We've all heard the saying, "Publish or perish." By all accounts, when it comes to getting a tenure-track job, and then keeping it (i.e. getting tenure), publishing successfully is a very big deal. But, what exactly should one's publishing strategy be as an early-career person? This is something that we have discussed on a number of occasions here at the Cocoon. However, because it is so important--and because, as I will explain, some common advice seems to me myopic--I would like to return to the issue again.
When I was in graduate school, I was advised to only publish in "top" generalist or specialist journals (i.e. these types). I've also heard through the proverbial grapevine that a lot of students are given similar advice. At first glance, the rationale for this advice is straightforward and plausible: venue matters, and publishing in poor venues can not only hurt one on the job-market, but also, in the longer run, in achieving tenure. Although as I will explain below I do not think this advice is entirely inaccurate, in my experience it is arguably very incomplete. The risks and benefits of publishing in lower-ranked journals, in my experience, appear to much more subtle. So, what I would like to do is to try to briefly catalog the risks and benefits involved. Instead of giving advice to readers on where to publish, my aim is merely to give readers food for thought to make a more informed decision about whatever publishing strategies they pursue.
Before proceeding, I want to clarify what I mean by "highly-ranked" and "lower-ranked" journals. Basically, by high-ranked journals, I mean the kinds of journals featured in top-20 lists like these. By lower-ranked journals, I mean those falling outside these lists. However, I do not mean to include "vanity journals." By lower-ranked journals, I mean well-known journals with legitimate peer-review practices.
Risks of publishing in lower-ranked journals
Risk #1 - Undermining your competitiveness on the job-market: Faculty at PhD programs that dissuade their students from publishing in lower-ranked journals presumably do it for a reason. The faculty in those programs are faculty at research universities, and they know what they would look for in a job candidate. They would be looking for a candidate with a "top-notch" publishing record, i.e. a record publishing in the best journals in the field. And, of course, the same presumably goes for other research universities. When it comes to getting a job and tenure at a research university, venue probably matters a great deal. So, at least for a good number of jobs, publishing in lower-ranked venues can plausibly put a job-candidate at a serious disadvantage relatively to candidates who publish in better places.
Risk #2 - Few, or no, people may read or engage with your work: We have discussed on this blog many times before the fact that something like 90% of published academic papers are never cited, let alone actively engaged with. Obviously, this presents a real risk for publishing in low-ranked journals as well. All things being equal, most of us would like our work read, cited, and engaged with, rather than ignored. Yet, all things being equal, it stands to reason that the likelihood that one's work will be read or engaged with is dramatically lower outside of top-ranked journals.
Risk #3 - People may judge you negatively as a philosopher: For better or worse, right or wrong, my experience in the profession is that many people do seem to judge others' philosophical abilities on the basis of publication venue. While I think such generalizations are a mistake--I think high-ranked journals are at best more likely to publish good work than lower-ranked journals; that bad work sometimes appears in low-ranked journals; and good, even great work sometimes appears in low-ranked journals--my experience supports the that negative perceptions are a real risk of publishing in low-ranked journals. I have personally heard and seen people [e.g. on blogs] speak dismissively about publications in "bad journals", as well as about particular philosophers for having published in them.
Risk #4 - You may actually publish bad work: Finally, there is the very real risk that, by publishing in low-ranked journals, one is more likely to actually publish bad--even embarassing--work. Although I have read the occasional bad paper in top-ranked journals, by and large the standards of these journals appear very high, and most of the work that appears within their pages appears to be of high quality. Conversely, although lower-ranked journals sometimes publish excellent work, their acceptance rates tend to be far higher, and by extension, lower-quality work may appear more often in their pages. Thus, while it is always possible to publish bad work in a highly-ranked journal, the probability that one will do so is plausibly much lower than in lower-ranked journals.
Potential benefits of publishing in lower-ranked journals
Potential Benefit #1 - confidence-building: Attempting to publish in highly-ranked journals can be really dispiriting, especially if one is an early-career philosopher with no publications. I remember being in this situation myself early in my career. Although I had gotten revise-and-resubmits at some highly-ranked journals in graduate school, as well as some encouraging comments in rejections from highly-ranked journals, by the time I was in my first job I still hadn't published anything--and I started to panic. I felt terrible about myself. So, I began to shoot a bit lower, and finally started to rack up some publications. Although I still wanted to publish in highly-ranked journals, I have to say that beginning to publish things in halfway decent journals was a real confidence-builder. I no longer had that empty space on my CV where peer-reviewed publications go, and I started to feel like I was getting a better idea of what reviewers look for in publishable papers. And, at least in my experience, this was no small thing. Especially very early in one's career--when one has few, if any, publications--a sense of confidence, a sense that one is "moving forward" and adding accomplishments to one's CV, can be very important to nurture.
Potential Benefit #2 - possible increase in job-market competitiveness at teaching schools: Although publications in lower-ranked journals plausibly does undermine one's competitiveness for some jobs (i.e. research jobs), my experience--both on the market myself, and following new job appointments on philjobs--has been that lower-ranked publications can plausibly improve one's competitiveness at teaching schools. In brief, even though I don't have any top-20 journal publications, the more publications (in lower-ranked journals) I racked up, the more interviews I started getting at teaching schools. I also noticed similar trends in appointment data.
Potential Benefit #3 - efficient use of scarce time on the market: Here's another big problem with trying to publish exclusively in top-ranked journals. Those of us who are on the job-market typically don't have much time to weather the vicissitudes of peer-review at top journals. We are either heading out on the market for the first time after defending the dissertation, or else heading out on the market again while in a temporary position (adjuncting, postdoc, VAP, etc.). Top-ranked journals tend to have rejection-rates upwards of 90%. They often also take anywhere from 2-6+ months to get a decision. This means that, taking the probabilities alone, if one wants to improve one's CV over the course of a single year, top-ranked journals are a bad "bet": chances are over a single year you will get to send out a given paper two or maybe three times, and chances are very low that you will get it published if you only send it to top-ranked journals (as I explained here, a good number of very influential articles appear to have bounced around at different journals before eventually being published!). In contrast, if you submit to lower-ranked journals, the chances that you will add a paper (or more) to your publication list over the course of a year on the market increases--which, as I explained above, may improve your competitiveness at teaching institutions. Thus, one might consider a "mixed strategy" of sending some papers to top-journals and others to lower-ranked journals. This, in essence, buys you some "lottery tickets" to publishing in the best venues, while at the same time increasing the probability in a given year that you will at least publish something in peer-review journals (which plausibly looks better at teaching schools than publishing nothing!).
Potential benefit #4 - a better peer-review experience: In my experience, the peer-review process can be incredibly frustrating, and indeed, soul-crushing, especially at top-journals and even more so if one is on the job-market. After all, how does the peer-review process usually go? Top-ranked journals often have 90+% rejection rates, wait-times of anywhere from 2-6+ months, and--or so I have heard from many people--all too often one waits anywhere from 4-6 months to hear back from a journal with nothing more to show for it other than a rejection without comments or a rejection with brutally harsh reviewer comments. Over a period of time--especially, if one is on the market, in desperate need of a job, racking up rejections at jobs as well--this can make doing philosophy a positively miserable experience. Although publishing in lower-ranked journals may not be prestigious, and may not help on the job-market with research jobs, my experience again has been that it may well help at teaching institutions, and that the process can be far less soul-crushing: helpful reviewer comments seem to be more common at lower-ranked journals, as well as (obviously) higher acceptance-rates.
Potential benefit #5 - a sense of intellectual freedom & enjoyment: I've heard some people say they feel like they need to do work of a certain type to publish in top-ranked journals (e.g. really narrow, focused arguments on the newest, most popular topics of inquiry), and that, for one reason or another, it's not the kind of work they really want to do (viz. system building or whatever). Whether or not these feelings are accurate, my own experience as an early-career person was that I have felt some real sense of greater intellectual freedom publishing in lower-ranked journals: a sense that I could write the kind of papers that feel "authentic" to who I want to be as a philosopher. Now, of course, depending on your perspective, this might be a bad thing (viz. the kind of work a person "really wants to do" might not be that good). Nevertheless, my experience has been that targeting both types of journals--highly-ranked and lower-ranked--can indeed foster a sense of greater intellectual freedom and enjoyment in one's work, as one can feel more comfortable "taking chances" on ideas that might be more explorative or outside of the mainstream than work typically published in the most highly-selective journals.
To repeat what I said earlier, I don't mean to provide advice here. I don't mean to advise anyone that you should publish in lower-ranked journals--for, as I said above, there are very real risks there. Nevertheless, my experience has been that there are potential benefits of publishing in lower-ranked journals, especially if one adopts a "mixed" strategy targeting both types of journals (both highly-ranked and lower-ranked ones). All I hope to have done here is provide some food for thought, so that readers can make a more informed decision about whatever publishing strategy they ultimately choose.