balancing likelihood of acceptance based on fit with need for top tier publication means submitting to a broader array of outlets with different articles appearing in different places, but deciding which article to submit to which journal involves considering many factors.

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1 Reply to “How To Pick An Outlet for Academic Publishing”

  1. Rejecting a revision is not unethical but a judgment call by the editor. If the revision doesn’t meet the expectations of enhanced influence (citability), the editor is likely to reject it. The editor’s primary responsibility is to the user – the reader and secondly to the publisher. The paper must resonate with those editorial obligations. I have had even second revisions rejected in some top journals. I have also rejected revisions, but I agree with Paul that it wastes time for the authors. It is important for editors to lay out the expectations for the revision clearly at the outset. I also try not to send the revision unnecessarily to the reviewers if I can make a competent decision.

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