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I've finished a mathematics paper with two co-authors, and I need to decide on a journal to submit it to.

More so than my other papers, I don't have much of a sense for how "good" it is. It is a substantial generalization of one of the main results proved in a very top journal, although not the most significant of these results, and not the one that got the most attention.

To my mind, (and after discussing the results with a few colleagues), the paper does not pass the "gut test" to be published in this same top journal. But it is not out of the question that it would be accepted. I would (very roughly) guess a 15% chance of acceptance, a 50% chance of positive reviews that are not quite positive enough, and a 35% chance of vaguely negative reviews that say "This is a nice paper, but it certainly isn't good enough to be published here."

Would it be advisable to submit to this top journal? Or would a little bit more modesty be wise? (And of course I will ask my co-authors, but I wouldn't be surprised if they defer to my judgment.) Thanks.

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A comment to non-mathematician answerers: I do not know which top journal is being considered here, but beware that one of them (The Annals of Mathematics) is known to be extremely long to give an answer. By extremely long, I mean several years (not on average maybe, but not outliers either). –  Benoît Kloeckner Apr 22 at 7:58
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Wherever you decide to submit, put your paper on arXiv first. –  JeffE Apr 22 at 11:05

5 Answers 5

The answer should certainly depend on many different elements, each of which should be judged with respect to your particular situation.

First, the time issue. You should have a look at the AMS survey on journal backlogs, which also indicates the median time to get an answer (for accepted papers only, but we can assume it gives an idea of what happens to all not-rejected-upfront papers). This survey is published regularly in the Notices, and you should be able to find it on line. Then, ask yourself if waiting that time is worth a likely negative answer. Some journals have a pre-refereeing procedure, and reject a fair amount of papers very quickly. This mitigates the risk (either you get rejected quickly, or you have a much-higher-than-average probability to get your paper accepted).

Second, the impression you give to editors. I guess that an editor could remember slightly abusive submissions, and that they would not help you future cases with her; however I have no data or evidence to back up this guess.

Third, your own feelings. Receiving bad reviews is not something to underestimate: it could diminish your enthusiasm toward your own work, alter your willingness to pursue in this direction. This is probably only a small parameter, but if you have had a few difficult cases recently, you might want to take a break from rejections.

Fourth, you should ask yourself if the journal you consider to submit to is an appropriate venue if your paper do get published there. I would not fear too much people telling that your paper is clearly below the journal's level, as we often judge papers by journal's name anyway. But it might happen that a more specialized and less prestigious journal could reach the intended audience better than the most prestigious, general journal. This is not a very common situation, though.

Last, but far from least, what you expect to get from getting published in the top journal? Is it so much of a career boost compared to very-good-but-not-top journals?

Note also that some editors have the habit of suggesting another venue to papers that have good but not good enough reviews in a very selective journal. It is not easy to know this beforehand, though.

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I want to add three small points that haven't been mentioned in the other responses so far. It is possible that this advice is localized to my specific discipline (Philosophy), so take it with a grain of salt. (I'd be interested if commentators think it works the same way or differently in their fields.)

  1. Many hiring committees for junior tenure-track researchers in philosophy care much more about the quality of one's publications rather than the quantity. Having more good papers is better than fewer good papers, but 1 good paper is worth much much more than 4 bad ones.
  2. The primary metric by which a committee judges the quality of one's work is the prestige of the journals one's work is published in. The committee might have several hundred applications to read through and they realistically won't actually read everyone's writing sample. Therefore, the prestige of being published in a famous, peer-reviewed journal acts as a proxy for quality that signals that you have already been vetted by a 3rd party and found competent. If you make the shortlist, they'll actually read your work and come to their own assessment of it. But if you make it to the shortlist you're probably one of 15-25 candidates, rather than 1 out of 500.
  3. These committees assume that the first work published right after the PhD is complete is probably the best work the candidate is going to do as a junior researcher. The idea here is that this is the work you've been working on the longest, and at the most depth, and you've had your advisor's help, etc.

Given 1-3, I think it's much better advice for graduate students in philosophy to spend a lot of time and get one thing published somewhere really really good rather than simply trying to dash something off to get "points on the board".

How good is "really, really good"? I'd say a top 20 general journal in your field. The difficulty of placing an article in such a journal gives hiring committees an immediate yardstick to know how good your work must be. Everyone in philosophy has had a paper rejected from Philosophical Quarterly, so people know how impressed to be when they see that you have something forthcoming there on your cv. The Croatian Journal of Formal Logic, might be great, but if nobody knows about it, then publishing there doesn't have the immediate cash-value of showing that you have been vetted by an independent third party.

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Well, why don't you give it a try? Sometimes your luck might favor you. Last year, I submitted a research paper in a Journal called APEX(Applied Physics Express)- Impact factor 2.71. After considering for nearly 2 months they said me that the paper needs modification and be published elsewhere. I thought for a while and worked on my paper modifying it. I decided to apply for APL(Applied Physics Letters), impact factor 3.79 and guess what the paper got accepted. However, people at APL took nearly 6 months and also made me hire a native English speaker to make some structural changes to the paper.

I think you should directly go for the top level paper. If they deny you, you can always find a replacement.

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If time is not so much of a consideration then picking the top journal is the natural choice. Sometimes it requires some luck to land in a prestigious journals. As they say, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". Different referees may have different assessments of your paper.

So, why not try your luck? Nothing to be ashamed of since your paper has value to begin with.

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My thoughts, admittedly from a non-mathematician giving a general answer. Below are some things I consider when deciding where a paper goes:

  • Do you coauthors have suggestions? Especially senior colleagues, they may have a good feeling for where a paper belongs, or where it absolutely doesn't belong.
  • Do you have a timeline. As mentioned, journals have backlogs, and some journals are notoriously slow. If you need something in press soon, it might be best to pass on those, even if they are prestigious.
  • Do those journals publish papers that "feel" like yours? If they've never published something like your paper, what are the odds yours will be the first? If its extremely rare that one is published, does the journal actually have the readership you want and again, you might want to adjust your probability of success down a bit.

I will say, despite all of this, I once submitted a paper to a journal thinking "Why not, worst thing that happens is they reject it." It got into one of the best journals in my field, and is still, 6 years later, arguably my most visible publication.

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