It might seem like obvious good advice to read a journal before submitting a paper to it. But, according to Karen Smith, it is surprising how often researchers fail to do so.
According to Smith, senior lecturer in educational development at the University of Greenwich, this is one reason why so many papers – particularly from early career researchers – are rejected by journals. They hit the buffers not because of their inherent flaws, but because they simply do not fit the journal’s aims and scope.
“Sometimes people get overwhelmed when there are so many journals out there; it is not always clear where they need to channel their energy,” she says.
Smith – who is co-running a seminar on article publishing at the Society for Research in Higher Education in London on 12 November – also advises researchers to take heed of where the papers they cite in their literature reviews have been published. This is all the more important because a journal’s own statement about its remit can be very inexact.
The problem of poor fit can be exacerbated by the fact that “some journals are so popular and over-subscribed that they are trying to really nail down what their focus is. But it doesn’t matter what they say [about that]. People will always want to publish in them.”
The pressure to publish in top journals extends nowadays even to doctoral students, but since it bears on them less heavily than on established academics, early career researchers are ideally placed to endure the long process of repeated application and rejection that aiming for the top can entail.
Not that they should assume they will be rejected: “If somebody had said to me that there is a 90 per cent rejection rate at some of the journals I have published in, I am not sure I would have had the confidence to put the papers in. But I did and they got published,” Smith says.
But it is also important to learn to take rejection on the chin and not to be put off from submitting a manuscript to another journal.
“You have to take heed of reviewers’ comments, but you also have to have some confidence in your research. We all know many examples of rejected papers that go on to be published in another really good journal,” she says.
Smith dismisses any suggestion that a journal that has previously published a scholar’s work will look more sympathetically upon subsequent submissions.
“In my experience it doesn’t work like that,” she says. “But by having previously published in a journal you know more about how their review process works. Certain ones are slower, or give more or less feedback.”
Speed of publication can be particularly important in the run-up to a research excellence framework, but Smith says that the rise of online-first publishing has softened the impact of the typical delays of a year or more before papers appear in print.
One other factor to be aware of, she says, is a journal’s circulation and visibility on social media.
“When I was starting as a researcher, everything was finished when you had published your paper,” Smith says. “But now you have got to get people to read it. You have to really advertise and publicise it. So if you are choosing a journal, you need to look into whether it is read, who reads it and where it is talked about.”
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