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I am not talking about whether I can submit a paper on subject A to a journal on subject B.

My question is:

How do I know how good my paper is? I could of course just send it to the best journal in the field, and see what they say, but I also don't want to embarrass myself and waste their time. If, however, it is very good and would be accepted by such a journal, it would be unwise to publish this in a lower ranked journal I would think.

  • 4
    Usually, you seek advice from someone who is familiar with your field and your specific area of work. Most researchers start by asking their PhD advisors. – Nate Eldredge Jun 2 '16 at 19:01
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As a couple of others have noted, generally speaking you will get a feel for this as you read the literature in your field. However, your target journal may have published criteria for publication. For example, PLoS Pathogens states:

To be considered for publication in PLOS Pathogens, any given manuscript must satisfy the following criteria:

  • Originality
  • High importance to researchers in the field
  • High importance and broad interest to the community of researchers studying pathogens and pathogen-host interactions
  • Rigorous methodology
  • Substantial evidence for its conclusions

For most journals now, the reviewer is asked to score your paper against areas like this as well as provide general comments.

For comparison PLoS ONE states simply:

  1. The study presents the results of primary scientific research.
  2. Results reported have not been published elsewhere.
  3. Experiments, statistics, and other analyses are performed to a high technical standard and are described in sufficient detail.
  4. Conclusions are presented in an appropriate fashion and are supported by the data.
  5. The article is presented in an intelligible fashion and is written in standard English.
  6. The research meets all applicable standards for the ethics of experimentation and research integrity.
  7. The article adheres to appropriate reporting guidelines and community standards for data availability.

Basically, as long as it isn't fundamentally flawed it stands a good chance with PLoS ONE.

The biggest differences between journals are typically how important your findings are, and to how many people. From personal experience the 'broad interest' criterion (where you are asked as a reviewer to comment on it) is the one I most often find myself scoring papers badly on; most people don't think about this enough.

Without wishing to sound negative: as the others have said, if you genuinely can't tell whether your own paper is 'good' then it probably isn't going to set the world on fire. Then again, nothing ventured, nothing gained; you won't generally get 'blacklisted' for submitting a low-quality manuscript to a journal, and it doesn't cost anything. So if you're being modest but are secretly quite proud of it, you might as well give it a chance with a high-impact journal first. You can always resubmit somewhere else if it gets rejected.

One final word of advice, since it sounds like you're fairly new to this: don't get upset, embarrassed or disheartened if your submission is rejected or torn to shreds by a reviewer. Rejection is common (especially if you're ambitious about the journals you submit to), harsh and apparently unfair reviewer comments even more so, and the editor will normally take the reviewers' side unless they're clearly in the wrong. (And if you stick with academia, you'll find this last bit this goes double for grant applications!)

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Two things to know:

  1. The top journals have very fast turn-around times. Instead of submitting your paper and waiting 6 months for a reply, you can submit it and find out in a few days that it has been rejected, and send it somewhere else.
  2. Rejection rates are almost completely uncorrelated with journal impact factors: https://blog.frontiersin.org/2015/12/21/4782/

These two points combined suggest that the best strategy is always to go ahead and submit your papers to high-impact journals first.

This isn't advice that I have followed in my own career, but I saw it recently work for a young colleague who led a paper on which I am a co-author. He sent it to Nature, had it rejected in a few days, sent it to Science, had it rejected in a few days, sent it to Nature Geophysics, had it bounced back after a very quick review, and sent it to Nature Communications, where it was accaepted. All in all, it was published faster than any of my last few papers, all sent to mid-ranked journals. It was published in a journal that has (relative to the lead specialist journals in our field) a very high impact factor. It has had media releases put out about it as a result, and attracted some attention. And yet I would rate the quality of the content as no better or worse than any of my other last few papers.

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There is no clear cut answer to this question; however, my suggestion would be that if you don't know how good your paper is then it is not good enough for the best journals in the field.

As an author I have always known what weaknesses my paper may have but it is not always possible to address such weaknesses in a timely manner. For the most selective journals in your field you should try to submit a bullet-proof paper. One that, at least in your own opinion, is not failing to address any possible issues.

Another point to consider is that top journals often expect more novelty than other journals and it is possible that they will not be interested in publishing work that is not significantly novel.

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