Novice researcher encounters journal ranking: how does it work?

Flickr Photo: JoelMontes – CC BY-SA

Last week I took part in a seminar with colleagues in the School of Social Sciences where we discussed the PhD experience; getting published; post-doc employment and what we should be doing while we’re also doing our PhDs to support our applications for when we finish. (I posted about that in our Google+ online community so sorry if you’ve already heard about this). The discussion on getting published was interesting. The expectations on achieving this seem to vary a bit between the two schools but there does seem to be a common acceptance that it’s a really good thing to do, in fact it’s looking more and more like it’s an essential thing to do. That’s fine but to the novice researcher some important questions about it can induce a rush of panic, notably what to publish and where to publish.

Dealing with “what” first – that’s the easy bit. I’ve revisited my M.Ed data with my previous supervisor and we have one co-authored paper in press, another one submitted and a third one in the pipeline. This is obviously one approach. There’s lots of ways to go about identifying what to publish. You might have a methodological innovation that could form the basis of a paper, or perhaps some aspect of your literature review that might be able to stand alone as a paper with some re-working. And this is before you get to your data. Again, picking out just one aspect or feature of your data might allow you to open up a new set of questions which you can work into a paper. This is what we did with my data from a very small study – there was more mileage in it that you’d first imagine.

So how do you decide where you’re going to try to get it published? That’s perhaps a more difficult question and we spent a bit of time discussing this last week but not enough. Because journals are ranked by their “impact factor” there is an order of preference for where you might want to get published. Schools and departments are looking for publications in the four star high-ranking international journals with good “impact ratings” and citation indices. This gives good Research Excellence ratings. You clearly don’t want to get published in open access journals. Or ones that invite you to submit your work to a dubious sounding spammy email address. That seems obvious, but how do we know which are the high ranking ones? How exactly is the ranking calculated? How are any biases in the process accounted for? Would it be more realistic for PhD students to aim for “mid-range” journals rather than the high ranking ones to get their publication rates off the starting blocks? If so, how do we know which journals are “mid-range” and would they be happy about being identified as such? All of this has to be navigated before we even start dealing with feedback, rejection and if you’re lucky, extensive pinging back and forth whilst amendments are made.

At the session last week one of the speakers mentioned an online way of checking journal rankings. I didn’t have much luck trying to search under the terms he gave but I have come across a few interesting links while searching in various combinations of the terms “Education research journal rankings/ratings.” One of the sites this search offered was Science watch – it seems to be an index of educational research journals, but there also seems to be a science orientation here. That’s fine but not exactly what I was looking for and I still don’t really know how the impact factor is calculated or what it means. I felt I might be getting a bit closer with the Australian Teacher Education Association but it ranks the Asian-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education second – is this because it really is excellent or is it because the list concerns itself mostly with southern hemisphere publications? I feel I could do with a bit of help and guidance here so if there are any publications-savvy experienced colleagues reading this please comment. Meanwhile I’m just trying to make progress with my study and feeling lucky about getting papers published in journals that I’ve read, that accept my work and there are authors names I recognise. For an early-stage researcher I don’t think that’s too bad, four star or no star, but I still can’t find out how this particular journal is rated if indeed it is at all.

post script: a few helpful colleagues have shared some  useful links on this with me.

Here is a list of predatory open access publishers and journals to avoid

This business school journals index give rankings for lots of journals in management, economics, business and social sciences


About catrionao

I'm a PhD student at Stirling University, studying a school based practice of teacher professional learning. I also do online facilitation for various organisations such as SELMAS and the Strategic Leadership Development Programme.
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