Reading The Right Journals The Right Way

I once asked an author who had received a ‘best paper’ award from a journal why he thought he had won. He said:

because it suited the objectives of the journal. In another context, it may have been poorly received, or even ignored. In academia, you always have to be very (very) aware of who is going to read your paper.

In this blog, I want to review how to read journals in order to find out whether or not you should write for them. It’s a little like blind dating: finding the right person’s age, availability and picture won’t guarantee a perfect match. You’ll have to have a drink and dinner to get a feel for that. Finding the right journal also takes time. Particularly as people today are so accustomed to reading single papers, reading a whole journal issue may seem a waste of time, but it is the only way to acquire an ear for the style and approach. You may be tempted to look at just one issue, but I recommend three as a minimum. But, which three should you choose?

Reading the right issues

The first and last issues in any one volume (year) are those which will probably contain the most clues since it is in these issues that strategi­cally-minded editors discuss their objectives. In the first issue editors, who will usually have several months’ or even a year’s copy held in advance, will often describe what themes are to come. As they anticipate the new year, they will also often comment on the kinds of papers they hope to receive, or the improvements they will be making to the journal. In the last issue, editors will often summarize the year’s contributions and comment on what they consider to be the high and low points.

Notes to Authors

All journals publish Notes for prospective authors. Most carry them in each issue but if they do not there will be a reference to them and to the issue in which they appear. They are also available on their web sites. The Notes vary in detail from general to specific. At the very least, and of most importance to the author, they should include the editorial objectives. The examples below illustrate how clearly some top-class journals state their objectives:

Read the editorials. What does the editor say about the current issue of the journal? Note comments like ‘Brown’s paper on the use of slang in Puerto Rico is a good example of the literature tested in practice’. That’s a fairly clear statement of what the editor likes to see in a paper. Other editorials might centre on topical issues that capture the editor’s attention; conversely, some may indicate topics or treatments of topics that the editor finds overworked. A month after an editor has sworn never to publish yet another treatise on ‘the crisis of masculinity’ is not the time to send him your brilliant summary of it. Again, editorial preference is likely to be more clearly stated in the first and last issues of a volume.

Read the papers

Get a feel for how the paper is structured. Listen to the tone. Examine the vocabulary. Can you hear yourself, see yourself in those papers?

Being published in the right places does more than add a few lines to your cv and your ‘refability’. It brings you into conversation with a specific group of people. Only you can answer this – are they your people?

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