does the find-a-journal beta service work?

You may have noticed that a big journal publisher is offering to help you find the right journal for your paper. It’s got a beta version of a “journal suggester” as part of its “how to publish your research” web advice. The process looks pretty straightforward. You simply paste your abstract in a box, press a button, and the magic behind the screen offers you a suggested short-list of journals.

I decided to try the service out. And this is the result. The answer to whether it works is … Sort of.

I tried two different texts. The first was a lengthy abstract for a chapter about a national arts programme offered to young people. The other was the first two paragraphs of a report about research with school leaders.

In both instances I was offered seven journal suggestions. In the arts abstract, only two of the journals were in my own field of education. The others were in several different fields and included two I had never heard of (in tourism!!! and cultural studies). Neither of the education journals were the first recommendation (second and fifth) with the fifth being the one that I thought was most suitable for the argument I wanted to make.The school leader paragraphs returned three journals in education, the first being my least favoured and the fifth the most likely in my view (the other one was fourth).

So the magic suggestions and my own judgment about where would be the best place to put each publication were along the same lines, but also with significant differences. Both times what came up first in the suggestions wasn’t really a great fit. Well, that’s my view.

So did the magic know better than me about which journals were better? Not likely. I know the journals in my own field well and regularly work with doctoral and early career researchers about where they might publish. (Check my home page if you want to see whether I’ve got any street cred in publishing.) I back myself – I reckon my judgment is better than the beta service by a country mile.

But this find-a-journal service is not meant for people like me. It is meant for people who really don’t know their field well. And therein lies a problem or two.

Publishing a paper is not really best done as writing the paper and then finding the best journal fit. You can do it this way of course. People do. But really it’s better to work out who you want to know about your research – who is the reader – and then find the journals that your desired reader reads. Is this hard to do? Not really.

How do you find where your desired readers are? Well you could use a list like the one generated by the publisher magic, or you could simply look at the journals you already use and quote the most. These are the journal communities you are already in, and these are the readers who are already talking about your topic. Your most quoted journals are read by the people most likely to be interested in your work. If you’ve not written and published a lot, your top references are your quick-win suggested journal list.

And once you have found your readers and a target journal, then you need to work out how to speak specifically to those readers. You need to offer them something that they will be interested in, something that they don’t already know.

But let’s imagine you’ve selected a journal that was magically suggested to you by the publisher. Who only looks at their journals btw. And their journals may not be the best one for your contribution. But I digress.

The generic abstract that you inserted into their text box in the journal finder service probably isn’t good enough. It needs to be rewritten to be specific to your chosen journal and readership. Even journals that are ostensibly the same – as were the three leadership journals suggested to me by the magic beta box – are actually fairly different in their orientation, literatures used and general expectations of theory, method etc. You get to understand these differences when you look at the actual journal, not just the key words that appear in mission statements.

So. To sum up. Using the magic cut and paste suggestion box may not get you the best fit for your work. You will certainly need to do more research on the actual journal to make sure that you are submitting something that will make it past the editor’s desk.

But there is another issue here. Imagine that you decide to choose a journal that is out of your field. One you don’t quote. One you don’t know. One where you have no idea of the history of the journal conversations, the general literatures used. While readers of this out-of -your-field journal might be interested in your topic, you are going to have quite a job to make your paper fit with their expectations of how a paper goes.

I have spoken with a couple of highly experienced researcher authors in my own field who have published in disciplinary journals that aren’t ours. Both had “interesting experiences” they said – in other words they had to do a lot of hard work writing the initial draft but then also a lot more work when dealing with reviewer comments. Reviewers said things that were entirely unexpected. These were not Reviewer 2 but were speaking in disciplinary terms unfamiliar to the experienced education writers. The educational researchers were trying to get into a new conversation they didn’t really know a lot about. One author told me that he would not try this again, it was so difficult.

Of course, if you are already doing interdisciplinary work then border crossing may not be such an issue. But if you are tempted to choose something outside your usual field, it might be a very difficult ask and task. So beware the temptation to try the new journal out of your field just because it was suggested to you.

So to sum up. Again and properly. At this stage, this kind of find-a-journal service is of limited use. I think it could be easily made more effective if the author was asked what field they were in as well as posting their abstract. The magic could then put the field journals first and then offer a couple of additional out-of-field suggestions just for interest.

But it would be even more helpful if beta users were reminded that once they had made a choice from the suggested journals, they still need to do some work themselves. That the find -a-journal service is a beginning not an end point. That a bit of algorithm that reads key words and phrases can’t actually interpret and make judgments about what readers of the journals are actually interested in, what conversations they’ve had, what they expect to see quoted and used and what debates they are having. Having a warning on the service would help shield novice writers from a lot of unnecessary work and heartache.

So my verdict on the find-a-journal service? At this beta stage, use with care. Crap detectors at the ready. 

And big important multinational publisher – how about asking for field as well as text, and providing a few more directions for users. And make sure there is a clear statement of limitations about what this kind of service can and can’t do.

Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in choosing the right journal, journal and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to does the find-a-journal beta service work?

  1. Vicki Bamford says:

    Thank you Pat, your advice is very helpful for a newbie like myself.
    I am currently looking for a journal to reform the bones of a draft article and write to. I do engage with journals outside of my field but I am an inexperienced author.
    For this reason I will take a more conservative approach to journal selection to reduce the likelihood of major rewriting but in a way I want to push beyond my field to encourage a cross-disciplinary opportunity to learn about different approaches.
    It is tricky.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. leohavemann says:

    Great advice Pat!

    Further to the ‘find a journal’ service, I have never really tried it although I have had a paper sent round the houses by a publisher who said, we like it, not quite for this journal but we’ll find this paper a better home, which seemed like a great service in theory, but didn’t in the end lead to it getting published. So even where there is human intervention,

    Also, I have seen a few tweeters saying they don’t use any of these from a specific publisher but they recommend JANE which is an independent journal finding tool, so perhaps this is worth a try.

    I have just noticed a related presentation from Inger Mewburn which deals with writing an article in 7 days (!!) and contains other helpful advice –


    • leohavemann says:

      Meant to say – So even where there is human intervention, finding the right journal can be quite hard and it seems there is no real substitute for looking into which journals you tend to read related papers from, where you can add to an existing conversation.


  3. Thanks for this: The suggester was completely wrong for my abstract about a piece of 13thC music, suggesting first a journal for contemporary music (er, no!) and second a journal on manufacturing processes (way off!). Other suggestions were on plant biology???! Perhaps limiting its suggestions to solely this publishers own journals is particularly useless for a smaller discipline?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s