So you’ve written a really great academic paper, and you’re ready to try your hand at publishing. How do you know where to send your work? What journals are respected? What journals are the best fit for your work? And what other things do you need to consider when you send your work out for review? This is a much more complicated topic than you might think, especially for highly interdisciplinary and evolving disciplines, such as Internet studies. Here are some things to think about.
Prestige vs. Likelihood of Publication
You shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that you factor in the likelihood of publication into your decision. Everyone thinks about this. I could send a paper off to the very best journal in my discipline, and that paper may go through a few rounds of review only to be rejected in the end. This may suck a year or more of my life while my research grows stale and my interest wanes. Or, I could send it to a niche journal that I’ve published in before, where my paper is a perfect fit, and where I think it will be accepted relatively quickly (like within 6 months).
Some people have the knee-jerk response that you should ALWAYS send your paper to the best possible journal with the highest prestige, best impact factor, or whatever. I disagree entirely, and especially for work that deals with nascent technologies, hot political issues, cutting edge theory, or innovative methods. It’s worth interrogating this notion of prestige, first. Here are some reasons for prestige and why it doesn’t necessarily mean much:
Some journals are prestigious simply because they are old and have been publishing the longest in the discipline. Older, established journals are generally better than brand new ones, but not because they publish better work per se. Just because something was first doesn’t make it the best, but it does sometimes make it a household name.
Sometimes a journal is prestigious because it’s the flagship journal of the academic association you belong to. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean the work in its pages is of high quality, but it does usually make the journal a household name.
Some are prestigious because they have high rejection rates and high impact factors. Journals may be rejecting a lot of good quality work because there simply isn’t room in the journal to publish it all. Print journals are constrained by page limits, so these journals may feel extra pressure to reject work that is otherwise worthy of publication. And there are a ton of problems with impact factors, and these types of ratings don’t do humanities and social science work justice.
Some are prestigious because they have celebrity scholars on the editorial board. Big names on a journal’s editorial board (aka prestigious people) bring prestige to a journal. But in some cases, journals pepper some famous folks on the editorial board for decoration and don’t put these great scholars to work actually make the journal a quality publication venue. That is, just because a journal has so-and-so on the editorial board doesn’t mean he or she is actually reviewing many manuscripts for the publication.
The point of all of this is that prestigious journals are not automatically bad. It’s that not all prestigious journals are automatically good. There’s more to a journal that these several factors. Fit should be the most important thing, frankly. Landing an article in a journal that’s a perfect fit but lacks all of these markers of prestige may be a very effective way to get your work read and cited by your specialty peer group, because those folks are all reading this small niche publication. When you’re pursuing tenure, there will be pressure to publish in journals that are more prestigious than they are a good fit for your work, and to some extent you’ll need to respond to this pressure by trying for the prestigious journals. But don’t forget about the specialty journals that are great fits, that are more likely to publish your work, and that might get you published quicker so that people can start citing you and you can start having a meaningful impact on the scholarly discourse. In many cases, articles in small-time journals go on to get cited hundreds of times in the first few years after publication, and yet articles in even the most prestigious journals have a hard time accomplishing this with any regularity. I think you’d rather have an article that had a demonstrable impact on the discipline than an article that happened to appear in a journal that was old, established, had a big-name editorial board, and so on.
Affiliated Journal or an Independent Journal?
There are journals that are affiliated with some professional association, and there are journals that are independent. Many academic associations sponsor journals. Their big journal (and/or their oldest, most respected journal with general topical coverage) is often called the “flagship” journal. With AEJMC, for instance, the flagship journal is Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. AEJMC also publishes two other association-wide journals, Journalism & Communication Monographs and Journalism and Mass Communication Educator. Within the organizational structure of AEJMC, though – and it’s a big organization – are various divisions and interest groups focused on specialty areas of journalism and mass communication. Many of these groups publish their own journals. All of these journals can said to be “affiliated,” either to the organization as a whole or to the specific division within the division. Affiliated journals tend to become household names over time, and often they become prestigious in many ways. Tenure committees look highly upon publications in these journals, too, since publishing in them is a small way of validating the association, which your colleagues probably belong to as well. Likewise, publishing in an affiliated journal is an implicit endorsement of your work by the association, which is in its own way a process of acknowledging that your work falls within the accepted topical coverage and standards of the professional association of academics in a given discipline.
Some journals are also affiliated with universities or departments within universities. The International Journal of Communication, for example, is a journal that is affiliated with USC Annenberg. And since Annenberg’s a great school, the journal benefits from this reputation. Affiliated journals, quite simply, are endorsed by some entity that matters, and publishing in them in some small way endorses your work as work that matters.
Independent journals are a different story. These are hit and miss. Some of the best journals in a discipline are independent journals, but there are a ton of independent journals that are just simply not worth publishing in. For-profit mega-publishers like Elsevier, Sage, Taylor & Francis, Routledge, and so on make money by selling journal subscriptions to individuals and libraries. In many cases, affiliated journals have contracted the manuscript management and printing to these independent publishers. What I really mean when I say “independent” journals, though, is that there are journals that these publishers have started up because they saw a market for them. These publishers will take the initiative to start a journal, build an editorial board, and publish manuscripts. These journals are sometimes the first in an emerging specialty, and so these journals sometimes benefit from being the oldest journals in the specialty field, which brings some veneer of prestige. And they sometimes are the only journal for a while, until other competitor journals come on the market, so the early foundational, theoretical work that happens in a new specialty gets published in these new niche independent venues, which makes these journals important quickly.
You’ll want to weigh these factors when considering an affiliated or independent journal for your work. I’ve found that in my weird interdisciplinary focus, the independent journals are often the best fit. I know my disciplinary-misfit colleagues are also reading these journals, and the affiliated journals, which are sometimes bogged down by history and tradition and politics and bureaucracy of an association, might be resistant to work that blurs disciplinary boundaries. I don’t like the independent journals at a fundamental level, though, because of the publishers’ profit motives. I give my work away for free and they charge tons of money to people to read it, which is bankrupting libraries.
An alternative independent journal may be the open access journal. These journals are mostly online journals, started up by folks who care about a specialty area, and manuscripts are free to submit and free to read. This is the ideal model – peer reviewed work that is widely circulated and free. The downside with open access journals is that many old school tenure committees still think they are not as good as the old prestigious ones.
Beware of so-called open access journals that charge you to submit an article or charge you to publish an article, sometimes hundreds of dollars. This model is basically the open access one, but it justifies the cost to pay editors and production folks to publish the work. In my opinion, if a board is not passionate enough to start up an open journal and move manuscripts through to publication for free (and/or can’t convince their university that they deserve a graduate editorial assistant or some funds or course release to work on that journal), then it isn’t worth paying to publish in anyway.
Online Journal or Print Journal?
This is an old debate by now – go Google it. Times are finally starting to change, and universities are finally starting to understand that a peer-reviewed article in an online journal is just as good as a peer-reviewed article in a print journal. In fact, it’s better, because it’s more widely accessible online (especially if it’s free to access), it can get published quickly, it comes with searchable metadata, it can contain multimedia, and there aren’t any page number constraints on number of articles published by the journal. But some people still think print is more prestigious, so if these folks sit on your tenure committee, you’ll need to publish something in print. Ask your colleagues and mentors what they think of online journals. If they’re keen on them, then publish in them. If not, then try to educate them that online publication is just as good or better.
Graduate students, especially, are finding an increasingly competitive job market. To land a job at a research intensive university (“R1”), it seems like the norm is now to have at least one journal publication and sometimes as many as five or six. If you want any hope of having this many things fully published by the time you finish your Ph.D., you’re going to need to consider faster publication venues for some of your articles, which basically means you’ll need to consider a few online journals.
Watch for Special Issues
A great strategy for publishing is to look for calls for papers for special issues of journals. From time to time, even some of the very top-tier, general-topic, “prestigious,” old journals will plan a special issue on a narrow topic, usually guest edited by one or two leaders in that area. These are great opportunities to get your niche work into more general, prestigious journals. But there are many more reasons why special issues are good to pursue:
- Special issues will draw the attention of those in your specialty area. You’ll all submit something, and odds are, once the issue comes out, all of you will look like a slate of experts in that given area. It’s a great way to be lumped together with up-and-coming and established scholars in your niche area. Since the special issue is the journal’s “expert focus on a special topic,” then those who publish in that issue become the “experts on that special topic” in the eyes of the journal and its readership. Special issue guest editors are almost always renowned experts on the specialty topic, too, so getting your work in front of them is a good way to make your name known to the movers and shakers in your field.
- Special issues are looked at as important moments in the development of a discourse around a certain topic. Years from now, when someone stumbles across one or two citations in a database that seem to be in the same issue, they’ll check to see what the issue was about and find out there are a few other articles in that issue they can cite. The authors in the special issue become a cluster of citations on the topic that people will look to. I don’t know if anyone’s studied it, but I’d guess that articles in special issues tend to get cited a bit more often than stand-alone articles in general journal issues, because the special issue is a kind of convenient jump start for a researcher trying to study a given topic.
- Special issues are sometimes handled more quickly than the regular journal issues. Special guest editors, who are eager to tackle the topic and who don’t spend year after year editing the journal like the regular editorial board, may be more motivated to move an issue through quickly. Depending on the topic, too, it might make more sense for the special issue to be shepherded through the publishing process more quickly, so as to remain relevant with a current event or development in the discipline.
Other Publication Possibilities
Standard journal articles are not the only way to get publication experience. Though full journal articles are the bread and butter of this industry, scholarship comes in many forms. Consider these options:
Book reviews and literature reviews
If you’ve read a book that was published in the past year or two and have something to say on it, why not consider a book review? Many journals publish a few book reviews in every issue, and there are even entire journals dedicated to reviews (e.g., The Review of Communication, which is also an NCA affiliated journal with a great editorial board). Book reviews tend to follow a general format (more on this in a future post), but they’re often short (1-3 pages). And you can sometimes combine two books in a single review if the books are connected in some way. Some journals even accept reviews of documentaries, films, CDs, conferences, performances, lectures, panels, and other forms of scholarship.
Another option is the full literature review article, sometimes called a survey article. Again, there are whole journals devoted to literature reviews/surveys, and most journals will run an article like this from time to time. These articles synthesis large bodies of literature on a given topic in order to bring some clarity to the field or to refresh and redirect a theoretical development for new political times or emerging technologies. A stellar example of this, and one of my favorites, is Thomas Ruggiero’s survey article on uses and gratifications theory, where he synthesizes the theory to date and considers its relevance for a new media era. These articles are difficult to write and require a thorough understanding of the literature, but when survey articles are published, they get cited a LOT. Why? Because someone has done the heavy lifting for you. Instead of regurgitating uses and gratifications theory in your own work, you can just point to Ruggiero and move on. Survey articles are a great service to the discipline, as they reorient – and sometimes generate renewed debate within – a line of study.
In their course of study, grad students do both of these things – reviewing books and synthesizing large bodies of literature. Why not formalize this process and send these works out for review? If you’re going to take the time to read a book thoroughly, there’s no reason you can’t sit down and write a book review. And if one of your comprehensive exam questions asks you to synthesize a theoretical development, why not send that out to a survey journal, too?
Case studies, practical application, and teaching notes
Other forms of scholarship include practically-focused things, like how practitioners can use research, or case studies of research in practical context, or suggestions for how to teach research in the classroom effectively. Many journals include practical sections or teaching notes, and, again, there are entire journals devoted to these forms of scholarship. And – shameless plug – there are whole journals devoted to case studies, too.
Features, comments, and responses
Features and comments can mean a lot of things depending on the journal. These tend to be non-peer reviewed, and they tend to be essays or arguments on a specific issue (usually a controversy or a current event) in the discipline. These vary, but they’re worth looking into, especially if you have something to say to a journal’s readership that doesn’t otherwise fit in the journal’s research article requirements.
Responses are unfortunately rare in journals, but they are very interesting. Here’s how they work: An article is published in a given issue that you either disagree with (on a philosophical point or even because you think they’ve executed the study incorrectly or unethically) or think is incomplete in its assessment. You then contact the editor and propose to write a critical response to that author, which would appear in the next issue or two. If the editor likes what you’re proposing, you might wind up published in the next issue with your response. Responses generate a lot of debate about a topic, which is a really good thing for scholarship. It keeps things vibrant and exciting and gives scholars something to care about. Some journals host special forums from time to time, too, which are invited collections of arguments from various scholars on a topic, each riffing off the other. It’s a good way to get at the many facets of a complex issue by hearing many viewpoints at once.
There are a lot of journals now that seem to publish “research in brief” or other forms of short format studies. These tend to be data-only articles, basically, but still structured the same way as full research articles. These are a good fit for studies where the result is a big table of data that kind of speaks for itself, such as descriptive data, that doesn’t need a ton of literature apparatus or analysis or discussion to make the point clear. Research in brief formats don’t tend to count as significantly as longer articles, but they do tend to be peer reviewed. I’ve heard from a colleague once that these are good places to send the scraps from a larger study – the bits of data that are interesting, but are tangential to your main findings and/or are small and couldn’t sustain a full paper in their own right.
Alternative scholarship forms are becoming a bit more popular. These include (filmed) performance pieces, interactive games, and other multimedia efforts (though there’s much more behind the words “alternative scholarship” than this). Online journals tend to be the logical places for featuring multimedia pieces. Sometimes, too, alternative scholarship takes the form of poetry or fiction or comic books or art. It’s a versatile catch-all category. If you make it, odds are there’s a scholarly home for it these days.
White papers, slide decks, working papers, op-eds, guest blog posts
If your goal is to translate your research to a wider audience, make it relevant to business, or whatever, you also have the chance to do these things. These shouldn’t be the focus for a young scholar, as these are rarely peer reviewed. But they’re a great way to raise your profile or build a consulting presence for yourself in parallel to your peer reviewed efforts.
What About Book Chapters?
Last but not least, there’s the question of book chapters. Chapters in edited collections may be subjected to peer review, but frequently they are invited instead. These are great for getting your work out there, especially around a specialty topic. There are some of the same benefits of appearing in a special journal issue. But not all books succeed. I’ve submitted – and had accepted – two book chapters in the past where the book never succeeded in securing a publisher. It was a big waste of time for me. Chapters don’t tend to look as good to a tenure committee as journal articles, and invited chapters certainly don’t (unless you were invited to write a chapter in a book on the “greatest thinkers in the discipline”). Keep these at a minimum, I say.
Hopefully this helps you think of new homes for your work. When you do a study, you generally have a lot more to report than what makes it in the typical journal article. You may have practical applications, teaching ideas for your findings, commentary on the theory you used, or something to that effect. These spin-off publications can help get the most out of the hard work you put into a given study, and it’s a good exercise in learning to write for different scholarly genres and for different audiences.