Who do you want to talk to? Targeting journals [2/8]

The first - and most important - step in minimising your chances of a desk-reject is to choose your target journal very carefully. The most common reason for a desk-reject is that your paper simply doesn't fit the journal. Sometimes, this lack of fit is "absolute", i.e. an empirical paper will never be accepted for a conceptual journal and vice-versa. But oftentimes the lack of fit is simply caused by authors not connecting properly with the journal's conversation. By submitting to a journal you are joining a conversation, which we all do all the time in "real life". Unfortunately, as academics we often leave our common sense behind in academic writing.

Joining a conversation

Imagine that you are standing on the fringe of a group of strangers who are involved in a heated and long-running discussion. What do you do if you really want to join that discussion? Most people would listen for a quite a while to become familiar with the most important participants and get a gist of what the conversation is about. Then they might cautiously introduce themselves and offer a modest contribution that connects with an argument that was made by one of the key players.

If that’s accepted they might venture a slightly more involved contribution, but always one that acknowledges other points of views. Once they are more familiar with the conversation and its players, they might make gradually start making slightly more provocative and radical suggestions. After a while they find the group is no longer a group of strangers and they become one of the key players in the conversation themselves. This also means that they can take the conversation in a completely new direction.

Jumping right in...

In contrast, some people might ignore these conventions and just jump in with their own contribution – which might be completely unrelated to the discussion – at the first possible opportunity. In most cases the response of the group will be: Who are you? How do you dare interrupting us? What are you talking about anyway? Don’t you realise this has nothing to do with our discussion? Or… don’t you realise we have considered this a long time ago and there were conclusive arguments against this?

Oftentimes the group will “close ranks” and exclude the outsider, ignoring any further input from her. Very rarely, the group will say: "Yes, she does have a point." Usually, this only happens if some people in the group were having doubts about the way the discussion was going anyway, and are grateful for an “outsider” saying what they didn’t dare to say.

Academic journals are communities revolving around conversations

Academic journals are communities revolving around academic conversations, conversations that might be heated (well as much as one can call academic discussions heated) and long-standing. Unfortunately, many academics seem to forget common sense when submitting to a journal. A large proportion of the submissions to any journal seem to be of the following type:

Hello, you have never heard of me before, but please listen to this exciting, completely unrelated, thing I have to tell you. I haven’t bothered to listen to anything that any of you said before, but I presume you are dying to hear what I have to say anyway.

Academics are regularly submitting papers to journals dealing with a topic that has never featured in the journal before. Even worse, they make no attempt to explain why that topic might be relevant to the readers of that journal. These days, most journal editors deal with this with a desk reject, often leaving the author convinced that editors are biased against their research. They are not, they just feel that you are “barging into the conversation”.

What to do? Research, research, research

Before submitting to a journal you really need to know what conversations are going on in the journal. Here is what you can do. First use Publish or Perish to find out Which journals publish on your topic. Choose a few journals and research them more carefully. At any step you might decide the journal is not a good fit and move on to the next journal:

  • Find the journal's mission statement and author guidelines and read them carefully.
  • Find out whether any of your colleagues have published in this journal by doing a search by journal in your university repository. Ask for their advice, but be aware that one person's experience might not be typical.
  • Talk to senior colleagues who have published in a lot of different journals. Getting "a feel" for a journal comes with experience. Oftentimes a senior colleague can tell you instantly that "this is not a ... paper, you are better off submitting to ..."
  • Find out whether the journal has published more specific guidance. Many journals publish "From the editors..." or "Publishing in..." articles that explain in detail what is expected of submissions. Searching the journal with the words editor OR editors in the title field should give you a pretty good overview. The screenshot below shows how you can do this in seconds in Publish or Perish.

  • Find three representative and recent articles in this journal, preferable dealing with a topic related to your paper. Use these as model articles for the rest of your article preparation process, which will be described in the next six steps.

How to avoid a desk-reject?

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