There has been some rather animated discussion lately about which journals "look good on a CV" and which don't. In principle, there's nothing wrong with asking (and answering) this question. It's a relevant issue, to be sure. People want jobs and tenure, and publishing in good journals can certainly help in achieving these ends (though, just to be clear, publishing in top journals is not necessary for either of these things).
At the same time, I firmly believe -- with some real evidence at my back -- that too many people are working with a wrong, harmful message. The message that I am referring to is this: publishing in top-20 journals is a good indicator of success, and of your chances of getting a good job. How many of us have been taught this message? How many of us accept it? If recent discussion and my own experiences are any indication, the message is a dominant one. But is the message really correct, and is it healthy?
On the Truth, and Health, of "the Message"
Let us begin with the issue of "success" in philosophy? What is it? Or, rather, what should it be? What's a rational conception of success (for the average philosopher)? Well, let's think about this for a minute. Suppose you identified "success" with publishing in a top-20 journal. Okay, the average acceptance rate of top journals is roughly 5-10%. Notice, further, that if you look at the table of contents of the average top-20 journal, it is often the same people who publish in those journals time after time after time. Notice where this leaves us: if you define success as publishing in top-20 journals, roughly 90% of us will have to consider ourselves failures. [Note: I am just "guesstimating" probabilities here]. Anyway, assuming this is correct, the above conception of success seems sheer madness. No healthy person -- and no healthy discipline -- should conceive success in terms of a 90% failure rate. I mean, I suppose you can define success that way -- and why wouldn't you, if you're among the few who publish in top journals -- but why should you, if you're among those who don't? Why consign yourself to a 90% chance of considering yourself a failure (especially when, again, one can live happily with a very different conception of success)?
I can imagine a number of responses to what I have said so far. "You should identify success that way because you need to publish in top-20 journals to get, and keep, good jobs", or perhaps, "You should identify success that way because, if you don't, you've settled for mediocrity." Or some such rubbish. But this is rubbish -- for a number of reaons. First, one needn't publish in top-20 journals to get a job. Yes, if you don't publish in top-20 journals, you are probably in line for a teaching job (at least if you're a great teacher!) -- but, if I'm being honest (see my comment here), teaching jobs can be pretty awesome: they can be not only inspiring for one as a teacher, but also as a researcher (again, see my comment here). Oh yeah, and they're much easier to get tenure at! But now what about the worry on settling for mediocrity?
The long game, or why it's okay to publish in "bad" journals
We live in a world where people focus a great deal on the "now." It has probably always been like this. Humans are rather short-sighted things. We prefer to see what's right in front of our noses, rather than what could be 20 years down the road. We focus on the "short game", not the long one. Yet there are so many counterexamples in history. Kant was a minor metaphysician until his 50's. Einstein was a patent-clerk who was such an undistinguished student, and who pissed off his thesis advisor so much, that he went without an academic job for several years -- with only a couple of completely insignificant publications -- before changing the world. There are many others.
The simple fact is: success can take time. This is not to say that you or I are the next Kant or Einstein (uh, no, sorry, probably not!). But look, the point still stands. If life has taught me anything, it is that different people move at very different paces. I, for example, have been a late-bloomer. I spoke late as a child. I grew late. I got my PhD late. Everything has always taken me time. And so it is. It is good to be at peace with who you are. Anyway, the point is: if you are not ready to publish in a top-20 journal now (and you want to), there are steps you can take...steps which -- if the CVs of many well-known people I have checked out are any indication -- can pay off. Indeed, if the CVs of well-known people are any indication (I won't call them out by name, but trust me, I've done my research), publishing in lower journals is really not a bad place to start. Indeed, I can't emphasize this enough: I have seen many CVs of eminent philosophers who "started small." Of course, many "big names" started big -- publishing in top places right off the bat -- but many did not. Publishing in "bad" journals probably won't harm you (see here), but it can do a bunch of good things for you. Among other things, it can:
- Teach you general lessons what it takes to publish (yes, at a "lower" level than top-20 journals, but the lessons can be helpful nonetheless).
- Enable you to begin constructing a diverse array of interests and long-term research programmes; and finally, and probably most importantly,
- Build your confidence.
I can't emphasize this last point enough. In my own experience (both in philosophy and elsewhere), the value of confidence is immeasurable. I lost my confidence for a long time in graduate school, and you know what happens when you lose your confidence? Answer: the same thing that happens when you lose your confidence in just about any endeavor -- you suck. Yes, that's right, when you lose your confidence your work goes to crap. You know why? Because when you lose your confidence, you worry more than you think, and philosophy becomes more of a chore -- a fear of failure -- than a love. My experience, anyway, has been this: publishing in some lower-ranked journals can build your confidence. As your confidence grows, your love for philosophy gows. As your love for philosophy and confidence both grow, your enthusiasm grows -- and when your enthusiasm grows the amount of energy you have to devote to rigor, and risks you are apt to take in thought, both rise. And you become...a better philosopher.
This is ultimately what I think is so wrong with "the Message." The Message gets us to think about what we are not ("I'm a failure!", "I'll never get a job") instead of about the one truly relevant thing: "What does it take for me, today, to become a better philosopher?" So much time, thought, and discussion is spent about which journals are "good" and which are "crap" (not my words). Yet the real thing that each of us should be trying to do every day is to become better philosophers. And there are many ways to do it. One way to do it is to publish in lower-ranked journals, gain confidence, hone your skills, and move forward. That has been my way, and I am proud of it. I don't care whether anyone thinks my work is "crap", or whether my publishing in journal X is likely to score me a job. What I care about is whether I am a better philosopher today than I was yesterday. What else could be more relevant? What else could be more healthy? What else can one reasonably ask of oneself? I leave the answers to these questions in your own case to you...