How to pick which journal to submit your manuscript to

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!

Has it gotten harder to publish in top economics journals?

In a fascinating series of graphs, David Card and Stefano DellaVigna document that submissions to the top 5 economics journals have gone up from about 3,000 per year in the early 1990s to over 7,000 per year in the mid-2010s, while acceptance rates have decreased from 10-15% to 2.4-5.6%. A natural interpretation of these trends is that it has gotten much harder to publish in top journals, all else equal. But could there be more to this story? There are (at least) three reasons things are not as clear as they seem at first glance.

First, submitting a paper to a journal has certainly become easier since the 1990s. It used to be (or so I’m told) that you had to physically print out the paper, put it into an envelope, send it somewhere and wait for a return envelope, which meant that even desk rejections took a lot longer than they do now, on average. The whole process should have been inherently harder, which meant people may have thought twice before trying for a Hail Mary at a top journal. With more and more people having internet access and virtually all top journals accepting electronic submissions, I would predict that a lot more people are willing to shop their papers around for a while in hopes of hitting the best journal possible.

Second, the emphasis on having a top-5 publication seems to have increased steadily over the past 20 years or so. Of course, there could be reverse causality here – if publishing a paper in the top 5 is harder, then success should be valued more, on average. But I think it’s likely that the emphasis on the top 5 journals has caused more people to try to publish papers there that they would otherwise send someone else, driving submissions up and acceptance rates down. For example, authors may now try for three of the five journals instead of just one (I may or may not have done this myself), so a single paper will show up as three submissions in the statistics above.

Third, the graphs show that the number of authors per paper has gone up too, so conditional on the total number of published papers being constant, the total number of people with a top 5 publication should be going up!

But shouldn’t the first two trends mean it’s gotten harder to publish in top journals, as the original statistics imply? This is true only if the marginal papers are about as good as the average papers. And that is very unlikely to be the case. Given the high rates of desk rejections at many journals, is seems more likely that there are many people trying for a very unlikely outcome. In fact, it’s possible that the probability of a good paper getting into a top journal is essentially unchanged because each marginal paper has an incredibly tiny probability of acceptance. Of course, it’s hard to believe that the publishing process is that accurate, so it’s likely to have gotten at least somewhat more competitive at the top journals. But I highly doubt that the level of competition is anywhere close to 2-5 times higher, as the statistics imply.

The real question we should be asking is, are there more high-quality papers per high-quality journal (somehow controlling for general progress in methods, computing power, and data)? Or, if we’re interested in the likelihood of a person having a top-5 publication, are there more high-quality academics per high-quality journal? Both of these questions are really difficult to answer, but I found no statistics suggesting that there have been significant increases in the number of academic economists over this time period. For example, this website from 2006 says that “the number of new PhDs who intend to pursue careers in the US has declined.”. This report indicates that there were 24,886 AEA members and subscribers in 1999 and this one says there were 23,170 in 2017. My overall conclusion is that the decline in acceptance rates should not be interpreted as really bad news for good papers trying to get into good journals.

Just how significant are publication lags?

Generally, Academic Sequitur finds papers as soon as they are posted online. Increasingly, journals are posting papers as soon as they are accepted and correctly formatted (some even before then!), which means that when the “official” new issue is announced, the papers it consists of could have been hanging out on the web for months without being publicized. This month, I checked just how large this lag can be by seeing when Academic Sequitur found papers that were included in journals’ most recent issues.

I checked the top 5 economics journals: American Economic Review, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Journal of Political Economy, Econometrica, and Review of Economic Studies. For the January 2019 issue of AER, the included articles were all added to our database between July 10 and August 27, 2018 (corresponding to the dates they were posted). For the February 2019 issue of QJE, we found all the articles between August 20 and October 25, 2018. For the December 2018 issue of Econometrica, articles were found between June 4and December 12, 2018. For the December issue of the Journal of Political Economy, we located all articles between August 2 and November 21, 2018. Finally, for Review of Economic Studies, articles from the January 2019 issue were located between January 28, 2018 (yes, almost a year early!) and November 28, 2018.

Our users find out about articles at the time they are posted, not when they get grouped into an issue after languishing online for months. And I think that’s a huge plus!

Why I made Academic Sequitur

Mitch Kapor wrote “Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.” My own experience with this when it comes to staying up to date on research couldn’t be more accurate.

I started as an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois in 2011. Somewhere around 2015, I decided I should be more systematic about keeping up to date with recent literature in my field. Up until then, I relied on conferences, a few mailing lists, and colleagues forwarding me papers to learn about what was happening in environmental economics and in the profession as a whole. But I still felt like I was missing some important papers (indeed, I would periodically learn of a relevant paper that was published several years ago).

My initial solution to this problem was to spend a few hours signing up for various journals’ tables of contents. I figured I should track some of the top general-interest economics journals as well as the top journals in my field. So I signed up for: Quarterly Journal of Economics, American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Review of Economic Studies, American Economic Journal: Applied Microeconomics, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, Journal of the European Economic Association, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, Journal of Labor Economics, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, NBER Weekly Paper Digest, and SSRN’s “environmental economics” list, which notified me about new pre-prints classified as environmental economics. I knew there might be some other papers I would miss, but I was confident that I would see most of them.

What happened next was equally disappointing to hearing about too few papers: I was overwhelmed by the number of irrelevant papers that came my way. The digests from various journals would arrive throughout the month and then sit there waiting for me to find the time to sort through them. Often, I would spend half an hour or more just skimming the titles and abstracts to find papers I was interested in. My brain hurt. Sometimes I would just delete the digest, overwhelmed by the task.

At some point in 2016, I decided to stop being a passive sufferer and do something about this problem, not just for myself but for others. Two years later, Academic Sequitur was born. I love our solution because it is very straightforward and transparent. Our users specify authors, journals, and/or keywords that they want to follow, and we then notify them of newly published relevant papers that meet their criteria in a daily or weekly digest.

One awesome aspect of this solution is that one can vastly expand the set of journals from which personalized updates are pulled without worrying too much about information overload (you can of course still create information overload by selecting too many journals). We don’t do any fancy machine learning, and I think that’s a feature not a bug: people can be sure that papers meeting their criteria will be delivered to their inbox and they won’t miss anything they care about.

With the amount of information out there, you would think it would be easy to stay informed. But we are not supercomputers who can process terabytes of information and distill it to what’s important ourselves. Science cannot progress as quickly if the right information is not being delivered to and absorbed by the right people. Both researchers and society need better tools for disseminating research results, and I’m proud that Academic Sequitur is a part of that.

Tatyana Deryugina, founder of Academic Sequitur