Writing your first paper: Step Two: Where should I submit my paper?
This article is part of a series on writing your first research paper. I am hoping to use this material for a new student handbook when I start my faculty position, so any thoughts, comments, hysterical rejoinders are most welcome.
Where should I submit my paper?
Journals are ranked using something known as an impact factor. The impact factor is the average number of citations that an article in that journal receives. So an impact factor of 10 means that each article in that journal is cited on average 10 times. This number is evaluated by ISI Web of Knowledge each year as part of the Journal Citation Reports. You need a subscription to access it, but most instituations seem to have one. To find out a journal's impact factor, access web of knowledge (or web of science). Then, using the dropdown menu at the top of the page, select Journal Citation Reports and hit go. You can search by journal or topic. The spelling seems to be problematic, so it can be helpful to search by ISSN if possible.
Journals are roughly divided into three catergories: broad impact, trade journals, and specialized. It is very important to target your paper to the appropriate journal. If your aim too high, your paper may be rejected and you will have lost the time taken for review. If your aim too low, you miss the opportunity for exposure. In my career, I initially made the mistake of aiming too high. Do not believe that your article will slip in. Editors are fully aware of the kind of research that is appropriate for their journal. There is nothing more discouraging than a rejection, especially when the comments are things like solid work, but not appropriate for this journal. And you can easily lose 6 months in the review process, exposing you to the possibility of being scooped and making your work less relevant. If you are uncertain, ask a colleague to review the work and give their opinion. This could save a lot of consternation down the road.
The journal to which you submit depends on the amount and quality of your results. Broad impact journals (impact factor > 10) like Science and Nature are generally for research results that are not only high quality but that also contain a “sexy” component. Realize that this is the research that you hear about on the news, or the Tonight Show, or in popular journals like Scientific American. Is your research so exciting that even someone in a totally different field, or the lay person, would want to know about it? This caliber journal likes to report "firsts." For example, using our ice cream analogy, the first time that liquid nitrogen was used to make ice cream (any flavor) it might be reported in this kind of journal.
In addition to exciting research, with broad impact, these journals require a complete story. Frequently, articles here could be published as two or even three separate articles in other journals. So there is an opportunity cost to publishing your research here. You may pass initial review only to be told that an additional year of experiments are required for publication. On a positive note, most of these journals use a streamlined review process and will reject a majority of manuscripts outright, in the first few weeks. So it is not a large risk to throw an article this way if you are unsure. Chances are, though, if you have a Science or Nature paper, you know it.
If your research does not have broad impact, you will need to consider journals in the next category: highly ranked trade journals (Impact Factor 2-10). For example, Advanced Materials, Journal of American Chemical Society, and Biomaterials are some of these journals in my field. This type of journal requires a strong story, but does not require that research appeal to a broad category of scientists. Research should be interesting to anyone working in your area or a tangential field. For example, modifications of the liquid nitrogen ice cream making technique for chunky mixtures might be published in a journal like this. Marine biologists might be interested in the fact that liquid nitrogen can be used to make superior ice cream (science or nature paper), but not in the fact that chunky mixtures require certain stirring patterns (trade journal paper).
The last category of journal is for work that is still important, but only relevant to those working in the same area (impact factor 1-2). There are a number of area specific journals of high quality that are appropriate for this kind of paper. For example, if you have a paper that describes in great detail the temperature profile of ice cream during the liquid nitrogen freezing process, this would be of interest to other liquid nitrogen ice cream makers. However, other scientists are much less likely to read this report.
Once you have decided what kind of paper you have you might want to ask yourself what journals do I frequently pull articles from? This will give you ideas as to where you should submit. You can use the impact factor to help you place those journals into categories and guide your choice for submission.