Advice for Planning PhD Students: 10 Questions to Guide Your Journal Targeting Process

Publishing is one of the most important, but daunting, tasks for academic planners. Your publications – especially peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters – are the metric by which your research productivity will likely be measured. As I have written previously, I believe that you need 1-2 peer-reviewed journal articles on your CV by the time you are on the job market to be competitive. Faculty on the tenure-track are generally expected to publish between 1-3 peer-reviewed articles per year, depending on their institution. In short, you will be submitting a LOT of journal articles in your career. With a seemingly endless choice of journals to submit to, or “targets,” how can you act strategically?

Journal Impact Factor Trend for  Habitat International . Source: InCites 2018

Journal Impact Factor Trend for Habitat International. Source: InCites 2018

This blog post gives my advice on the process of targeting a journal. I wrote this post with PhD students in-mind, especially those who have only a basic understanding of the academic publishing process. Some junior faculty might also find the information useful. As always, this advice is based on my own experiences as an American planning academic. I have published a decent number of peer-reviewed articles and have served as a reviewer for numerous planning or planning-adjacent journals. You should be sure to check-in with your adviser, however, for advice on the journal selection process for your specific subfield and manuscript.

What is an academic journal?

Let's start with the basics. What is an academic journal? A journal is a venue for sharing, critiquing and discussing academic research. Journals are published regularly and come in many different varieties, from general-interest publications to those focused on particular issues or geographic regions. One characteristic that ties academic journals together is that their articles are peer-reviewed. If you are not sure what peer-review means and how it operates, Elsevier has a nice description.

In Planning, journals can be roughly broken up into two categories:

  1. General interest journals are those that publish research that is generally of interest for planning researchers For example, a journal like the Journal of Planning Education and Research might publish articles in transportation, land-use, or housing, or articles that cross multiple subfields. As the name implies, articles published in general interest journals are likely to be written for a general audience; that is, the author(s) will write pieces that are understandable to readers who are literate in planning research but not expert in that particular area.

  2. Subfield journals are those that are dedicated to narrower areas within planning scholarship, like housing, transportation, environment, land-use, economic development, GIS and planning theory. Articles published in these journals will typically be written for an audience with deeper knowledge and familiarity with the history, theory and literature of that subfield.

Planning is a small but diverse discipline, and planning researchers often have multiple and intersecting interests. Academic planners therefore tend to draw on literature from (and contribute articles to) journals from outside our discipline. Therefore the list of specific general-interest or subfield journals that might be a good fit for your manuscript could be quite long. I discuss some additional ways of narrowing down your choices below.

What Are the Benefits of Journal Targeting?

Archival footage of me rushing the journal targeting process

Archival footage of me rushing the journal targeting process

Choosing a journal that is a good fit for your paper is an essential skill to learn early in your career. Journal targeting should be included as a necessary part of your research process. There are many benefits: it improves your chances of receiving productive feedback from editors and reviewers; improves the chances of your paper being accepted; makes sure you are communicating with the right audience; increases the likelihood of getting cited; and helps you to prepare well for tenure and promotion processes. Conversely, choosing a journal that is poorly suited to your manuscript could result in: higher chances of editorial or peer rejection; less visibility (and therefore citation and impact); a long peer-review process as the editor searches for qualified referees; and a weak or unbalanced CV.

I’ve made many mistakes when it comes to journal targeting, to the detriment of my publication record and impact. I hope this blog post might help you avoid making some of the same mistakes!

What questions should I ask to target a journal for my manuscript?

To help guide your journal targeting process, here are ten questions you should be asking yourself:

  • What type of article am I writing? Journals tend to publish certain types of articles, which will directly affect your chances for acceptance. No matter how brilliant your manuscript is, it will be a poor fit for some journals and likely to get rejected. Journal tendencies run the gamut, from length to methods to tone. Some are clearly and explicitly stated, like the allowable length of the manuscript. Others are more subtle. Some tend to publish more qualitative work, while others publish more quantitative or geospatial (and some balance all of them). Some journals have international audiences and want pieces that broadly address their readership, while others have a country or region they specialize in. Some are perfectly happy (and expect) advocacy, while others embrace notions of researcher objectivity. Writing a literature review? The Journal of Planning Literature is all about them, and the Journal of the American Planning Association accepts them, but many journals don’t. Getting to know the personality and tendencies of journals in our field is an important step towards productivity. My best advice for learning about a journal’s tendencies is to skim through interesting articles from the past 3-4 years. Editors and editorial boards change and the direction of journals change with them, so nothing is written in stone. However, knowing the landscape of journals at any point in time is a useful way to start culling down the list of potential targets.

  • What is the journal’s reputation? In a small field like planning, journal reputation may be the single best guideline for understanding which journals are safe targets. Reputation comes from any number of places. What journals do your faculty advisors recommend? Which journals consistently appear on your course syllabi? Which show up to ACSP and meet with researchers? Reputations for journals will vary by subfield, of course. In my own subfield of natural hazards planning, a journal like Natural Hazards Review is held in decent regard, even though it is largely invisible to the broader field. Another source for information about journal reputation is Goldstein and Maier’s (2010) article “The Use and Valuation of Journals in Planning Scholarship: Peer Assessment Versus Impact Factor.” Long story short, the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA) and the Journal of Planning Education and Research stand head-and-shoulders above all others in terms of faculty reputation, with many other journals also considered highly reputable. While the piece is getting a bit dated (research opportunity!), it is still a very useful reference for making the argument about the relative importance of various journal targets. One note - Goldstein and Maier describe general-interest journals as diverse and subfield journals as specialized.

  • Where is the scholarly conversation happening? Look at your manuscript’s bibliography. Where are the papers that you are citing published? Where is the conversation you are hoping to contribute to happening? This is especially important as you develop your reputation in your subfield - in general, you want to build yourself up as a researcher who speaks both to a general academic audience but also to experts in your domain of planning. Nuanced and critical conversations about important research topics often happen at the subfield level, while major summative studies find their way into journals intended for general planning audiences. At least, that is how it is supposed to work.

  • What is the journal’s impact factor? Impact factors are an important but controversial part of the academic productivity conversation. Impact factors (or other measurement tools like CiteScore) are generic measurements of the impact that articles published in a certain journal tend to have. That means, how many times on average does an article published in the journal tend get cited within X years of being published? In a small social-scientific field like planning, our journals’ impact factors are relatively low. JAPA, for instance, had an impact factor of 2.014 in 2017, compared to 5.063 for American Sociological Review, Sociology’s equivalent venue. And, studies have consistently shown that certain types of results (read: quantitative) and certain types of faculty (read: male) tend to get cited more often than others. So, other questions are probably more important for helping you to target journals. Nevertheless, impact factors are part of the conversation, and it is important to understand what they are and how they get used by various evaluators of your record. To read more about citations and impact factors within planning, see Stevens et al.’s (2019) article “Why Do Some Articles in Planning Journals Get Cited More Than Others?”

  • What is the journal’s rank? Related to impact factors, journal rankings are a common but controversial tool for researchers. Journal rankings are available through the InCites Journal Citation Reports tool, which you can find through Web of Science. The good news is that you can view journal rankings for an entire category (like Regional & Urban Planning or Urban Studies), for a specific journal, or compare journals. The bad news is that the process is automated and that the results don’t necessarily make much sense. For example, here you can see the top 9 journals in the category of Regional & Urban Planning. Notice that JAPA and JPER, the two frontrunners in faculty reputation surveys, don’t even appear. Personally, I find the InCites tool to be most useful for broadening my perspective on what journals are out there (and indexed) in any particular subfield. I also find it useful to search specific journals and see how they compare to others in the field.

Source: InCites Journal Citation Report for Regional & Urban Planning for 2018

Source: InCites Journal Citation Report for Regional & Urban Planning for 2018

After waiting 18 months (!) for a certain planning journal to ultimately reject my revised manuscript. Tsk.

After waiting 18 months (!) for a certain planning journal to ultimately reject my revised manuscript. Tsk.

  • How does my paper fit in the journal’s mission and scope? Review the journal’s aims and scope. How well does your manuscript fit into the scope of the journal as described by its editorial team? This information is available from the home page of every journal. For example, here is the Journal of the American Planning Association and the Journal of Planning Theory.

  • Who is on the editorial board? Again, this information is available from the home page of most journals. Are there scholars on the editorial board who you recognize or whose work you admire?

  • Where does the publication “fit” in my larger CV? For academics, any one paper is just a piece of a larger research profile. The same can be said for the venues in which you have published. Depending on where you sit in your career, you may want to strategically choose venues that are most valuable to building out your research profile. For example, if you are a new researcher and your CV is still slim, choosing any good medium-to-high tier general interest or subfield journal is probably fine (the main goal is to start building your research profile and show search committees that you can publish in high quality outlets). Put another way, you probably want to submit your article to the best possible journal that is also the best possible fit, regardless of its category. If you already have a couple of publications in good subfield journals, you might want to focus on a top general interest journal in planning or a related field, or vice-versa. If you are junior faculty, critically examine the gaps in your CV. What journals will external reviewers expect you to have published in that you haven’t? Could you target this manuscript to one of those journals to help fill that gap? I remember one highly successful researcher telling me that his tenure strategy was to list the top 10 journals in the field and make sure to publish in every single one before tenure review. Tough strategy to pull off, but it speaks to the idea of targeting journals to round out your CV.

  • How long is the review time? All else being equal, you may want to inquire about average review times for the journals you are considering. Review times includes the length of time between manuscript submission and the editorial decision to send the piece out for review or “desk reject” it, meaning that the editor sends it back to you without getting external input. Assuming the editor sends the piece out for peer review, review time also includes the time it takes external reviewers to return their decisions back to the editor. Review times can vary greatly between journals, and even within journals. Getting your article reviewed and published (or reviewed and rejected) within a reasonable amount of time is a very important and valid concern. I’ve had articles that took more than a year to ultimately publish or reject! Such a long wait is a major barrier to building your research reputation and showing your research productivity. There are different ways of assessing journal review times. Some journals publish this information in their annual report. Some include information on every article on the dates the manuscript was received/reviewed/accepted/published. You might also reach out to friends and colleagues who have recently published in that journal to ask about review times. As a last resort you might reach out to the editor and ask, but probably better to inquire through other means first. Note: if you are unfamiliar with the many steps a paper takes as it makes its way through a peer-review and publication process. Ann Forsyth (Harvard University and editor of JAPA) published a nice step-by-step description of that journal’s process.

  • Is the journal open access? Open access has become a major issue in academic publishing. Long story short, academics perform the labor necessary to research, write and review journal manuscripts, which are then copyrighted and sold back to academics by private companies at an obscene profit. Unfortunately there aren’t many open-access journals in planning, and most of the top-ranked and cited journals are behind paywalls. For most students and junior faculty, we still need to target for-profit journals because of their reputation and importance in our field. Nevertheless, as the open access movement gains steam, this may be an important question to help guide your targeting process.

When should I select my journal target?

There is no definitive answer to this question. Ideally you should do some thinking near the beginning stages of writing about what journal might be the best fit. That way, you will know from the beginning how long the piece should be, what level of technical detail to include, and the most effective way to frame your arguments. Writing and publishing is not an ideal process, however, and sometimes you might have a well-developed or even completed manuscript that needs a journal “target.” In those cases, ask yourself what journal the piece is best suited for, and (importantly) what minor revisions you can make to ensure that it is an even better fit.

Lastly, there is always a question about rejected manuscripts. The old-school advice was to choose 3 journal targets and, upon receiving a rejection, immediately send the manuscript to #2 or #3. I do think there is a lot of wisdom in this advice, especially the notion of dusting yourself off after failure and getting right back into the review process. However, I think it is more wise to revise your manuscript for each individual journal you are submitting to, to make sure it has the best chance of getting accepted.

Last Thoughts

Journal targeting is an important process. You can learn a lot about planning and your subfield by learning more about its journals, and a careful targeting process can help you to make sure that each publication (precious as they are) is maximally useful to your research career.

Two final and cautionary notes. First, be wary of journals that are not indexed, meaning that they are not tracked and assigned impact factors by the major indexing services. Non-indexed journals are sometimes new, sometimes very small or niche, and sometimes very low quality. As a junior scholar, it is probably best if you stick with indexed journals.

Second, you should be wary of seemingly out-of-the-blue emails you get offering to publish a manuscript that you presented at ACSP or another conference. These are almost always scams by predatory publishers. Invitations to contribute to special issues do sometimes happen, but almost always through a more personal email or connection, and through a reputable journal. If you have never heard of a journal or it seems sketchy, be sure to do your homework before submitting your valuable intellectual work to them.