I’m pretty excited to already have something of a draft of my first PhD paper (though it needs a lot more work and it will likely be a year or more before it is actually published) but I’m now faced with an apparently tricky decision: where to submit it? There has been a huge amount of online discussion about the issues of academic publishing and open access in the last year or so. I’ve read a fair amount but there is a constant stream of new articles and posts on the subject. As so many others have gone into this at length, in case you are new to the discussion, here’s just the basic gist of the issues (or see here for a fuller version):
A lot of researchers are beginning to feel that the current system of publishing is not particularly fair and indeed is impeding progress in science. Researchers work hard to produce results, reviewers then voluntarily donate their time to make sure that these are fit for publication and contribute something useful to the scientific community and then publishers rake in all the profits by forcing anyone who wants to keep on top of the literature to pay up. This is particularly harsh on researchers at universities in poorer countries but also just financially impractical for governments and science funders who use public money to pay for the science to be done and then spend more public money to pay again for the fruits of the work to be available to others (via university libraries).
Although these issues are interesting to read about and affect PhD students like me (when that highly relevant article you really need to read is behind a pay-wall your university hasn’t subscribed to), I don’t feel like there is anything I could actually do about them. I thought boycotting one of the big publishing companies like Elsevier sounded like a good idea, so I signed the petition earlier this year only to have my PI suggest I submit a manuscript (pre-PhD work) to one of Elsevier’s journals. Not knowing where might be a better alternative, I went along with the suggestion. They rejected the paper (something I have yet to learn to deal with fully) but I still felt a bit hypocritical.
But really, what is a better option than submitting to Elsevier journals? I don’t really see the point of deliberately favouring one big publisher over another – Springer or Wiley journals are probably pretty similar to Elsevier in how much money they cash in per article. Open access journals sound like a pretty cool idea but my PhD consumables budget is limited and so I can’t really afford to go down the open access pay-yourself route (e.g. ~£855/article in PLoS One) and feel far too junior to be suggesting how my PI’s grant money gets spent, not to mention that open access has its own set of potential disadvantages.
So despite being interested in the ongoing discussions around these issues, I feel almost like I should just completely ignore them when it comes down to choosing where to submit an article. So, what else to base my decision on? Well there is of course journal impact. It’s pretty clear to me that having publications in higher impact (i.e. more prestigious) journals counts for more on your CV and is therefore widely encouraged. However, submitting to a journal is pretty time-consuming, both in terms of preparation (making sure the formatting and layout are the ones the journal requires) as well as in terms of waiting for them to get back to you. If you aim too high or submit to a journal that is not quite the most appropriate for your work, you are more likely to have to re-do the whole process following rejection. This is not only demoralising and frustrating but also takes time and energy away from other work. What’s more, having a culture that glorifies publications based on the impact of the journals they got accepted into can cause more widespread problems – for a very succinct recent discussion of these issues, I thoroughly recommend this article in PNAS.
So although the decision of where to submit a paper may feel like a potentially trivial one to begin with, there are a number of issues to consider and making a good choice may save you future time and stress. As with so many things, there isn’t really an explicit way of learning what is best to do. Talking to supervisors and other researchers and doing some online research into various journals in your field all helps. But at the end of the day, it looks like it’s a process of implicit learning with some trial and error until you have a better idea of how to maximise your chances for another publication to add to your record.