There are many high-quality journals out there and choosing which one to submit your paper to can be a daunting task. Below, I offer some suggestions.
A great starting point is your manuscript’s reference section. Identify the papers most closely related to yours and tabulate the journals that published them. Think of a few more distantly related papers that may not have made it to your references and add the journals they are published in to your list. If your list is short or, by contrast, there are too many options, look at your advisors’ CVs for guidance. If you are still not happy, look at CVs of colleagues working in related fields.
Once you have identified at least five potential journals, go to each journal’s website and ask yourself: how often does this journal publish work similar to mine (in terms of subject, research methods, etc) relative to other journals on my list? The less frequently a journal publishes papers in your research area, the lower your chances of acceptance. If the journal rarely publishes related papers, you may want to try somewhere else first.
Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes. If the journal has a new editor who works in your area, your chances are probably higher than historical publication information may indicate. Browsing the editorial board of a journal can thus help you assess your publication chances as well. The best sign is if your paper cites the work of at least one of the editors in a positive light. Not only does this mean they are more likely to handle your paper, but they are also likely to view it more favorably than someone outside the field. (Unless you’ve tried to disguise a bad paper as a good paper. But you wouldn’t do that, of course.)
Next, you want to ask yourself, how quickly does each journal process the average submission and how much time do you have? If you’re approaching a milestone like tenure or if there are many other people working on the same topic and you’re worried about being scooped, you may want to prioritize journals that turn papers around quickly. Sometimes journals publish these statistics (e.g., number of days to first decision). Other times, you may have to ask colleagues about their experiences with particular journals.
Another obvious consideration is the ranking/visibility of the journals on your list and your own goals for the paper. If you are trying to get tenure, prioritize the journals that are more valued by departments where you could plausibly get tenure (my suggestion is to not put all your eggs in one basket and ignore the idiosyncratic preferences of your current department unless you have a really really good reason for doing so). If you’re trying to maximize the impact of your work, consider which journals are most respected by people in your field. These are often correlated with general journal rank, but there may be some divergence.
Finally, think about how much rejection you want to take. On average, the more competitive the journal you have chosen, the longer it will take to publish the paper and the more likely you are to receive negative feedback. I’m personally of the opinion that the rejection process can be used productively and would thus recommend toughing it out if you have time, but this approach may not be right for everyone. For better or worse, rejections are inevitable for all of us, and learning how to deal with them is part of the academic career. More on that in another post!