Where to publish?

So you’ve begun writing a research paper and you are starting to think about where to send it. Sometimes picking the journal is easy: the subject matter is so specific that there are only a few places that will take it. Other times picking the journal to send your article feels like you are trying to find the right foster parents for your baby. (Okay, maybe not that hard.) Do you go for open access? Highest impact factor? Speed? Prestige? All these factors matter and yes your academic career can be defined by where, and where you don’t, publish.
            What’s that you say, the journal doesn’t matter, only the content. Good luck with that. When you apply for an academic job the first thing (perhaps the only thing) that will be scrutinized is your list of pubs in your CV, not necessarily the pubs themselves. The person looking over your CV will look at your list of pubs and thinking thoughts like, “Hmmm…lots of first authored things, all of them are in low tier journals though….the best papers [the ones in high impact journals] were written by someone else.” Wouldn’t you think it was odd reading someone’s CV and seeing they have 15 publications all published in one journal? Unless that lone journal is Science, diversity is a good thing to have among the journals you’ve published in. I try not to submit different papers to the same journal even in the same year. Doing so may give the appearance that you have a friend on the inside that can fast track it or help out with negative reviews. Unlikely the case, but people think strange things when trying to read between the lines of someone’s resume.
            I love open access (OA) journals like the PLoS group. Unfortunately even though this is one of the best run outlets for science, some people, especially the old guard, have stigmatized open access. Some think open access journals are “pay-to-play” even though you can get part or all of the publishing fees waived at PLoS very easily. (You should pay if you can to help out, remember PLoS isn’t your traditional publishing powerhouse http://www.plos.org/publish/pricing-policy/publication-fees/.) Other open access journals are far cheaper (e.g., PeerJ). Open access also takes a big hit from a stereotype caused by predatory OA journals that don’t actually put much effort into reviews but that do want your money (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6154/60.full but also see rebuttal here http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2013/10/open-access-or-vanity-press-science.html). No matter these concerns, open access is the future. Still most journals don’t have this option and in order to diversify you might need to look elsewhere.
            The traditional line is to publish your paper in the best journal you can get it into. If you really have something good and want to go high impact you still have some decisions to make. You can go for the actual highest impact factor or the most prestigious. This is kind of like picking a college. If you are a zoology major you might pick a small public university because it actual has a zoology program over going to Harvard (which doesn’t), even though Harvard carries more prestige. Likewise, Molecular Ecology is a great journal with an impact factor of 6.25 but it doesn’t have nearly the prestige of Evolution (4.86) or American Naturalist (4.55). I picked Molecular Ecology for a paper that I could have easily sent to those other two journals because I wanted the paper to come out quickly and those other two journals are notoriously slow (would likely take more than a year). I almost always have picked speed over prestige in my career, mostly because I like to get things off my plate and I’m aiming to average about five pubs a year. I don’t think I sacrificed quality for quantity in doing so. Still, I do sometimes regret those decisions. Part of it is pride, when I’m introduced for a seminar it would be nice to hear, “he has published in Science, Nature, and Systematic Biology,” but I haven’t. My Molecular Ecology paper was published in 2011 and is one of my favorites. I was very happy with how it was handled at that journal and how it looks. The topic is bioluminescence and sexual selection and included phylogenetic analyses, and analyses of disparity and diversification (http://www.prosanta.net/docs/MolEcol.pdf); it was the culmination of my postdoctoral project and it has been cited exactly zero times. I can’t help but wonder if more people would have seen it if I sent it to one of the slower but more well known journals. This is a little counter intuitive since Molecular Ecology’s higher impact factor is due to its papers getting cited more on average than these other journals.
            I recently went up for tenure and had a positive vote, I was told that one place to improve was having some papers in more prestigious journals. I agree, especially as I transition into this more stable academic period. These journals may be slow but they are traditionally the most selective with what they publish and so there is some honor associated with publishing there. However, I would recommend to students and pre-tenure folks that in general, it is definitely okay to go for speed, especially if (1) you might get scooped; (2) you need to maintain a relatively high and steady rate of publishing (> 3-5 pubs a yr). Keep in mind that one first authored paper in a very prestigious journal might be worth several in very low ranking journals. The sacrifice of prestige over speed often isn’t always that much. If you can maintain a steady rate of publishing and still have a few projects to send to big journals by all means go for prestige even if that means a few more months of waiting and perhaps an extra reviewer. I think in the near future the “best” journals will be fast, free, open access, prestigious and highest impact. Unfortunately, today those qualities are rarely found in one place so you have to pick what you want for each paper and calculate what you are willing to sacrifice to get it.