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Year : 2019  |  Volume : 13  |  Issue : 5  |  Page : 35-41

How to choose a journal and write a cover letter

DN Journal Publishing Services, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 8UA, UK

Correspondence Address:
Duncan Nicholas
DN Journal Publishing Services, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 8UA
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/sja.SJA_691_18

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Date of Web Publication21-Feb-2019


Selecting a suitable journal for submitting a manuscript can be a complex and confusing task, and end in disappointment when a paper is rejected quickly for reasons that may not be clear to the author. There have been several articles written offering advice on journal selection, but this article is the most thorough of its kind, using recent evidence to inform the strategies presented. This article provides details on the factors involved in optimal journal selection, giving insights into how to identify suitable journals, why particular criteria are important and ideal methods to approach this task. The article also includes a spreadsheet tool for tracking information about potential titles of interest and submission details, and finally, provides notes on supporting your submission with an effective cover letter.

Keywords: Journal metrics; journal selection; open access; peer review; publishing ethics; scholarly communication

How to cite this article:
Nicholas D. How to choose a journal and write a cover letter. Saudi J Anaesth 2019;13, Suppl S1:35-41

How to cite this URL:
Nicholas D. How to choose a journal and write a cover letter. Saudi J Anaesth [serial online] 2019 [cited 2023 Apr 1];13, Suppl S1:35-41. Available from:

  Why Publish in Journals Top

Publishing in scholarly journals is just one form of output from a research project, and one of the most significant pressures on modern academics is to produce papers and find suitable journals which will accept them.[1],[2],[3] This process is not always easy, particularly for Early Career Researchers, as the number of options and determining factors is increasingly complex. This paper provides detailed information on the journal selection process, but before considering this, I will first consider why journal publication remains such an important aspect of the research cycle.

Journals are the principal means researchers use to facilitate communication between other groups of researchers, between specialist fields, and to the public.[4] In addition to this, they play a key role in institutional assessment of individual researchers and groups.[5] Journals help to set intellectual, methodological, operational, technical, best practice, and many other forms of standards within their communities;[6] and through the peer review process, research is validated through the element of scientific publishing, which distinguishes it from all other communication mediums, certifying the authenticity and veracity of the research. The Publons Global Peer Review Survey[7] of over 14,300 researchers included the question “How important do you consider peer review for ensuring the general quality and integrity of scholarly communication?” Overall, 12,394 respondents answered this question, with 98% stating this was “important” or “extremely important.”

  Does Choice of Journal Matter? Top

A report by the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers[8] estimates the number of active journals at around 33,100 English-language, plus a further 9,400 non-English-language journals (a total of 42,500), publishing over 3 million articles a year. Though the numbers diminish rapidly when considering one specific field these figures still indicate the scale of the journal selection task, as well as the competitive nature of article submission, and the question remains: does journal choice matter?

To answer this question, this article will discuss several aspects of research publishing which may help guide or influence the decision on which journals are suitable for any particular paper. Some choices may be guided by external pressures such as funder or institutional requirements; other factors relate to the topic of the research in hand, matching aims, and scope or instructions of a journal and other factors will be personal preference.

  Create a Journal Information Spreadsheet Top

The first step in identifying suitable journals for a paper is to create a means of capturing, comparing, and contrasting the information about each of the journals which might be deemed suitable. Creating a personalized information sheet about journals in your field will be a resource that can be returned to, updated, and expanded over time. An Excel spreadsheet template is included as supplementary material, with 29 fields of information covering everything that will be discussed in this paper. [Table 1] shows an excerpt from the supplementary table [Additional file 1].
Table 1: Excerpt of the first 12 column details from the supplementary journal selection information spreadsheet

Click here to view

  How to Identify a Journal Top

The following sections offer a process for identifying journals, three key methods for creating a list of potential journal names, and strategies to investigate the details of each.

  Your Reference List Top

The first place to begin identifying suitable journals to submit is through the references which inform your own work. The journals which publish the articles you have cited are likely to be relevant choices for your own work; particularly, those which inform the most fundamental aspects of your paper such as the background research through which you developed your research questions; on which your methodology is drawn; and any work which your findings either corroborate or contradict.

  Indexing Databases Top

You may wish to identify journals not referenced in your paper. Indexing databases such as Google Scholar, Web of Science, Scopus, PubMed, or any of the many field-specific databases offer search and filtering options to identify articles and journals of interest.

Use the “advanced search” functions in these websites with keywords or short phrases of significant details and limit the publication years to the current and previous year (e.g., 2017–2018). The search results will show a list of recently published works that tell you these journals are currently active and interested in those topics.

The results from these platforms may include book titles, conference proceedings publications, or other formats which you are not interested in. Filter the results list for the most appropriate matches, adding relevant journal titles to your list. You can also use these databases to retrieve a certain amount of useful information to add to your journal information spreadsheet.

Depending on your personal preference or mandates from funders or institutions, you may be required to publish your work as open access (OA). If you wish to identify only open access journals, use the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)[9] and Science Open[10] as your search databases. Science Open indexes articles available as open access through which you may identify journals, even if they are not full OA titles. DOAJ, as the name suggests, is a comprehensive database of 12,205 open access journals, and almost 3.5 million articles (at time of writing). DOAJ has thorough criteria for assessing journals for inclusion in its database, aiming to include only journals which publish and perform peer review to a high standard; therefore, it serves as a useful resource for helping identify potentially “predatory” journals (a concept which will be discussed in detail later in this article).

Additionally, the Journal/Author Name Estimator (JANE)[11] is a useful independent platform created by academics to help authors identify suitable journals based on the abstract or keywords of a paper.

  Publisher Websites Top

To identify journals within a specific publisher you may use their own platforms to search for keywords and topics. Most well-established publishers provide some searching and filtering functionality in their websites, but some, such as Elsevier's “Journal Finder”[12] and Springer's “Journal Suggester”[13] offer more sophisticated text-matching. Like the JANE journal locator, these platforms allow you to use your article title or abstract to produce a list of results with a similarity match score that helps you filter the most relevant options.

  Aims and Scope Top

Once you have a list of journal titles you will need to investigate further to determine how suitable these journals really are for your manuscript. It is very important to understand the types of research a journal publishes as failure to fit this criteria is the main reason for immediate rejection of articles; “About 20-30% of the manuscripts can very quickly be categorized as unsuitable or beyond the scope of the journal.”[14]

To achieve this you will need to visit the homepages of each journal and thoroughly read around the site as well as recent articles. This may be time-consuming, but the information you obtain through this process can be referred to when you submit future papers.

The aims and scope, “about” section or other such mission-statement related page is where the journal should make clear the specifics of the subject in which it specializes. Is it a broad scope multi-disciplinary journal such as PLoS,[15] Nature,[16] or RIO[17]? Is it a large-scale multidisciplinary journal within a single field, such as eLife,[18] The Lancet[19] or New England Journal of Medicine[20]? Or does it have a very narrow focus for a specific field, such as The Lancet Oncology,[21] Clinical Infectious Diseases,[22] or Blood[23]?

If the journal mentions a national or geographical area in the title, this could mean different things which should be explained in the aims and scope. If the journal is named as regional, does it publish work which focuses on a country or geographical area, or is it simply based in that region (e.g., European Scientific Journal[24])? It may consider work from outside the region that compares populations or other findings from the area, giving the work relevance to the journal community, such as this publication, the Saudi Journal of Anesthesia, which states that it aims to “stimulate associated scientific research and communication between hospitals and universities in Saudi Arabia, the Arab countries and the rest of the World.”[25]

International journals may not simply accept papers from anywhere in the world. It could be that they accept only those papers which are created through an international authorship, involve an international range of participants or subjects, or provide evidence that is collected or relevant on a global scale (e.g., International Journal of Psychology[26]).

Make notes of whether the geographic scope will be relevant to want you need to achieve with your own work.

If the aims are not clear, look at the titles of several issues worth of papers to give you a clearer sense of what papers the journal publishes. You should get a good idea of the topics and geography of articles, as well as what the journal has been interested in over the previous year. Does your paper fit with their publication trends? Will it help to continue this trend, or will it add something new and relevant? Or does it seem unsuitable?

The aims and scope may also state the community of the journal. Is the journal intended for primary researchers, society members, people working in applied settings, industry, or the public? Does it appear that your paper is relevant to that audience?

  Instructions for Authors Top

It is important to check this section thoroughly and to ensure your paper is formatted according to all requirements. This is one of an author's least favorite aspects of journal submission, with different journals having different instructions that create significant time reformatting should you need to submit to subsequent journals after your first. However, as inconvenient as these formatting requirements may be some journals can be very strict on enforcing them and along with the aims and scope, failure to conform to formatting instructions is A common reason for immediate rejection of papers.[27],[28]

The types of research articles a journal accepts may be in the aims and scope or instructions for authors, but usually the latter. Look for lists of article types and details of formatting requirements for each, such as original empirical research, single studies, multivariate analysis, review articles (narrative reviews summarizing recent developments in a field, or systematic/meta-analysis, which provide statistical analysis of data over a wider timeframe). Some journals are review only some do not accept review articles at all. Case reports particularly in practical journals and applied specialities such as nursing or occupational health, and other shorter form papers, such as letters to editor, discussion or response to articles, book reviews may also be detailed.

This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many types of articles and different terminology used for each type, but be sure the journal accepts the type of paper you are writing.

Word limits are another of the more important aspects and these may differ between article types. Word counts can often apply to titles, abstracts, main text, and figure captions, so be sure to make a note of what the word count includes. There may also be limits to the number of keywords, figures, tables, and references.

Is there a preferred manuscript structure? Does the journal allow or disallow headings and are there formatting conventions? Should the abstract be structured (e.g., with headings for Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion), or is a single paragraph of text allowed?

Is there a standardized referencing or formatting style given, such as Harvard, APA, or Chicago, or does the journal describe its own formatting in detail? Is there a set template for formatting manuscripts provided in the website, or can you use a LaTeX editing template though Overleaf,[29] Authorea,[30] or other service?

  Accessibility and Discoverability Top

Does the journal describe any social media presence, marketing activity, and the indexing databases in which it is listed? This aspect of journal selection will inform you of where your article may be found, the likelihood of your paper being promoted by the journal and discovered by readers. If the journal claims to be indexed in particular databases, can you verify this is the case by searching and finding them?

  Speed of Peer Review and Publication Top

Journals are becoming increasingly transparent about their peer review processes and many may even provide statistics on the average peer review times or time from first submission to publication. For example, the Elsevier “Journal Finder” tool provides such peer review and production timeframes for the journals it returns in the search results. This information can be helpful for adjusting your own expectations of how long the process should take. The website SciRev provides subject-area level data on several measures of peer review timeframes, based on research in 2017 by Huisman and Smits,[31] with which you can benchmark journal processes; for example, the average time for a first decision on a fully reviewed paper in the Medicine category is 8 weeks, and from first submission to acceptance is 12 weeks.[32]

  Publication Models Top

Is the journal closed-access subscription-based, fully open access, or a hybrid of the two? What are the fees for open access? Does it offer waivers for residents of certain countries (e.g., adopting the Research4Life program). In addition to OA fees, are there additional charges for color figures or any pages over a certain number? It is important to look for this information first in case you are met with an invoice for payments during the production stages.

The licensing and copyright options of the journal should also be made clear. If the journal is a subscription model, can you see the terms of passing copyright to the publisher before you submit? Can you obtain them to determine whether you are happy with the conditions? If the journal is open access, does it mention the Creative Commons licenses under which open access articles can be published? Does it offer a choice of options?

The publication model may affect whether the journal complies with any funding body or institutional mandates that determine where you must publish your article.

  Archiving Policies Top

Does the journal allow you to post articles to preprint servers during the peer review stage? Will it consider papers that are already available as a preprint. Will you be allowed to post a preprint on your website after acceptance?

Both the publication models and policies around preprints can have implications for the readership and sharing potential for your work both during review and postpublication, and the rights you retain as the author of your work.

  Ethics Statements and Adherence to Guidelines Top

Does the journal provide any ethics statements about its editorial processes, expectations of its editors, reviewers, and authors, and give information about other ethical or legal requirements it expects authors to adhere to or comply with on submitting articles.

Journal ethics may fall into two categories, both of which will be important for you to take note of Editorial/publishing ethics and research ethics. Research ethics are likely to be requirements you will need to state when submitting your article, such as evidence of institutional review board acceptance of methodologies or patient consent. Publication ethics refers to expectations regarding plagiarism, simultaneous submission to multiple journals, agreement from all authors to submit and several other measures.

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)[33] is the definitive body on publishing ethics. Many journals are members of this organization and will display badges or statements from COPE on their websites. This should reassure you that the journal intends to conduct itself to a high standard and give you recourse should you feel anything unethical occurs in the handling of your paper. COPE provides many resources for authors which you should familiarize yourself with if you are new to the submission process or have not visited their website before.

  Journal Metrics Top

Does the journal have a Clarivate Web of Science Impact Factor (IF) or Elsevier Scopus Journal rank score (SJR) or CiteScore, or Google Scholar H-Index? Are you required to submit to a journal with one of these metrics?

The recent Author Perspectives on Academic Publishing report by Editage,[34] based on a survey of 6,903 researchers found the highest rated factor which influenced authors' choice of journal was Impact Factor. However, the survey also reported that “one reason why authors find journal selection so difficult is that they struggle to find a journal that both has the required Impact Factor and is likely to accept their manuscript.” This finding illustrated that although Impact Factor is desired criteria for various reasons, it is not an efficient or effective means by which most authors can, or should, use to determine which journal to select. Of the 42,500 journals worldwide mentioned at the start of this paper, just 11,655 across 234 disciplines[35] have an Impact Factor. This alone illustrates how restrictive the options to authors can be when limiting the criteria to these metrics.

This paper acknowledges that the requirement to publish in Web of Science or Scopus indexed journals exists, and authors often need to select a journal based purely on metrics such as the Impact Factor or SJR, but also cautions against using this as an isolated search criteria where possible, and supports the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA),[36] which was established to “ensure that hiring, promotion, and funding decisions focus on the qualities of research that are most desirable – insight, impact, reliability and re-usability – rather than on questionable proxies” (statement from DORA Roadmap, June 27, 2018).

In addition to the Impact Factor, a journal may provide additional alternative article-level metrics on its webpages. These may be in the form of usage, pdf download, or other readership statistics, or Altmetrics[37] or Plum Analytics[38] information. These latter platforms are at the forefront of the alternative metrics movement and may give you insights into how articles from a journal are used, the communities which discuss the papers and other forms of impact, attention, and presence which are not based on citation metrics. Alternative metrics capture mentions on social media platforms, news media, blogs and websites, the use of articles in policy or other official documents, discussions on postpublication peer review sites, additions to bibliography platforms such as Mendeley, and many other sources. All this activity gives insight into the presence of the journal, what topics have been of particular interest, and the reaction with which your paper may be met.

Taken alone, the validity and integrity of using all metrics discussed in this section for assessment purposes and journal selection is questionable and inadvisable; however, these metrics do offer some function when using the database sources of these metrics as search tools in combination with other factors discussed in this paper.

  Editorial Board Top

Look at the editorial board of the journal. Do you recognize any of the names? Are any of the board members cited in your paper? If so, it is likely that your paper is within the scope of the journal. If you do not recognize any of the board and no information is provided about their field, or even institution, you could search for some of the key members online to see if they are specialists in the area of your article.

If you are unable to find any of the members online, or their details do not match what is provided on the journal site, then you should leave this journal off your list, a situation which brings us to the final part of the journal selection section of this article: predatory publishing.

  Predatory Publishing Top

No article discussing journal selection and open access would be complete without mention of “predatory publishing.” This term refers to publishers or journals that take advantage of the open access publishing model to be money-making operations with no regard for the scientific endeavour. This is a simplified definition of a more complex socioeconomic phenomenon that this paper will not analyze in great detail but is important enough to mention, as there is some evidence that these journals are damaging the reputation of open access as a legitimate publishing option,[34] which is a perception that needs countering.

The most commonly used term for these journals appears to be “predatory publishers” or “predatory journals.” They are also known as “fake journals,” “scam journals,” “trash journals,” “illegitimate journals,” among other terms. I prefer the term “shell journals,” as this accurately describes the lack of rigorous scholarly service, particularly peer review, and technical infrastructure required to ensure the integrity and permanence of scientific research. The term “deceptive journals” is also particularly appropriate, as often these journals make claims of integrity, peer review processes, indexing database status, or metrics to convince inexperienced authors that the journal is a more viable platform than it actually is. The core problem of these journals is perhaps in identifying what they lack, rather than how they act.

There is an increasing body of research and gray literature that aim to provide rubric for identifying problematic journals, most famously the controversial, and now closed, Beall's List, and more recently a scoping review by Cobey et al.,[39] yet none have been able to provide decisive, noncontradictory statements around any single measure or process for assessing such journals. Identification of these journals often requires a combination of problems to be apparent, and the ability to recognize the details which signify these problems. The methods and details discussed in this paper will help to identify suitable journals with confidence and ensure that by meeting all criteria required for your paper, journals with poor practices that do not offer what you need will be weeded out, regardless of who the publisher of that journal is.

  Writing a Cover Letter Top

Cover letters are something of a controversial topic, with some journal editors ignoring them, but others paying close attention to all they receive. The number of submissions each editor must deal with may play a role in preference for reading cover letters or not but that does not mean you should ignore this step.

A good cover letter need only includes a few key features to effectively support your submission.

First, address the editor by name, but be sure you have the right name and the correct name of journal, especially if you are submitting to a second or subsequent choice journal. Author addressing the wrong editor and journal is a situation which occurs more often than you would expect and does not make a good impression.

If there are several coeditors, you could address the person you feel is the specialist on the topics of your paper. If you do not know this information, mention all by name, or simply address your letter to “Dear Editors.”

Next, the important pitch to the editor about the value of your article: Briefly describe the main theme of your paper, the relevance it has to the journal, and the contribution your paper makes to existing knowledge.

To support the description of your paper, you could check to see whether the journal has published papers on similar topics in the previous year (which you are likely to have done when researching your list). Does your paper fit with their publication trends? Will it help to continue this trend, or will it add something new that remains relevant? Make these statements in your letter and mention specific papers. It is a nice touch to imply that you are familiar with the content of the journal and helps to reinforce your claims that your paper is relevant and should be reviewed.

You may also include suggestion of three to six reviewers for process. These suggestions may not be used, but any work you can do to make the job of the editor handling the review process easier will be appreciated. These could be names of authors cited in your references, editorial board members, or other scholars you are aware of in the field. You should not suggest any colleagues, collaborators, close acquaintances, or other individuals who would have a conflict of interest in reviewing your paper.

You may also name individuals who should not review your paper. These could be close collaborators, competitors, or others you feel would not be able to give your paper a bias-free review.

Finally, formal declarations should be provided, stating your work is original, has not been simultaneously submitted to another journal, that all named authors give permission for the paper to be submitted, that you have no conflicts of interest in the findings and conclusions presented in the paper, and name any funding bodies which supported the work. You may also name any individuals who provide feedback or presubmission comments on your paper. If you have uploaded your paper to a preprint server, you should provide the reference.

This information should be no more than half a page but will efficiently convey to the editor why your paper is suitable for the journal and how it will be of interest to its readers.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

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