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This is something I've been curious about for a while, and there's little public or explicit information about it. It's obvious that some journals are considered very prestigious and other journals something less than that. It seems most seasoned professors have quite specific opinions on the matter. But how did things get this way? It seems that almost all journals superficially look and operate about the same. I work in mathematics, but the question of course applies to all fields.

In some cases it's understandable. For example, the "Journal of the American Mathematical Society" would be expected to be a top journal since it's the flagship journal of a major mathematical institution. On the other hand, there are journals that are considered "top journals" without being attached to an important institution, having a long, distinguished history, or any other obvious reason. How did such journals acquire their reputation? I'm hesitant to start naming specific journals in this question, though it would be interesting to see some representative examples in the answers.

Reputation seems very much set in stone in the short term. And yet, over time, some journals rise in reputation while other ones decline. What causes this? One possibility is that a journal hurts its reputation by behaving in an unethical or irresponsible way, but this would not be the norm.

To phrase this another way, I imagine just about every journal wants to improve its reputation. So what are the tools in the toolbox that a journal, or a community of academics who are invested in its success, can use to achieve this?

I'm sure part of the answer is "the editors". But what do they do? Is the work of a journal/editor deeper than "wait for papers to get submitted and then accept the best ones"? I'm sure having a prestiguous editorial board helps, but in my experience even the "pretty good" journals still have top mathematicians as editors.

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    Matthew effect of accumulated advantage: Good journals attract good papers and good editors and good reviews. – usr1234567 Oct 16 at 12:45
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TL;DR Top journals tend to have that reputation because they're regularly publishing top papers. Similarly, journals that have a reputation for being "merely" pretty good tend to mostly publish papers that are "merely" pretty good.

I think that far and away the most important reason that certain journals acquire reputations for being strong journals is that they publish very interesting papers that prove important results. For example, if I'm asked to justify my belief that the Annals, JAMS and Inventiones are among the very strongest of all journals in pure mathematics, I'm definitely not going to say anything about mathscinet quotients or impact factors. Moreover, even though having a strong editorial board is incredibly important, I wouldn't mention that either. Instead I would use the fact that off the top of my head I can list a large number of seminal papers that were published in each of these journals. Similarly, if all the papers that I've read in a given journal seemed boring to me (or perhaps not even 100% correct), then I'm not going to think much of the journal and probably won't submit any papers there, regardless of what the many other journal ranking metrics say about the journal.

Since you asked for examples of new-ish journals that have acquired very strong reputations without being the flagship journal of an important mathematical institution, here are two: Geometry & Topology and Algebra & Number Theory. These journals were founded in 1997 and 2007 respectively and have already acquired reputations for being amongst the very strongest journals in their fields. The reason for this, I am sure, is that they both regularly publish extremely interesting papers. How do they attract such strong papers? I'm sure that part of the reason lies with their incredibly strong editorial boards. Having an editorial board full of very strong, well-known mathematicians is likely to result in a steady stream of strong papers since one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a journal to submit a paper to is the editor that will handle the paper. If I have a paper that I think is very strong then I'm not going to want to send it to an editor that I've never heard of and that might not even know what sort of people will make good referees. Instead I'd try to find a journal (at more or less the appropriate level) where there's an editor that I know works in my area and whom I suspect knows plenty of people that will do a good job of refereeing my paper. Thus, if your journal has a board full of well-known people that work in trendy areas then it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that before too long you'll be getting papers submitted that concern trendy areas, at least some of which are very strong and are written by other well-known people in the area (which in turn means that people citing their papers are likely to consider submitting their papers to your journal).

  • Being a geometer, much of this resonates. But I think perhaps there is one aspect of the original post which is not addressed by this answer: Namely, even let's say "3rd tier" journals often have big names as editors. So you can find examples of two journals, where one is 2nd tier and one is 3rd tier and yet it's not obvious that the editors of one are a significantly stronger or better-known bunch of mathematicians. – T_M Oct 16 at 13:10
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    I'm sure that part of the reason lies with their incredibly strong editorial boards. - I would add to this that they also advertised what they were trying to do. They weren't simply trying to start new journals. In the cases you mention, there were various sentiments about wanting to move away from large publishers and have good low-cost journals run by academics, so there were a lot of people willing to send good papers to new journals with these aims, and those two journals filled those needs. (G&T also has more of a back story) – Kimball Oct 17 at 7:01
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As already discussed in another answer, journals that get a reputation for publishing good-quality papers are likely to receive more good-quality papers. However, you ask what a journal can do to influence this, and stimulate an upwards movement in the journal's reputation.

The answer to this must be "make the author's experience with my journal better than their experience with the competitors". Then, an author with a paper to submit is more likely to prefer my journal, which means I'm likely to get a larger fraction of the submissions in the field, which allows me to be more picky and cream off the 'better' papers.

So what are the things that authors care about? I would suggest (at least) the following:

  • Efficient management of the reviewing and publication process, with editorial decisions received in a reasonable time-frame and prompt publication of accepted manuscripts;
  • Helpful, fair, balanced reviews from people who understand the context of the submitted work;
  • Clearly-communicated editorial decisions that are justifiable based on the reviews received;
  • Editors who are prepared to 'make a decision' in cases where there is disagreement between reviewers (or between reviewers and authors);
  • A copy-editing process that does not introduce unnecessary errors or inconvenience.
  • Any fees (page charges, open access, etc) at a 'reasonable' level

In many cases, authors views on a journal will also be coloured by their experiences as a reviewer. Again, similar considerations apply.

Note also that journal reputation may also reflect the fashions of individual research fields. If Basket Weaving suddenly becomes flavour of the month, with lots of activity, then the reputation of the International Journal of Basket Weaving Studies is likely to grow rapidly as a result.

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    +1 copy editing process ... Sometime we see arguments that "in these days of the internet, journals do nothing, so we should not pay them". – GEdgar Oct 16 at 10:09
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    Exactly this - we had just decided to change one of our targets for the upcoming submission, as a colleague has received no updates whatsoever after submitting there well over 9 months ago (which is not typical in my field for getting the first response). I also have a few journals where I will not submit as I never a) got any good papers from them to review, and b) one of the recent papers, where I have identified an important error in the results analysis, was published despite my recommendations as a reviewer. – penelope Oct 16 at 12:57
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Perhaps one answer not currently covered by other answers is that journals actually don't mind carving out a niche even if the niche is just "somewhere niche papers will be published", i.e. a paper that is strong mathematically but produces a narrow result needs somewhere to go and there's not shame in the journals that accommodate such papers.

Another answer (which the OP avoids suggesting!), which is that by behaving in an unethical way journals raise their reputation e.g. big name editor at 2nd tier journal A says to big name X : "hey send your next few papers here, we'll treat them well" and then people see that big name X is sending all her stuff to journal A, thus raising the image of journal A.

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    Interesting thought... but it raises two questions. (1) Is it necessarily unethical for an editor to solicit papers from a big name mathematician? (2) Is it common for a reputable journal to actively solicit papers? – mdr Oct 17 at 6:53
  • It could well be considered unethical if they "treat them well" i.e. overlook negative aspects of the paper in order to give them an easy ride and no chance of rejection. I know of it happening for sure, but I don't know how widespread it is. – T_M Oct 17 at 8:31

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