Where to Publish, Where to Publish? On Intended Audience, Career Track and Journal Impact

By Nate Hough-Snee

As ecologists, we study the world around us in myriad ways: how organisms interact with one another and their environments, how populations of species change over time, how global change alters our planet’s ability to confer ecosystem services. There are seemingly endless, novel, valid ways to perform ecological research as humanity grinds through the Anthropocene.  Ecology is so rightfully diverse, that sometimes, the single common thread between several very different ecologists is what they do: dream, scheme and publish research.  Because research for research’s sake is neither a desirable or self-sustaining objective, all of this research has to be communicated in numerous ways.

This scientific communication takes place through various media, from blogs like this one, to newspapers and broadcast media outlets like TV and radio. In theory though, it all has to end up in the larger body of scientific literature, which means that it must be submitted to the rigors of peer-review. This is the grown-up ecologist’s equivalent of handing your elementary school spelling test to the kid sitting next to you. Our work must be checked for valid methods, our ideas and their importance considered, our analyses scrutinized and the conclusions deliberated. We have to make sure an editor or two agree that we’re writing for the proper audience, and that this provides value to the journal considering publishing the piece.

Folders down. Please pass your test to the end of the row.

This is an essential part of the scientific endeavor, and how that process goes is often a result of which journal an author has selected to submit his or her hard work.

As cliché as it may now be, “publish or perish” is the rule of the day for many researchers and usually that means, “publish more and in better (higher impact) journals” to receive funding, earn accolades from within one’s institution, be granted tenure (academia) or permanent status (government service), or to oddly enough, just earn the respect of colleagues. Accordingly, there has been a large push to publish research in name brand journals that confer some level of prestige, accomplishment and visibility. There are longstanding journals where one can submit his or her “tenure paper,” the eye-catching paper that will receive heavy citation and certainly be noticed by a tenure committee or NSF panel. It may or may not change the larger scientific dialogue, but when published it will look good for both the authors and the sponsoring institution, and it will run in journals with titles like Science, Nature, Ecology Letters, Ecology, or Proceedings of the National Academy.

While publish or perish might succinctly convey some folks’ reality, there are lots of other interpretations, all within a standard deviation of the mean. For most early career scientists, the choice of where to publish one’s work is personal, often done with collaborators, and very rarely done without considering the work at hand and the trajectory that it will hopefully set the individual on.

In my case, I have had the good fortune of working with some exceptionally easy-going individuals in academia and government. These individuals were applied scientists whose science fed back on ecosystem management very, very quickly. The academics in this circle were tenured, and they were in a broadly interdisciplinary school, that (seemingly) praised both the basic and the applied. In this environment, the slogan that I developed was always “audience first, impact factor second.” More loquaciously: pick the venue that will be receptive to the work, where people will actually read it and worry about the citation metrics of the publishing journal on another day. As an applied ecologist working on ecological restoration and ecosystem management first and basic ecology second, not to mention working largely with tenured faculty, this idea stuck. I sent manuscripts where I thought associate editors would welcome them, not really the most rigorous places I could have sent them. I got my wish and my science entered the information highway rapidly, hopefully helping people as they think about designing and restoring ecosystems.

Now, as I work on bigger, long-term data with more complex questions, I’m consistently thinking, “Am I short-changing this work by sending it to the first place that I think a practitioner would read it?” I still very much want my work to provide value to the applied community, that’s a certainty. But as the academic hustle goes, there will come a time to consider more than the questions and the intended audience. Each paper will become a reflection on an ecologist’s research program – my collaborators’ and my research programs – past, present and future. There are now more things to consider when selecting a journal in which to publish, not the least of which is, “how good is the science, and will it be reflected by where this manuscript ends up?”

Hopefully, over the next few days some of the rest of the Early Career Ecologists will chime in with anecdotes on their choices of where to publish based on their past, present and intended future trajectories as ecologists. This will be the start of what we’ve dubbed roundtables, posts where we throw an idea out and discuss it over the course of a month or so. Please feel free to enter the conversation in the comments – why do you publish where you publish? Has it changed? Will it?


7 thoughts on “Where to Publish, Where to Publish? On Intended Audience, Career Track and Journal Impact

  1. Here are some thoughts from me:

    I think the target journal should be where it has most impact. This won’t necessarily be the journal with the highest impact factor (Stephen Curry has a good discussion of the idiocy of using impact factors as measures of quality of individual articles: http://occamstypewriter.org/scurry/2012/08/13/sick-of-impact-factors). Thinking about who is going to read it, who is going to use it and who is going to cite it is the key. So I agree that your strategy seems sound.

    Don’t simply send each paper to the first place you think of. But then again, don’t sweat the choice too much – the key is find somewhere suitable as painlessly as possible. Some of the choice will depend on how the paper is written, not just the topic or the content – or put another way, the target journal should influence how the paper is written.

    I think it is also worthwhile, as an early career researcher, to spread the love around, and try to send papers to different journals (which might have different audiences). This helps diversify one’s audience, although it is more relevant while people come across articles while browsing. Browsing happens even with online publication (looking for one paper, see another paper in the same issue), but it is probably rarer than it once was. Nevertheless, diversity of publication avenues helps to build a broader reputation. For example, covering an applied audience with a paper or two, and then an academic audience with a paper or two, will reach more people than simply focusing on one audience.

    Finally, while people ignore impact factors in Utopia, many people in academia place great stock in them (foolish as it might be). You need to think about the prestige of the journal to some extent, and use that to your advantage where appropriate, but don’t make yourself a slave to it. In my opinion, citations (and other measures of impact) of individual articles and researchers should trump the impact factor of the journals in which they are published.

  2. Mike, thanks for the thoughtful comment! I completely agree that journal selection is an a priori decision that usually comes up as the results come in. I recently went through an exercise where I wrote two short communications on the same data, one for a basic journal with a moderately high impact factor and another on an applied journal that is less selective. Needless to say, it’s amazing how the spin one puts on his or her work can tell very different (albeit comparable) stories with identical analyses. Given the range of acceptable ways to do ecological research and to spin it, I’m confident that publication venues will be a product of how my research interests, funders and stakeholders (academia vs government, etc) morph over time. And by the way, it’s a great blog you’re keeping! The Oikos editorial staff tends to agree: http://oikosjournal.wordpress.com/

  3. Career track. It was mentioned in the title, but, in my opinion, was overlooked in the post. Along with the other aspects mentioned, career track is most important when choosing an outlet. If you are looking to go into a academic position, strictly based on impact factors, you do not have a choice. However, there are academic positions that are much more applied, and these positions like to see diversity and strategic audience selection in one’s publication record. Understanding what your future employers may want will take some research. So before choosing an outlet, particularly if it is one of your first couple of manuscripts, review position announcements that are similar to what you are aiming for and even talk to professionals in the positions you want. You will be happy you did it, and it may even help focus your career goals, let alone where to publish your work.

    • Hey Jerod and John! In theory, we’ll get around to addressing career track as the other blog contributors chip in their two cents. The diversity of our opinions on targeting journals parallels where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re headed professionally and personally, so hopefully the roundtable on this topic will diversify as the rest of the ECE team throws down their respective opinions.

  4. “Along with the other aspects mentioned, career track is most important when choosing an outlet. If you are looking to go into a academic position, strictly based on impact factors, you do not have a choice.” –

    I agree and just have one additional suggestion: be realistic about your paper’s worth of course, but aim high (if you are considering impact factors at all). There is a lot to be gained by deciding on a journal to shoot for and holding yourself to that standard.

    • Yes, I agree its important to hold yourself to high standards, but aiming high is a tricky balance! I’ve been caught aiming too high which ends up feeling like a waste of time. Being early in my career, I feel like there’s a lot to be learned about the fine art knowing how-high-to-aim.

  5. Pingback: Fight for your papers? | Early Career Ecologists

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