Making good choices about publishing in the journal jungle


Publications all used to count. Although publications never all counted the same, each was meritorious and advantageous to the individual, their resumé and organization: a universal good for the aspirant researcher and vital for nursing as an establishing discipline. However, the world of academic publishing has changed profoundly. Risks and opportunities abound like never before. Most crucially: publications no longer all count.

Making good choices about where to publish has never mattered so much. Researchers have always had to make these choices. Journals, as long as they have existed, have differed in readerships, foci, prestige and reputation. However, like other aspects of society – academic publishing is undergoing ‘disruptive innovation’. The rules and systems of old no longer apply.

The range of ways to disseminate research to different audiences has never been greater or more diverse: research can now be shared instantly through social media (blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter) and via the mass media (online web pages, television, newspapers) (Watson et al. 2012). By comparison, conventional academic journal publishing is slow, passive and exclusionary – leading some to question whether academic journals are even viable and to reject this form of dissemination as outmoded – a Blockbuster's model in a NetFlix Age. Yet: peer-reviewed journal publications remain the traditional currency of the academic resume, the main indicator of success in the academy, and a barometer of the place of nursing in the interdisciplinary world (Watson et al. 2012). Journals are evolving radically in response (Epstein 2012). While some journals are moving to ‘online’ content only, more profoundly, many new journals are being established to serve the need for ‘open access’ to knowledge.

The term ‘Open Access’ was first used for journals in 2002 by the Budapest Open Access Initiative which sought to accelerate progress internationally to make research articles in all academic fields freely available on the internet (Budapest Open Access Initiative 2012). This and subsequent statements have each identified that open access journals should provide free access to papers for those with an internet connection and allow papers to be passed freely between people and organizations without permission or copyright restrictions.

There are many different models of open access. Some journals are wholly ‘open access’ while others, particularly more established journals, are partially open access – allowing open access only when additional fees are paid by authors to ensure open access or permitting time or location-specific open access to particular papers. Some journal policies restrict exchange of material while others, in accordance with the Budapest Initiative, allow free exchange without restriction.

The move to open access journals has been very popular. Governments and research funders across the world have called for all publically funded research to be available free online (Howard 2012a, 2012b). Prestigious universities including Princeton, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, now encourage or require that their researchers post articles into institutional repositories (Howard 2011). The Electronic Journals Library now indexes almost 34,000 free open access journals and accepts around 18 new journals every day (Morrison 2012).

Academics also view open access as a good thing: almost 90% of 38,000 academics sampled across Europe in 2010 viewed the open access model of publishing as being beneficial for their disciplines (Dallmeier-Tiessen et al. 2011). Yet, less than 9% of all papers are published in open access journals (Björk et al. 2010) and there are wide variations across disciplines. For example, in Earth Sciences approximately one quarter of all papers are freely available compared to less than 8% in medicine (Björk et al. 2010).

Although the movement to open access has many positive aspects, navigating this jungle of journals is difficult. Scholars are left with an ever more bewildering choice of options of where to publish their work. Approximately 70% of academics have yet to publish in open access journals and have not done so mainly due to concerns over the costs journals levy for open access and the overall quality of these journals (Dallmeier-Tiessen et al. 2011). Although the cadre of open access journals is rich, diverse and well intentioned, extensive profits can also be made when authors or funding bodies pay up to $3000 to have their paper freely available without restrictions. Many of us now receive several batch emails each day sent by publishers to solicit submission of our manuscripts. Academics are encouraged to act as guest editors of special editions and recruit amiable colleagues to provide content.

Perhaps the greatest risk among these developments is the proliferation of ‘vanity’ or ‘predatory’ journals that publish work with minimal peer review or quality control (Stratford 2012). These journals often lack robust pre- or post publication peer review, have limited input or supervision from editorial boards or staff, and appear to publish the vast proportions of the papers they receive (Stratford 2012). Such journals even entice deadline-pressed authors with automatic acceptance of papers within 48 hours of original submission. This has mutual benefits for publishers and authors – providing a smooth, assured, and rapid means to add another publication, respectively, to both journal and the researcher's resume.

In such cases, publication in a journal without effective peer review can no longer be considered an asset to the author. In some cases, particularly for new or establishing investigators, such publications could even be viewed as a demerit against the author's potential for success in the academy. Publications do not all inherently count anymore. The importance of researchers being mindful and strategic in their publishing choices has never been greater – how then should we decide where to publish?

Developing your publication strategy

Work is a constant stream of decisions and strategy is about making good decisions in complex environments (Dixit & Nalebuff 1991). As publication is so central to research, it beholds us to think about and approach this process strategically. What strategies are then needed for making good choices about publications in the journal jungle?

Prioritize quality

Strong research provides the best foundation for strong publications and publishing in good places. A central dimension of making good choices about publishing is making good choices about your research. Research of high quality involves individuals and teams and takes considerable investment of time, expertise and efforts to conceive, develop, undertake and write up the most relevant, creative and robust research possible. Attaining external funding is often necessary but seldom sufficient. Exemplary work is needed to publish in great places.

Resist expedience

Decisions about which journals to publish in should be guided by many factors, including but not restricted to: the main messages of a paper, its most appropriate audience(s), the probable influence or impact of the journal relative to that audience, the stage of the researcher's career, and the journals in which work has already been published. Such factors should be considered and reconciled. Expedience to publish should only be a main consideration in exceptional circumstances. Publishing quickly to the neglect of being discerning about where work is published is the death knell to publishing well.

Match messages, audiences and journals

In our experience, the main impediment to nursing research being published more in mainstream healthcare journals is not related to quality but to the ability of authors to frame work in ways that connect to audiences outside of nursing.

Researchers need to be highly aware of the range of journals not only in but also outside of nursing. Developing the ability to see and craft different key messages in papers for the different audiences of these journals is vital. This requires the development of skills to quickly crystallize the framing of a paper and to plug this framing into the interests or ‘hot topics’ of particular disciplines. In combination with avoiding predatory journals, this strategy supports targeting the right messages to the right audiences via the right journals.

Target only credible journals

Credible journals – open access or otherwise – have strong peer review processes, reject most papers they receive, and are led by large editorial boards that contain academic leaders in relevant fields. These established journals tend not to email academics to solicit manuscripts (Watson et al. 2012). Although a journal does not need an Impact Factor (IF) to be credible (Oermann 2012), because of the processes needed to secure a formal Thomson Impact Factor, journals with an IF do undergo a screening process which provides good assurance of sound peer review and other quality indicators. Journals should be avoided that lack these factors even when their titles sound prestigious – often such titles are carefully designed to mirror the titles of already established and credible journals. These journals tend to accept work that is of rigour, depth and relevance – because of this it is important to balance the quality and quantity of publications. For both established and new investigators, a smaller number of publications in credible journals can be more strategic and impactful than a higher number of publications in journals with questionable or unknown repute.

Aim high, aim wide

It is easy to play safe in publishing choices: to publish only in journals that you have published in before, journals you are sure will accept your submission, or journals that your colleagues or supervisors have published in. Researchers should be rewarded for taking risks with where they publish. To increase the influence and visibility of nursing research beyond nursing, researchers in nursing must make more attempts to publish in influential multi-disciplinary journals in mainstream health care or in specialties, such as rehabilitation, cancer and cardiology. When we can, we should publish substantive, methods and theory papers outside of nursing, for example, in social science, medical and methodological journals.

Time is short. As scholars: our research, the extensive time and efforts we invest in our careers and our obligations to society at large should compel us to think strategically about where we publish. Making consistent good choices can position us for successful navigation of this ever changing publishing landscape.