I've completed 2 years of my PhD and now have a few ideas which I would really like to work on and publish, but though they are novel, their scope is quite limited (i.e. they aren't ground-breaking). I don't feel confident sending them to Q1 journals and it'll likely just be a waste of time. I want to nail down a couple of journal papers quickly because I'm starting to panic over my lack of publications (only one conference paper so far).

I do think they would easily get into Q2 journals and I want to at least publish them there so that they don't get taken and so I can point towards them during my examination in the event that a future submission to a Q1 is still under review by then. However, my advisor essentially prevents me from doing this and wants me to dedicate my time wholly and completely towards work that would contribute towards Q1 publications (which I don't yet even have an idea for!). Given the low acceptance rates, getting a paper into a Q1 journal even with a good idea can sometimes come down to luck because it would be up against other researchers who have worked decades in the field. But his reasoning for this is that that if the research isn't published in a Q1 journal, then it is not PhD worthy research and will actually harm me in my PhD assessment. Is this true? What should I do?

  • Is your dissertation a collection of published papers (stapled thesis) or a single unified work? I'm assuming your field is math. Yes?
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 14:28
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    When I last checked these rankings, in my area (Logic) the best journal was ranked Q2, whereas the Q1-ranked journals were weird no-name ones.
    – Arno
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 14:41
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    I see downvotes for this question, but no comments about why the question deserves to be downvoted. Why the negative votes?
    – rhermans
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 15:16
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    I'm guessing that the downvoters are expressing the fact (stated in the comments) that the rankings you are referring to don't seem to be meaningul (at least, they don't agree with expert opinion). Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 15:23
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    First, you need to check the examination criteria of your university. Do the criteria explicitly say you need to have accepted/published papers in order to graduate? Second, aiming for Q1 journals is always good. However, the supervisor plays a critical role here. Does he/she know how to publish in such journals? if not, your path to Q1 journals will be much harder -- i.e., you will make mistakes that cost you time. Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 22:34

3 Answers 3


Firstly, you are correct to observe that there is an idea in academia that publishing a paper in a low-impact journal could be worse than not publishing a paper at all. This idea does not dominate academia, but it is not marginal either --- some academics hold to this idea and it certainly influences the profession in some areas/institutions. There are some legitimate reasons to focus on publication in high-impact journals and there are also some reasons that stem from perverse ways that academia presently functions --- here are some things to consider:

  • High-impact is good if you can get it: Most academics agree that you should at least try to target high impact journals as a first preference, with whatever research you are doing. Ceteris paribus, publishing a paper in a higher-impact journal rather than a lower-impact journal will tend to give it more visibility in the profession and it may lead to more impact for your research. Sometimes academics submit a paper initially to a high-impact journal (often with a low acceptance rate) and then work their way down. Not all academics do this, but some do.

  • Your supervisor probably has a rough idea of what is going to pass: Your PhD dissertation will usually be assessed by referees outside your university, so typically an internal advisor can make an educated guess at what those referees will find to be sufficient for the award, but they don't know for sure. Your advisor may have enough experience in the field to have a good understanding of typical referee standards, but there is a lot of variation and unpredictability here. If research is sufficient to be published in a high-impact journal then it is probably of reasonable quality and in an area that is of substantial interest to the profession at that time. You should be aware that publication in the high-impact journals sometimes depends on pursuing the "hot topic" of the moment, but it can also be correlated with quality. For matters like this, follow the advice of your advisor, but note that there is a fair bit of unpredictability in how referees will assess a paper/dissertation.

  • There is an opportunity cost for low-impact research: A reasonable argument against pursuing research projects that will result in papers in low-impact journals is that this has a time-cost and therefore a resulting opportunity cost --- i.e., time used for that research could instead be directed towards pursuing a research project that is likely to result in a paper in a high-impact journal. This appears to be part of the concern that your supervisor is expressing to you. While this is a reasonable observation, I would caution against pursuing research projects primarily based on their likely impact (as opposed to interest in the topic). The physicist Richard Feynman famously did some of his best work when he gave up on trying to write high-impact papers and focused his efforts on pursuing problems that were interesting to him without concern for their impact (though in his case these pet projects turned out to have lots of impact). Jump through this hoop during your PhD candidature if you need to, but in the long-term you should aim to establish a research field that is of substantial interest to you and let the research product fall where it may.

  • Certain (irrational) assessment methods in academia militate against low-impact publications: There is still an unfortunate tendency in academia to use certain irrational metrics that punish academics for publishing low impact papers (as compared to publishing nothing). This occurs whenever universities use metrics that look at average citations per paper, average impact per paper, etc. These are ridiculous metrics to use and they fail even the most basic rationality desiderata for productivity. In particular, they treat a low-impact publication as being worse than sitting on your arse producing nothing, which creates serious perverse incentives. Nevertheless, you will find that some universities still assess applicants and academics using these kinds of ridiculous metrics. Consequently, the idea that doing nothing is better than publishing a low-impact paper, while seriously perverse, is a professional reality in some areas. (Hopefully in time the universities will learn not to do this.)

  • Thanks for writing this up. I definitely encountered this at my PhD granting institution. My supervisor believed this strongly: in the end it hurt me, I think. I did get more interview attention from high-ranking departments which tend to have this mindset, but that was not enough to get hired over people with Q1 pubs. It hurt me at the next level of universities, which would have been much more likely to hire me seeing a Q2 pub vs no pub.
    – Dawn
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 2:28
  • I have no major objection to a university assessing academic applicants on the basis that a Q1 pub is better than a Q2 pub, etc. What I object to is when they say that having 1 x Q1 is better than having 1 x Q1 and 1 x Q2, because in the latter case your average impact is lower. That shit is crazy (but unfortunately still common).
    – Ben
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 2:32
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    @Ben, thanks a lot for the reply. I think I understand better where my advisor's perspective is coming from now - appreciate it!
    – CWT
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 2:42
  • Sorry, but I don't agree that "more is always better". There are plenty of examples of people publishing huge numbers of essentially worthless papers (I'm not talking about journals here, but the actual significance of the papers). For instance, if I manage to get some AI-generated gibberish through peer review (as has been done by some authors), is that better than publishing nothing? I think there is a reasonable argument that this actually has negative value, as it makes it more diffiicult to find the worthwhile material being published. Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 5:48
  • I won't claim you're "irrational" just because you don't agree, and you should at least recognize that there are rational arguments on both sides of this question. Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 5:52

I'm not sure I understand the "examination" that you need to pass, so this is a bit more general advice.

Since your concerns seem to be local ones, getting through the exam and writing an acceptable dissertation, your advisor is probably the best source of information about how to do that efficiently and effectively.

My advice, therefore, is to follow that advice and work toward the main goal. I think the advisor has a duty, however, to prime the pump a bit with ideas that will lead to success.

It is possible that those "ideas" might be more significant than you currently judge. A discussion with your advisor might clarify that or lead to other things that would be better to pursue.

The "ideas" you have don't need to be abandoned, however. Do a minimal write up and file them away. When at some point you have the time, either after finishing the degree or when you are stuck on main-line problems, bring them out for review and possible advancement. Yes, you might get scooped on some of them, but you've already judged them as less significant. But a file drawer of ideas to be explored in future is a good thing to have.

Keep the main goal foremost in mind.

  • Thanks for the advice. Yes, some of them I am filing away (the less developed ones). As an example (since I'm in the field of engineering), I have extended some existing mathematical models, but they've turned out to not be very useful for analyzing the application I've been looking into. So as theoretical models, they are interesting and maybe applicable for other applications I haven't thought of, but wouldn't easily be published in q1 engineering journals. You're right my supervisor should be helping to mature the ideas, but its not exactly his area of expertise unfortunately (long story!)
    – CWT
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 14:55

In my field, some Q1 journals are very prominent, and some big names are in Q2. I struggle to imagine the scenario where publishing in Q2 would actively harm a PhD assessment, and suspect your supervisor's motives are a little more nefarious than that: their evaluation may be disproportionately skewed towards Q1 publications. I know it is certainly the case here, where a Q1 publication is "worth" basically twice the points, so an incentive to push it a just a little and squeeze a "Q2-worthy" publication into Q1 is significant.

I find this numbers game outright perverse, but alas, it seems to be the norm rather than exception in modern academia. I think in your situation it is perfectly sensible to do as good of a work as you can, possibly send it to high-ranking journals - why not? - and if your supervisor wants a Q1 publication out of it, they should contribute accordingly. You have planned and performed the research, but then an incessant stream of nagging you for improvements starts? Sorry, but this was mismanaged, please contribute earlier. Sure, take in some of the suggestions, the research should be flexible, after all, but planning should still be functional to an extent.

  • Thanks for your response. I was also absolutely confused how it may "harm" me as my supervisor suggested, and that's why I asked the question. I can't think of how a thesis examiner would look at a Q2 publication and think "no, this is bad work because it didn't get into Q1", and instead see no publications, just some progress/submission towards Q1 (which may or may not be accepted), and think it is better (!!!). It was a totally unexpected response from him and left me speechless, so I thought of asking anyone had such an experience from a thesis reviewer/examiner, or has similar opinion.
    – CWT
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 0:48
  • Also, to your question about "why not send to Q1?" - I have no objection to do that except that I think the chances are small (they are even for a good paper) and the review time is long. I just wanted something under my belt and I think it will give me some peace of mind+confidence that I have completed some original pieces of research (which are novel and interesting, maybe just not highly applicable). After that, I think I will be able to approach thinking of an idea for Q1 more calmly and confidently.
    – CWT
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 0:53
  • Journal rankings are not carved in stone. They are a bit self-reinforcing (people read prestigious journals, they get more citations, become ranked comparatively higher and are able to be more selective with submissions...). If anything, submitting to one is a good experience, but, indeed, novelty and implications may be the deciding factor. There is no shame in publishing even in fairly low-ranking journals, especially for students. It makes no sense to actually aim for that: good research should be brought to better venues. "Q1 or bust" is overdoing it a bit though.
    – Lodinn
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 1:39

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