what’s at stake for an early career researcher in going for publication in a top ranked journal ?

I often get asked in workshops whether early career researchers should aim to get into a top journal. I want to give the first two parts of my answer in this post.


Many researchers have been told to do they should go for a ‘top journal’ by their supervisors or mentors. The advice seems to go… well…you’ve finished your PhD, you’ve been told by the examiners you have articles to publish from it, so now you ought to go out and put it into the highest ranked journal in the field. The reasons generally seem to be that this is the right thing to do and that it is good to aim high. (I’m going to address the inadequacy of these as purposes in another post).

On probing, I always discover that a relatively high proportion of the people giving this advice have never themselves been published in these journals. So I have to wonder what’s going on when more experienced researchers are telling the less experienced to do something they themselves don’t do – or haven’t managed to do. I’m sure this advice is given with the best of intentions but the Bourdieuian scholar in me notes that there is supervisory distinction to be gained here … in some institutions, a sign of a good supervisor might be that their supervisee achieves this level of publication… But whatever the logic of the advice, the thing to consider is (1) whether the advice givers know what’s involved and (2) whether they can help.

In essence the first thing that early career researchers need to do if they are told to seek out the top ranked journals is to check out the provenance of the person telling them this is the way to go. If the person has published in these journals, then they are an ‘insider’ and the early career researcher then needs to ask them more about the particular discourse community around the journal, rejection rates, reviewing processes and conventions, turnaround times and so on… If they are an editor, then they are in a position to give a novice writer even more insider knowledge. BUT if the person giving this advice is no more experienced at this kind of publishing than the early career writer, then any advice they give needs to be supplemented quite considerably.

(So if you want to know my provenance at this point, the answer is yes, I have published in top ranked journals in my field and sit on some of these Editorial Boards. However, I never ever choose a journal on the basis of its ranking, something I’ll explain in another post.)

Peer to peer conversations are of course different from supervisor/mentor conversations. Peer to peer conversations about top journal publication are about checking out whether anyone-like-me has gone for a big journal first off, whether it seems possible, and what the experience is like.

I do see this discussion a lot online. The answer that is often given to the question of whether to aim for top ranked journals goes something like – yes why not – go for it, aim high to start with and then go lower if you get rejected.

What is less often talked about even in these peer to peer conversations is that in some citation systems what makes for a high ranking is a VERY HIGH rejection rate. This means that the vast majority of people who submit to the top are ultimately not accepted for publication. A decision to submit to a top ranked journal is usually a decision to enter territory where the odds of getting rejected are relatively high. Getting accepted is a real achievement, but very few actually get there.

So the second answer I give to the question about where to publish is – WHAT’S AT STAKE IN DECIDING TO GO FOR IT.

The conversations about where to publish – between peers and experienced- less experienced writers – ought, in my view, to always consider whether the high odds of rejection are a risk that individuals are prepared to take. The conversations ought to open up the possibility of failure. But even online, the discussions rarely canvass what it’s like to be rejected, particularly when reviewers have been less than kind, and what you do about it.

In workshops I see plenty of people who have been crushed by reviews and then can’t bring themselves to rework the article and submit it somewhere else. They experience a single publication rejection as a rejection of both their scholarship and themselves as scholars. Some don’t recover from this easily. Many need support from mentors and peers in order to do the emotional labour of regrouping and rewriting. Some don’t get this at all and it becomes a problem at work or in getting work.

In my view a critical part of the answer to the question of whether to aim for top ranked journals goes to the question of how resilient the early career researcher actually is, and how secure they are in their identity as a scholar. Anyone who goes for a top ranked journal is running a known risk, and this can be anticipated and thought through beforehand.

Failure to open up discussion of the risks means that we don’t encourage people to ask themselves questions such as:
• How confident do I feel about my scholarship? Would I feel OK standing up in front of the foremost scholars in my field and telling them about my research? Does imagining this feel exciting or terrifying?
• How I will feel if I am rejected ? How do I usually respond to failure? Have I ever just given up when I have failed at something or is my pattern of behaviour one where I keep trying until I succeed? Is my history one where I need to start smaller and then gradually grow in confidence?
• Who can I get support from if I get rejected? Can they help me with both the emotional and intellectual work required to regroup?
These are really important considerations and rarely get enough airtime in either early- senior researcher or peer-to-peer conversations.

And two final comments in a more sociological vein:

1. It’s important to note what else is happening in conversations about going for it. The references to going for it are intended to be encouraging. However, there are shades here of ‘real men don’t eat quiche’. These conversations discursively position those who decide NOT to have a go at top journals as lacking in courage, gutless and feeble – and are they then potentially less than real ‘top’ scholars? Real ‘top’ scholars go for it, the rest of the pack are by definition lesser? And is scholarship positioned here as an extreme sport? Is that what we want it to be?

2. Two, dealing with the affective domain of scholarly work is not a plea for therapy for researchers. Rather it is an argument that, in failing to include discussions of the dark side of publishing, we perpetuate a situation where scholarship is seen as predominantly about thinking. The only emotional work that counts is the courage to have a go. Most of us reject the mind/emotion binary at an intellectual level and also the elevation of a boys-own-daring-do above all other affect. It is therefore somewhat bizarre that our conversations about publication rarely acknowledge the full range of cognitive and emotional labour that is involved. We do ourselves and those we intend to support a disservice by not doing so.

I haven’t finished with this topic. I will in future consider the purposes of publication and how the discipline might affect a decision whether to go for it or not.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in acceptance, emotional labour, journal, online publishing, peer review, publishing, rejection, scholarly identity, top ranked journal and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to what’s at stake for an early career researcher in going for publication in a top ranked journal ?

  1. Linda Baines says:

    Pat, What advice would you give to PhD students who come back to research after some / many years working and aren’t necessarily looking for a career in academia?


    • pat thomson says:

      I think the question for you is probably about who you want to read your research. They might be academics or they might be professionals from your or another related field. If you can think about who might be interested in your work, who could benefit from reading it, then you can find out what publications serve that field.. then it may be a matter of trying to find someone who can help you in the process of understanding how to write for that publication – if you dont know this already. If you wanted to influence policymakers for example you might be better off writing for media since this is often much more influential than academic research!!


  2. edwardpitt says:

    Thanks for the post. Looking forward to more.


  3. Mark Galeotti says:

    An excellent post. I’d only add one point: many early-career academics don’t yet have a permanent, full-time job and are on the market. Given that the odds of clinching a publication in a high-prestige journal aren’t great and given that it’s not appropriate to submit to multiple sources at once, going through the submission-review-rejection-recovery-rewrite-submit elsewhere cycle a couple of times could easily take a year, even longer. Going for a less prestigious (and picky) journal and getting accepted for publication more quickly might well make a lot more sense from a practical job-hunting perspective.


    • pat thomson says:

      Yes absolutely. More about this next time. I’ll refer back to your comments.


    • Jayne Persian says:

      Except that we can’t get jobs with articles in lower-ranking journals! I have been told I need at least an international journal article and/or book contract.


      • pat thomson says:

        Yes i understand… However this isn’t uniform across all areas, countries or institutions. Thus is my argument really , its why giving general advice isn’t helpful because it’s not the same problem for every early career researcher. Some people are in thus. Situation, others face different issues. Next post I’ll try to deal with the range of scenarios.


  4. Pingback: early career researchers and the high impact journal | patter

  5. Pingback: dealing with the cold calling journal | patter

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