I have recently finished writing my first paper for my PhD study. I believe I have made some discoveries, but by comparing my manuscript to previous work, I think the advance is not very big and the work should be published on specialized journal in my field.

However, my supervisor does not agree with me and he really wants to try publishing it on a high-impact journal. I have talked multiple times with him, listing the novelty and limitations of my study, as well as the journals that previous work mostly published on. But he put my suggested journals on the last positions of his list, saying that he hope my work should be read by more people. Other students in my lab told me that they have met similar scenarios before.

Up to now we have tried Nature Communications, eLife and Current Biology, all being rejected without full scale peer-review. The review editors in one journal point out some limitations in my study, and we addressed them before submitting again; the other two turned my manuscript down without pointing specific problems.

My questions are:

  1. Is it appropriate to "shop" through high-impact journals (all getting desk rejections) before submitting to specialized journals, with modifications made if specific suggestions have been received?

  2. How can I talk to my mentor to reduce publication time for my future papers?

  • 3
    If your papers are always accepted the first place you send them, that means you are aiming too low. Let's face it: how valuable is that "time" you save? More valuable than a publication in a top journal would be?
    – GEdgar
    Sep 26, 2019 at 12:16
  • 7
    @GEdgar: if somebody else publishes the same result while you're trying for a better journal, that time was very valuable. (Caveat: this might be a bigger risk for abstract topics than for more experimental ones, and is partially mitigated by publishing preprints.) Sep 26, 2019 at 18:48

5 Answers 5


Judging the value of work is subjective, and can differ significantly between different researchers.

There is not harm in trying high-impact journals if some experienced people (like your mentor) consider it worth-while. But if you tried three different journals and get more or less immediate rejections, you should probably aim lower. Otherwise you just waste time in waiting for another five rejections (and you also waste the time of the editors/reviewers).

Maybe, after three rejections, you can discuss this topic with your mentor again, mentioning that you don't want to wait another three years for your paper to be published.


I think you should sort of "know" what goes where. And I think you do. I understand the desire of the supervisor to collect some nicer coups, but he's likely wasting time. Doesn't sound like the papers are even borderline, in terms of required notoriety.

I don't think what he's doing is evil. Just a waste of time. Personally, I would trust your instincts and insist on the journal to submit to, when you are the primary author.

There's nothing wrong with the more decent specialty journals. You can lay high quality bricks of the science edifice here. But Nature/Science are very driven for news flash. Unless you have a breakthrough (or can portray it as one), you don't belong there. "We aren't interested in reports of cuprates that don't superconduct" was a terse, understandable explanation from one of them.

Of course this desire for flash has gotten the glossy pubs into trouble at times. Some trends of bad papers and fraud in nanoscience, devices, psychology. But that's another issue. If you do have a real breakthrough, don't let the Schoen scandal hold you back from going into a big journal.

  1. Is it appropriate to "shop" through high-impact journals (all getting desk rejections) before submitting to specialized journals, with modifications made if specific suggestions have been received?

It may not be a wise thing to do from the point of view of of your own self-interest, but generally speaking it is allowed, and considered appropriate, to submit your paper to any journal that lists itself as accepting submissions.

At the same time, I think your adviser’s behavior is somewhat inappropriate not because of how he is treating the journals but because of how he is treating you. He seems to be pressuring you to agree to a publication strategy that maximizes his own self-interest rather than yours, and maybe even disingenuously claiming that he’s doing it for your sake when he knows that rapid publication may be more important to someone at your career stage than a tiny chance of getting into a top journal. That is not helpful, and not how a good advisor should behave in my opinion.

  1. How can I talk to my mentor to reduce publication time for my future papers?

Tell him what’s important to you. Express willingness to hear his advice on where to publish and indicate that you are grateful for the advice, but at the same time, know that you are well within your rights to disagree with him on submission venues and to insist on pursuing the path that is right for you.

In any case, the focus should be on reaching a decision that works for you, him (assuming he’s a coauthor) and any other coauthors. The supposed ethical issues associated with submitting to multiple top journals, which you raise as the main premise of your question, shouldn’t be a part of the discussion, since that’s not where the real problem lies.

  • 1
    Spot on. I have one quite decent paper that never got published because I listened to my former supervisor and a co-author who insisted on targeting generalist & top-rated journals. It's been five years (!) with three or maybe four desk rejections, and more fighting with editors in appeal against rejections with reviews that did not say that the paper was wrong (they mostly said that it was not really sexy). This paper now lives as a preprint... Your supervisor may not be helping you there.
    – Jealie
    Sep 27, 2019 at 8:02

The problem, you are probably not aware of yet, may be in the funding mechanism in your country.

In some places the researchers, and your advisor is in that position, are paid according to the number of papers published multiplied by the impact factor. This rules their sallary and the funding of their research programmes.

This policy directly forces writers to, as you say, shop through high-impact journals and then step down to lower-tier ones. Because there is a huge difference between publishing one Nature-worth paper and N Journal-that-publish-even-Lorem-Ipsum-worth papers.

Getting your paper in the high-impact journal gives your advisor more money per result to feed his family - the lab you are working in, obviously. Your suggestions were good, otherwise they wouldn't even appear in the list - they are just pennies for sure.


Since you are asking about one paper specifically and have been rejected by the big names, the question is a bit moot. The paper was aimed wrong. The fact that they were desk rejections makes this clear.

Whether it is a good policy in general, however, may depend on the field. If everyone aimed low on every publication, then Nature would have nothing to publish.

You have a dilemma going forward. I think you were wise to follow your advisors advice this time as good relations with an advisor giving advice are always valuable.

However, repeatedly sending out papers to the highest quality journals when they may not be a good fit is risky. For one thing the several papers going to Nature, say, will likely hit the same editor, and you will get a reputation for creating useless noise (from their standpoint). The second reason is that if a paper gets by an editor and goes to review it may be reviewed, yet again, by the same person who previously suggested rejection when you submitted it elsewhere. The sets of reviewers used by journals aren't disjoint. This is especially true in some narrow specializations when the number of appropriate reviewers is small.

So, I think that you were fine doing this once, and thereby pleasing your advisor, I wouldn't make a life habit of it. Try to send papers to journals that, based on the content analysis of both your paper and what is generally published there, has a fairly good chance of acceptance. This doesn't mean you should aim low. Try to aim accurately.

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