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Choosing a scientific journal for publication: My modus operandi

Divya Singh Tapaswi

A de facto consideration among scientists is that a research project is not finished’ until it is published in a scientific journal. However, with the spectrum of journals available, each with its own standards, expectations and targeted readers, choosing the right’ journal for publishing the work is a skill in itself. Developing this skill is necessary to save time and avoid (too many) rejections. In this article, Divya Singh Tapaswi offers some tips for honing this skill and narrowing down the choices, based on her own experiences. What is your approach to choosing a journal? Let us know in the comments section.

Choosing a scientific journal

I am a PhD cell biologist by training. Like many graduate students, I went through a somewhat challenging period when I was trying to publish a first-author paper towards the end of my PhD. However, unlike many graduate students, my paper did not go through submissions to multiple journals and several rounds of peer-review. After three rounds of review and discussion lasting 4 months, my paper got accepted to the first journal we had approached.

This experience sparked a period of introspection, in which I tried to analyse how the choice of journal can be approached by (first-time) authors, and whether I could draw from my own experiences to assist others facing this conundrum now. Here are a few pointers that influenced how I addressed this problem.

1. Separate journals by broad area

    This does not need active effort, per se. From daily reading of relevant literature, and meeting for journal clubs to discuss new/​exciting research, I automatically began to understand which journals were getting picked up more than others. I must stress that enthusiastic participation in journal clubs really helped me to get a sense of how stringent the peer-review process was in different journals, and this was crucial when deciding what journal to consider for my paper. 

    2. What journals require what kinds of techniques/​experiments?

      From the perspective of a cell biologist, I realized that top-ranked journals like Nature Cell Biology and Cell, for example, would often publish papers that featured CRISPR-Cas9 based experiments and, more importantly, exploited physiologically relevant model systems to show the broad relevance of new findings. This was also stressed upon at several international conferences I participated in. Such knowledge can help inform your own methodology when still doing experiments and subsequently, the choice of journal. Another example- in the mid-2010s, any study that used cryo-electron microscopy (to show structures of previously published molecules) would have almost guaranteed bypass of editorial review in Nature, Science etc. Note that a justification to using the technique to serve that specific research question would still exist.

      3. Does your paper build upon work by your lab/​others published in the same journal? 

        Journals ultimately want their own papers to be cited, as this has a direct impact on their impact factor. So, if someone has published a hypothetical mathematical model explaining tissue expansion during organismal development in journal X, and your study proves that hypothesis correct in a growing frog embryo, chances are that journal X may look upon your manuscript favourably. The odds are even better if the other study is recent, further implying that the journal is still broadly interested in the kind of science you are pursuing.

        4. Have papers from competing labs been published in that journal?

          This builds upon the last point. If a study from a competing lab directly countering your findings has been published in journal X, you could make a compelling case to that journal to publish your story there as well; this would make interested scientists consume both stories as a sort of package deal’. The journal would also benefit from presenting a more balanced view of the research question under debate. Invariably, future studies in that field may cite the contrasting papers, if only to present a complete background to their work, again leading to citations. 

          5. Consider your target audience- where would your paper gain the most visibility or bring the most returns to you? 

            If you have received fair feedback from your colleagues and peers, and are confident of the relevance of your findings and quality of science, the choice of journal becomes important for the direction you want your career to take. If you are sticking to a field with a niche readership, your work may be more meaningful to a more specialized journal. However, if transitioning to a different field, it may be more beneficial to publish in a journal that is more visible’ and publishes inter-disciplinary articles. In cell biology, this may be the Journal of Cell Biology/​Journal of Cell Science for niche audiences versus eLife/​Current Biology/​Nature Communications for a more diverse readership.

            6. Check the editorial board of target journal

              One may not want to think about this too much, what with conversations of nepotism cropping up across many professions. However, practically, it does not hurt to review the editorial board of target journal. Have you presented your work to scientists in the board, met them at conferences or discussed the future of a particular hypothesis with them? Have their feedbacks been positive? If experts are aware of your story, the chances that the paper is considered for reviewing increase. 

              Side note: Please note the importance of communication and networking here too. It is absolutely vital to present your findings to international audiences, both for marking your scientific territory, and to facilitate future career steps.

              7. Explore platforms like Review Commons

                If you are confused about where to publish/​or have had limited feedback from peers, Review Commons is a great platform for you. Review Commons is a recent initiative that provides high-quality journal-independent peer-review’. A pre-print submitted to this platform will be peer-reviewed by 2 – 3 anonymous reviewers, and the authors can respond to the reviewers’ comments. The authors can then submit their paper along with the accompanying reviews and rebuttal to any one of 17 affiliate journals covering diverse disciplines, and those journals have to either accept or reject the manuscript. In other words, the paper does not go through another round of peer-review at that journal too. The authors can, of course, choose to work on the study more before submitting it to a completely different journal altogether. Needless to say, this significantly expedites the publishing process, facilitates the choice of journal, and is a good medium to get expert feedback for what may not be a 100% complete story. 

                8. Build reasonable expectations, but aim high.

                  The process of publishing a story is protracted and can be frustrating for a lot of students. Before I set out on this journey for my own paper, I had identified one dream’ journal that my supervisor (and indeed, me) thought was too ambitious. However, it fulfilled all the criteria I have detailed above. My paper, eventually, did end up getting published at the journal of my choice. Therefore, it is with great emphasis that I say this- while it is important to be self-aware and acknowledge the weaknesses of your study, it is equally important to identify and try your luck at a dream’ journal first. You must have a more reasonable fallback option, but at least try your hand at a higher-ranked journal. Peer-reviewing is a community-driven process, and its participants are human, albeit highly qualified ones. Here too, as in other areas of our life, luck plays a role. A lot depends on whether a reviewer has had their morning cup of coffee and is particularly grumpy, or has had a tricky experiment finally work for them and is in a magnanimous mood. 

                  I hope these pointers make it easier and provide some direction to students making decisions of potential journals to submit their stories to.