What is top-tier?

This blog post is a follow up to my previous defense of scholarly writing and a response to something I have been hearing from some colleagues at my institution– that publishing in top-tier journals is “impossible” for most faculty at my university. In this post, I want to first unpack this problematic assumption and then offer my thoughts on getting work published.

A bit of background: I happen to do interdisciplinary work. What I’ll be addressing might not work for all fields. Also, I am writing this while  at a regional teaching-oriented institution that has a 4/4 course load, where some publishing is required. Despite our faculty collective bargaining agreement explicitly stating quality matters more than quantity, many on my campus would argue that our contract does not offer guidance of how to evaluate quality over quantity. The result has been predatory publishing squeaking through the tenure process in the past, and more recently faculty getting denied due to ill-defined notions of quality.

Getting back to the question of publishing in particular venues – I think that the concern of my colleagues needs to be re-framed in the following ways. What constitutes a top-tier journal? Are we just talking about flagship journals of professional organizations? Are we talking about impact factors and other bibliometrics? Quantitatively, top-tier could mean anything within the first two quartiles of ranked journals in a field – which could account for several dozens of journals that are well cited and publish solid work. However, there are also journals in subfields that are also ranked. Web of Science and Google Scholar have categories beyond traditional/major disciplinary areas. Subjectively, it depends on your subfield. Is it a journal that you have cited in your own work? Is it a journal that publishes work you read regularly?

If I had to provide my own definition, I would say it’s simply a journal that publishes work that fellow scholars in the field recognize and respect.  Usually, this means there’s a correlation with citation counts, but it could be that it is affiliated with a professional association or be with an well known/established publisher. So yes, it’s a broad definition. However, you should always keep in mind what does or does not count in your department/institution as well as your field.

The idea that certain types of publication is “impossible” is dangerous. I think my colleagues mean well. We are a teaching oriented institution. However, this assumption discourages junior scholars from attempting to publish in highly ranked journals that can help grow a career. Indeed, one should always keep local tenure/promotion timelines in mind. However, I personally believe that scholars – especially young ones – should always aim for the best journal their work fits in. It increases the visibility of your hard work. Also it is work that is future proof if the journal is ever acquired by another published.

They key here is that the work is a fit for the journal. Prior to submitting your work to a journal, you need to do your homework. Do you cite articles in that journal? Or authors that have published in that journal? Do you engage in the literature that those who have written in that journal work in? Does the journal publish primarily qualitative or quantitative work?

Indeed, it is harder to get published in some journals than others. However, rejection can be valuable. The best advice I ever got in graduate school on publishing is to have a ranked list of where you would like to publish. If you get rejected from your first choice, you move down to the next one until you get an acceptance. As you move down the list, you will likely get feedback that can help you improve your manuscript and have it published in a well regarded venue.

Finally, for some good tips on publishing see Victoria Reyes’ article in InsideHigherEd