Journal editors often report that the major reason for desk rejecting papers – that is they send the papers back to the author rather than send them out to reviewers – is that the paper doesn’t fit their journal. The rejected paper is about something that the journal just isn’t interested in.
So what does this ‘fit’ actually mean? And how can someone new to academic publishing make sure that they choose a journal that will be interested in what they have to say?
Well, here’s the beginning of an answer to these important questions.
It helps first to think about how journals start, how they come to be. Journals are usually set up by an academic network of people who feel that their mutual interest is not currently covered in sufficient depth by any other journal. Their shared scholarly interest may be in an emerging field of inquiry, around a new theoretical or methodological development, and/or on a particular position on and in an established field. Some journals originate in just this way from learned societies and from special interest groups in conferences. Some journals are also now set up in opposition to paywalled cousins: these do not necessarily cover new content, they aim to make existing scholarship more widely available.
Having a journal is a key strategy for extending a field of knowledge or consolidating an emerging one. Key debates and literatures are mapped, developed and interrogated. Some academics also come to prominence through their continued contributions to particular journals, and the references made to their work by other contributors.
Editors and Editorial Boards aim to build up papers, issues and volumes which, together and over time, come to be a significant body of work. Journals can thus be understood as knowledge-building communities. These communities are engaged in an ongoing set of inter-related conversations about shared interests.
Understanding the journal as an artefact of a specific scholarly community, and as a conversation has a number of implications, including how any paper must join a relevant ongoing journal conversation. But the implication I’m concerned with here is that some papers will fit in the journal community and its knowledge building goals – and some won’t.
And the second thing. Journal communities police their borders, norms, shared assumptions and ‘truths’ more or less vigorously. Some journals are more open to new ideas and newcomers than others. But one of the journal editor’s jobs is to sort out the interlopers, those people who have no apparent hope of joining in the conversation. Editors make a decision about whether an author is going to contribute to building knowledge, or not. Desk rejections by an editor are essentially gate-keeping activities which maintain the knowledge aims and claims of the journal community.
So how does the new arrival to publishing ever get to know about the hidden rules, conventions, interests and idiosyncrasies of a journal? This is a real issue as usually no one tells you. And journal mission statements often aren’t much help as they are written by and for those already in the know, in the community.
Well, here’s five things to consider, five things that can help unlock the codes around journal publication. I’ve used the word code quite deliberately as I want to signal that choosing a journal is a decoding exercise, a looking-for-clues process.
- Ask yourself what journal communities you are already part of
While you may not yet have published anything, it is likely to be the case that you have already found particular journals useful. These are journals that cover subjects relevant to your research, they use methods that are of interest to you, they offer theoretical or empirical resources that you have used. In taking up what’s on offer in these journals, you have joined in a conversation. You are not yet speaking, but you are also not simply sitting and listening. You are actively connecting your work with that of the knowledge community in the journal. And without really thinking about it you have probably learnt some of the key debates, literatures, ways of writing and key figures from that community. These journals are probably the ones where your work will fit most easily.
- Check out the Editors and Editorial Boards
Editors and Editorial Boards are key figures in a journal community. If you select a likely journal, but then find you haven’t heard of any of the editors or board members then this is probably not an easy place for you to put your work. You aren’t in the conversation. You can, of course, make yourself familiar with at least some of these people and their work and thus get a bit of a handle on how this journal community works. But you may not want to do that at the start of your publishing career. You may want to choose a journal where you already have a bit of an idea what’s going on.
- Get expert advice
Ask someone more experienced, someone you trust in your field, to tell you about the particular interests of your journal short list. You see, journals that appear on the surface to address the same topic won’t necessarily be the same. For instance, if there are several journals all of which have sociology in their titles, it doesn’t mean that they all cover the same topics in the same way. There may be very significant differences in the types of sociological topics and methods that they cover. You need to know these academic journal politics – and people who have been around the field for some time can tell you, if you ask. You may even luck out and find a journal paper which analyses the journals in your field – a great cheat sheet if you can get it. If you can’t find someone to help, look at short listed journals for yourself, searching for the differences between them.
- Investigate the journal community
Look at the publisher’s website for any interviews with Editors to hear them talk about the purposes of their journal. Look for any youtube clips of authors talking about and talking up their papers. Ask yourself who reads this journal. What disciplines are the regular readers and writers who will be your reviewers? Where are they based? What scholarly traditions do they come from? What do they write about? What theoretical approaches do they use? What methods do they use? What don’t they do? How is your work like their’s?
- Decode the journal conversation
Look at the topics, titles and abstracts of issues of the journal for the last two to four years. What topics do they address? Do there seem to be particular angles that they take? Try to see any patterns that might be important. See the journal as data and bring an analytic headset to the task. Can you discern any particular lexicon or particular epistemologies used? What type of research is most common? What kinds of literatures are cited most often?
These five strategies will start to help you understand journal ‘fit’.
Now, someone – Dr Deluded perhaps – is probably thinking that my approach to choosing a journal is pretty time-consuming. Yes. It is. At the start. But it’s no more time-consuming than sending your paper in, waiting for ages, and then having your work desk rejected.
And the time required to decode journals diminishes with experience. As you become more familiar with your field, you get much better at choosing the right journal for your work. You get to understand the field that you are in and the journals that fit your work. It becomes a kind of second nature to know where to send something – and this is of course why choosing the right journal is hard for less experienced writers. They haven’t yet learnt the journals game.
Experienced academics just seem to ‘know’ which journals work for them. But this is only because they have, over time, done versions of all of five strategies above, and probably engaged in a bit of trial and error as well.
Unfortunately, there is no magic pill to learn about all of the potential journals, journal communities and conversations that you might engage with. But it doesn’t take that long to find at least one or two journals where you can place your work. And that’s all you need at the start. Just one or two of the right journals to set you on your way.