Some alternative advice on how to decide where to submit your paper

Over at Dynamic Ecology this morning Jeremy Fox has a post giving advice on how to decide where to submit a paper. It’s the same basic advice that I received when I started grad school almost 15 years ago and as a result I don’t think it considers some rather significant changes that have happened in academic publishing over the last decade and a half. So, I thought it would be constructive for folks to see an alternative viewpoint. Since this is really a response to Jeremy’s post, not a description of my process, I’m going to use his categories in the same order as the original post and offer my more… youthful… perspective.

  • Aim as high as you reasonably can. The crux of Jeremy’s point is “if you’d prefer for more people to read and think highly of your paper, you should aim to publish it in a selective, internationally-leading journal.” From a practical perspective journal reputation used to be quite important. In the days before easy electronic access, good search algorithms, and social networking, most folks found papers by reading the table of contents of individual journals. In addition, before there was easy access to paper level citation data, and alt-metrics, if you needed to make a quick judgment on the quality of someones science the journal name was a decent starting point. But none of those things are true anymore. I use searches, filtered RSS feeds, Google Scholar’s recommendations, and social media to identify papers I want to read. I do still subscribe to tables of contents via RSS, but I watch PLOS ONE and PeerJ just as closely as Science and Nature. If I’m evaluating a CV as a member of a search committee or a tenure committee I’m interested in the response to your work, not where it is published, so in addition to looking at some of your papers I use citation data and alt-metrics related to your paper. To be sure, there are lots of folks like Jeremy that focus on where you publish to find papers and evaluate CVs, but it’s certainly not all of us.
  • Don’t just go by journal prestige; consider “fit”. Again, this used to mater more before there were better ways to find papers of interest.
  • How much will it cost? Definitely a valid concern, though my experience has been that waivers are typically easy to obtain. This is certainly true for PLOS ONE.
  • How likely is the journal to send your paper out for external review? This is a strong tradeoff against Jeremy’s point about aiming high since “high impact” journals also typically have high pre-review rejection rates. I agree with Jeremy that wasting time in the review process is something to be avoided, but I’ll go into more detail on that below.
  • Is the journal open access? I won’t get into the arguments for open access here, but it’s worth noting that increasing numbers of us value open access and think that it is important for science. We value open access publications so if you want us to “think highly of your paper” then putting it where it is OA helps. Open access can also be important if you “prefer for more people to read… your paper” because it makes it easier to actually do so. In contrast to Jeremy, I am more likely to read your paper if it is open access than if it is published in a “top” journal, and here’s why: I can do it easily. Yes, my university has access to all of the top journals in my field, but I often don’t read papers while I’m at work. I typically read papers in little bits of spare time while I’m at home in the morning or evenings, or on my phone or tablet while traveling or waiting for a meeting to start. If I click on a link to your paper and I hit a paywall then I have to decide whether it’s worth the extra effort to go to my library’s website, log in, and then find the paper again through that system. At this point unless the paper is obviously really important to my research the activation energy typically becomes too great (or I simply don’t have that extra couple of minutes) and I stop. This is one reason that my group publishes a lot using Reports in Ecology. It’s a nice compromise between being open access and still being in a well regarded journal.
  • Does the journal evaluate papers only on technical soundness? The reason that many of us think this approach has some value is simple, it reduces the amount of time and energy spent trying to get perfectly good research published in the most highly ranked journal possible. This can actually be really important for younger researchers in terms of how many papers they produce at certain critical points in the career process. For example, I would estimate that the average amount of time that my group spends getting a paper into a high profile journal is over a year. This is a combination of submitting to multiple, often equivalent caliber, journals until you get the right roll of the dice on reviewers, and the typically extended rounds of review that are necessary to satisfy the reviewers about not only what you’ve done, but satisfying requests for additional analyses that often aren’t critical, and changing how one has described things so that it sits better with reviewers. If you are finishing your PhD then having two or three papers published in a PLOS ONE style journal vs. in review at a journal that filters on “importance” can make a big difference in the prospect of obtaining a postdoc. Having these same papers out for an extra year accumulating citations can make a big difference when applying for faculty positions or going up for tenure if folks who value paper level metrics over journal name are involved in evaluating your packet.
  • Is the journal part of a review cascade? I don’t actually know a lot of journals that do this, but I think it’s a good compromise between aiming high and not wasting a lot of time in review. This is why we think that ESA should have a review cascade to Ecosphere.
  • Is it a society journal? I agree that this has value and it’s one of the reasons we continue to support American Naturalist and Ecology even though they aren’t quite as open as I would personally prefer.
  • Have you had good experiences with the journal in the past? Sure.
  • Is there anyone on the editorial board who’d be a good person to handle your paper? Having a sympathetic editor can certainly increase your chances of acceptance, so if you’re aiming high then having a well matched editor or two to recommend is definitely a benefit.

To be clear, there are still plenty of folks out there who approach the literature in exactly the way Jeremy does and I’m not suggesting that you ignore his advice. In fact, when advising my own students about these things I often actively consider and present Jeremy’s perspective. However, there are also an increasing number of folks who think like I do and who have a very different set of perspectives on these sorts of things. That makes life more difficult when strategizing over where to submit, but the truth is that the most important thing is to do the best science possible and publish it somewhere for the world to see. So, go forth, do interesting things, and don’t worry so much about the details.

UPDATE: More great discussion here, here, here and here. [If I missed yours just let me known in the comments and I"ll add it]

About Ethan White

I'm a happily married dad and a scientist. I like computers, math, stats, and good scotch. I believe in the importance of open science and a free and open web.

Posted on January 24, 2013, in ecology, graduate students, open access, open science, productivity, publishing, science, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. Thanks Ethan, I think this post is a great complement to mine. Part of why I didn’t also present this sort of perspective in my post is because I only feel able to speak about my own decision making process. I couldn’t have articulated your perspective nearly as well as you have, even had I tried.

    On a broader but related note, I’ve decided to try to do a post soon on how there’s more than one “right” way to approach just about anything in science. Students in particular who want advice often have the idea that there’s one right way to do things. There’s not. If you look carefully, you’ll in fact find that even a group as apparently narrow as “academic ecologists” (surely one of the smaller and narrower human groups one could name!) actually vary a fair bit in all sorts of ways in terms of how they’ve approached their careers. For instance, I’m very unusual among ecologists in how much time I allocate to blogging, and in my choice of a lab-based study system–but I’m quite traditional in my decisions about what journals to submit to and in how I filter the literature and decide what to read.

    I’m hopeful that that post will actually be even more useful to students than advice on any particular subject. And maybe it will also help turn down the heat a little bit on certain controversial matters like OA, on which some people feel very strongly about what the “right” decision is–which sometimes causes them to see others who’ve made different choices as ignorant or unethical or whatever.

  2. Thanks for forcing me to get around to articulating these ideas.

    You post sounds like a good one and it’s one of the things that I really like about the existence of academic blogs. In the old days you were only really exposed to how your advisor thought and maybe a couple of other faculty and students in your department. This made it really difficult to weigh alternative opinions and truly form your own. Now it’s much easier to get a broad perspective on how other folks think to let you really develop your own perspective.

    Keep in mind that some of what certain OA folks are responding to is regularly being told that the journals they choose to publish in “don’t count” so that coin definitely has two sides.

  3. “If I’m evaluating a CV as a member of a search committee or a tenure committee I’m interested in the response to your work, not where it is published, so in addition to looking at some of your papers I use citation data and alt-metrics related to your paper. To be sure, there are lots of folks like Jeremy that focus on where you publish to find papers and evaluate CVs, but it’s certainly not all of us.”

    The problem is that there is NO way to know who falls into what school of thought, particularly at the tenure-track job application stage, That’s a terrifying prospect when you’re on the job market.

    Tenure and promotion is better, since you will have a chance to ask colleagues and administrators about their opinions on what “counts.” Even then, this is not always as transparent as it could be.

  4. @DrZen,

    Re: evaluating CVs as part of a search committee, this is something I’ve done so I can comment briefly on how I do it (others may do it differently). I’m sure none of this is news to you, but it might be helpful to some readers.

    I start by skimming everyone’s CV. One big thing I’m looking for, though not the only thing, is how much and where people have published, relative to their career stage. That’s just a first pass to rule out obviously non-competitive candidates (which I admit would typically include, say, someone who only has one Plos One paper, as well as people who are uncompetitive for other reasons). Then I go back and read letters of reference and research and teaching statements for the potentially-competitive candidates (this is usually >20 people, sometimes >>), and take a closer look at their CVs. And yes, that closer look still involves consideration of how much and where they’ve published. On that basis, I make another cut. And then for the remaining people I quickly read at least one or two of the papers that they’ve included in their application packet (or I read what seem like one or two of their most “key” papers, if they weren’t asked to include reprints with their application). Importantly, when I read those papers, I no longer care about publication venue. I evaluate those papers based on my reading of them. Which lets me come up with a ranked list of about 5-10 people who I think need to be seriously considered for an interview. I take that list with me to the search committee meeting, the other committee members all lay out their own lists, and we talk about them and narrow it down to 3-4 people to interview.

    What would I do if I encountered a candidate who had lots of papers, but all in Plos One? Well, I’ve never encountered such a candidate, so I don’t know! But I suppose I might well in future. Probably I’d consider them very seriously, assuming the other indicators (number of publications, letters of reference, grants and awards received, teaching and research statements…) argued for giving them serious consideration. I’d probably assume that it was someone who believed strongly in OA, and not write them off on that basis alone. That is, I’d recognize from their CV that the traditional way of evaluating CVs breaks down when faced with someone who believes strongly in publishing in Plos One (or other journals with the same policies).

    Probably a harder case for me as a search committee member would be someone who, say, published one or two papers in selective journal like Ecology or Oikos, and also a couple of Plos One papers. Is that someone I would bother taking a really close look at? Hard to say, it’d depend on a whole bunch of things (the rest of the application packet, strength of the overall applicant pool, etc.). And if you kept everything else the same about that person, except that every one of their papers was in a selective journal, would I be more likely to take a really close look? Yeah, probably.

    As a search committee member, you always try to err on the side of giving people more serious consideration rather than less. But since you typically can’t read every paper by every applicant (that would take far too long when you have 200+ applicants), you’re always going to be drawing a series of lines. In the end, you can only hire one person. Frankly, at the end of the interview processes in which I’ve been involved, I *still* haven’t felt like I knew the candidates as well as I wanted to–including the people we’ve flown in to interview! Like most decisions, it’s always based on imperfect information. I don’t know any perfect, failproof way to make such decisions, and I doubt there is one.

  5. Another in this series of posts from Tim Poisot is definitely worth a read:

    http://timotheepoisot.fr/2013/01/24/where-to-submit/

  6. Margaret Kosmala

    Thanks for your perspective, Ethan; it’s great to hear multiple views. I love the open access movement that’s happening, but as a (hopefully almost done) student, I am still really reluctant to have an all-PLoS CV for the reasons Doctor Zen mentions.

    ” If I click on a link to your paper and I hit a paywall then I have to decide whether it’s worth the extra effort to go to my library’s website, log in, and then find the paper again through that system.”

    Ah! This is crazy. Doesn’t your library have a proxy server? Seriously, look into this — ask your university librarians about it. Google Scholar supports a library-link system so that when you see something that interests you, you just click on a link and it pulls up the full text via your university’s library. You’ll have to log in (to your library) once per session, but if you’re doing a lot of reading, it’s really worth it.

    And actually, don’t bother your librarians. Here’s how’s to do it at your university:

    http://libguides.usu.edu/content.php?pid=116098

  7. I agree that the potential transition in publishing going on in academia can be difficult and scary for junior folks. To be honest I constantly struggle with how to advise my own students and postdocs on these topics. That said, I’m unclear on whether it’s a lot different than the standard context dependence of job searches, where all sorts of things that you can’t guess in advance have an important influence on whether or not you are interviewed/hired. Which brings me back to my conclusion that “the most important thing is to do the best science possible and publish it somewhere for the world to see. So, go forth, do interesting things, and don’t worry so much about the details.”

  8. @DoctorZen : Ethan and I actually sat over lunch one day trying to figure out how different CV structures might be evaluated. Is a CV w/ 1 Ecology paper better than one with 4 PlosOne papers? How do different patterns of citation rates influence the perception? The truth is that judging on where something is published is subjective. I was on a search once where the senior faculty discounted American Naturalist papers because they didn’t show seriousness in some specific subfield and another where someone discounted Ecology Letters because it wasn’t as ‘established’. I think the push towards paper level evaluation through citation metrics and altmetrics is a needed transition. We all want to be judged on our work. Judging the impact of our work (instead of the impact of the journal) is a step in the right direction.

  9. Hi Margaret – Thanks for commenting! Your perspective is completely understandable, there are definitely very meaningful tradeoffs.

    Thanks for the link. I do set up whatever the current system is every once in a while, but the method for doing this changes about every 6 months here (VPN – not supported for my OS, login through the library, now this very nice looking system for working through Google Scholar) and I’m not always trying to access the article through the same source that is setup to get me there. The truth is that I’m trying to sift through hundreds or thousands of articles each month and it is invariably easier to take a quick look at a paper that is open access than one that isn’t. Small differences in the amount of effort required to look at a paper can add up and this is just one of the decisions I have to make to keep up with the work load. I suspect that my response is common and a driver of the well established positive impact of open access on citation rates.

  10. @Ethan: RE proxies and such: Easy solution with any *NIX machine (maybe Android too??). Create an ssh tunnel and SOCKS proxy to your server (or desktop) on campus and tell Firefox to use the SOCKS proxy. Even easier to do with some Firefox addons, (e.g. QuickProxy). An alias for the ssh command, one click within Firefox and done. All traffic is routed securely through your server, and thus has access to anything your campus domain does. No logins, no OS dependent VPNs…it works wonderfully across town or across the world.

    Great reply, and great posts by Jeremy and Tim. As with everything (and echoing the comments of others), “there is more than one way to cook a chicken.” I always find it best to study advice from others, formulate my own opinions, and then reformulate as new advice comes up. The reformulating is extremely important, otherwise we get stuck in a rut. But having opinions of others, especially opposing opinions, is vital in all of it. Thanks.

  11. Thanks Brady. I had a SOCKS proxy setup at some point, managed to break it, didn’t get around to fixing it, and then forgot all about it. Thanks for the reminder. I’ll try to get it going again. If it worked on my Android phone and tablet that would be a fairly ideal solution.

    Definitely glad to hear that the dialog is useful.

  12. Morgan:

    “The truth is that judging on where something is published is subjective.”

    Yes, but what I’m starting to hear from people are search committee members, tenure and promotion committees, and their ilk say things like, “PLOS ONE papers don’t count.” That’s is more than a disagreement over using the journal to determine the relative worth of the paper. This is a disagreement over what constitutes a valid scientific publication AT ALL.

  13. Why would anyone not want to make their paper bett using advice from editors and referees? I don’t get the advice to publish somewhere where that wn’t be expected. What are we Here for anyway?

  14. Hi Sara – Thanks for commenting. I’m a bit confused about what you are asking. Certainly all of the available avenues for publishing being discussed here involve editors and referees. If you’re under the impression that PLOS ONE does not have these or that the review process isn’t rigorous then as someone who has both published there and serves as an editor there I can assure you that this is not the case. If you are referring to my comments in the section on technical soundness, then I’m not talking about the aspects of the review process that really improve the paper as it stands, but the ones where either papers are repeatedly submitted to multiple journals or where reviewers request changes that don’t really improve the current manuscript but end up costing a lot of time. These sorts of “extra experiment” kinds of requests tend to be much more prominent at “top” journals because they are often expansions of the scope of the paper rather than related to a judgment of the papers merits within its current scope. At least that’s my personal impression.

  15. Zen: Yeah, I’ve heard that as well and I find it very troubling. As an AE at PLOS ONE I can say that in my experience the review process is just as rigorous as anywhere else and given that it’s pretty easy at this point to get even really bad/mundane science published in “regular” journals because there are so many of them I don’t understand this response except as conservative fear of new things. Even the IF is good (and that’s true even within Ecology; 4.x) so if it’s based on IF then it’s right up there with most of the other ecology journals.

    If someone reading this thinks that PLOS ONE doesn’t count, could you please explain that perspective to us?

  16. @DoctorZen: I think that used to happen before, but I think what you’re pointing out is that there is more…vehemence…to it now. I know I heard the argument: “but that journal isn’t even indexed, so not sure that counts”. Before the argument was based on the quality of the journal being so low that some arbitrary company decided not to keep track of its statistics. The whole thing seems weirder, more bizarre, and more confusing now because its not some obscure journal that few people have heard of that is being discounted but a behemoth with numbers that would have been considered ‘respectable’ under the old regime. My suspicion is that the vehemence results from the inevitable backlash from establishment when change is afoot. The trick for all of us (mentors and mentees) is how to navigate the landscape as it is shifting. And you’re right, there’s no clear pathway forward. Ethan and I have weekly discussions about what we think is in our students’ best interest.

    I wonder if one way forward for young scientists publishing in ‘avant garde’ journals is to put citation and altmetric stats on their CV. My guess is that even if someone’s eyes start to glaze over when they see ‘PLoS One’, they might pay attention if it had also been cited a fair number of times.

  17. Nice post. Regarding ‘review cascades’, many journals have started to accept reviews from prior rejections to other journals. We do this at Biotropica – send us your reviews and a detailed cover letter explaining the changes you made in response to them, and we will consider making a decision without sending it out for review to speed things along. And how many people have taken advantage of this? Zero.

    As an aside, even if there is no formal cascade policy, it’s worth writing the Editor and asking if they will consider previous reviews. We did this with apaper submitted to Ecosphere after it was rejected from Global Change Biology.

  18. Thanks Emilio. That’s great to hear about the formal and informal review cascades. Definitely worth trying.

  19. That’s a very nice reply to Jeremy’s post. Surely one thing that changed enormously in the past years is the way papers are found and accessed. When I began in science, I had to do literature search at my university’s library, using huge, printed indexes, such as CABES and Biological Abstracts. My university did not subscribe to many journals, but I also looked at the tables of contents of those available. It was common to visit four or five libraries in a year and to use the “commute system”. Next, we changed to the exciting, innovative CD-ROM versions of the same indexes; but the media could be handled only by the librarian. In the early 2000’s we began to have better Internet access in Brazil and could start using WoS more intensively. That was a revolution! Now my literature search is based on a combination of sporadic active search in WoS, Scopus, and Scielo, as well as alerts via RSS, Google Scholar, and Twitter. That’s why I think we should abandon the printed versions of scientific journals, in order to reduce their costs, take them back from the hands of publishing houses, and minimize problems related to large waiting queues and fixed rejection quotas.

  20. That’s nice to hear, Emilio, but I was always advised against it (even by editors), as Journals don’t like to know they are the second choice… but I am open to give it a try.

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