Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is in: The Career-Math of Publishing

Full poppins

Look here to find previous advice columns from The Professor Is In.

I have an essay that would not land in an established, top-tier refereed journal. However, I am confident that it would find a home in a newer refereed journal that is less competitive to publish in and only on its seventh issue. Is it better to have the “easy” publication on your CV, or no publication at all?

For the purpose of broad applicability, let’s think of the new, less-competitive publication as a “second-tier” journal. It does not matter why it is second-tier — its newness might be a part of the explanation, or its impact factor, etc. — but the point is, it’s not a top journal.

Before you can determine whether it’s better to have a weak publication or no publication at all, you have to do the time-math and goals-math related to your hoped-for career, and see how those calculations intersect.

Let’s start with the time-math. Time is always of the essence but how much “of the essence” is it to you right now? Are you an ABD going on the faculty market for the first time? If that’s the case — and if you are from a top program and are targeting jobs at R1 universities or elite liberal-arts colleges — don’t dilute your top-program “brand” (pardon the neoliberal-ese) with a lower-tier publication.

The symbolic capital of your top-ranked program — meaning its promise — will carry you through your ABD year on the market, to some extent. If everything else about you looks sparkly to the search committee, you will be better off having an article listed as “under review” at a top journal than a published one at a lower-ranked journal. It signals that you know what you should be aiming for, and are on it.

Are you in your second or third year on the faculty market? Perhaps you’ve been adjuncting here and there, or have had a string of one-year VAPs. Maybe your recommenders sound a bit less supportive when you ask them for yet another round of letters. The economics of that situation are such that you may not want to gamble on waiting for a top-tier publication. After all, what if — after two protracted rounds of “revise & resubmit,” you end up with a rejection and nothing to show for all those months (except hatred for the inevitably too-slow Reviewer No. 2)?

By that point, you may no longer be competitive for the very top jobs. But as you gain more teaching experience, you are becoming increasingly more attractive to teaching-oriented institutions, many of which are research-aspirational. That means they want teacher-scholars — faculty who maintain scholarly currency, present at national conferences, and publish. However, they don’t need to see top-tier journals on your CV; reputable, peer-reviewed, mid-tier journals are perfectly fine for these colleges.

In fact, publishing in mid-tier journals may signal that you are not the sort of candidate who will try to use these teaching-oriented colleges as a stepping stone to a job at an R1 university.

The same kind of math applies once you are on the tenure track. Are you at a major research university? If so, you cannot afford to divert anything from the pipeline pointed at the best journals and best publishers in your discipline. Publishing in a lesser vehicle will — in addition to jeopardizing your tenure dossier — signal a kind of cluelessness to your colleagues. You will come across as not understanding “what it takes” to succeed at an elite institution.

But are you on the tenure track at a second-tier state university — one that maybe has a terminal master’s program in your field but is not producing Ph.D.s? Are you up for your third-year review? Then you need a publication or two, and the second-tier journal can be an excellent option.

I want to reiterate that lower-tier universities are not places that will accept a publication in just any old thing that has “Journal” in the title. Peer review is still the universal stamp of legitimacy for scholarship in academia. So don’t take this advice as permission to submit a chapter to a vanity press, or send in an article to one of those for-profit journals that spam everyone with calls for submissions.

The point I want to emphasize: There are plenty of “second-tier journals” (ones that have a low impact factor and/or an editorial board with no “stars”) that produce excellent scholarship by excellent scholars — people who will be your disciplinary colleagues for many years to come. These journals are published by editors who take the advancement of their discipline very seriously. They send off articles for review to the same scholars who do reviews for the top journals.

So there is absolutely no shame in disseminating your scholarship through those mid-tier channels. The only issue to consider is the attendant career-math of doing so, and that will depend on what institutions you are targeting for employment, and the time constraints of your individual situation.

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