Note: For clarity and to avoid awkward constructions such as 's/he', I will arbitrarily refer to the hypothetical author looking for a journal as 'you', the editor as 'she', and the referee as 'he'.
1. Quality: Some journals are much better than others. Aim high. If you don't think your work is worth publishing in a first-rate journal, either it's not ready for submission, in which case you should work on it until it is, or you suffer from low self-esteem, in which case you should seek professional help, or it really isn't any good, in which case you should find a new topic or, failing that, a new career.
Quality has little relation to presentation. I won't name any of the elegantly-printed third- and fourth-rate journals, but two very good ones that are rather ugly are B.I.C.S. and Liverpool Classical Monthly. (L.C.M. seems to have ceased publication since the editor died, but that's another story.) Z.P.E. has an interesting mismatch of outside and inside: the covers (clothbound in canary yellow) are strikingly handsome, while the contents, which are provided by the contributors, are of variable quality, though not half so ugly as they were a few years ago when everyone had dot-matrix printers. If your fate is controlled by non-Classicists, for instance if you are coming up for tenure in a Foreign Languages Department where 90% of the faculty teach modern languages, it might be wise to aim for the handsome mediocre journals rather than the ugly good ones. There's nothing like a folder full of beautifully-printed offprints to impress outsiders who have no intention of reading them, and in many cases couldn't read them if they tried.
2. Subject and Other Restrictions: In modern languages, many journals are devoted to a particular century or author or school (e.g. Nineteenth Century French Studies, Shakespeare Quarterly). Most Classics journals aim to cover the whole field, however spottily. There are exceptions: the Journal of Roman Studies obvously covers only the Latin side, while the Journal of Hellenic Studies and Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies (G.R.B.S.) cover only the Greek and (in the latter case) Byzantine. (If the name G.R.B.S. is rather misleading, well, 'Classical Quarterly' only comes out twice a year. No doubt the name 'G.B.S.' had already been taken by the George Bernard Shaw scholars over in the English department.)
Those journals that have an even narrower range, e.g. Vergilius and the Petronian Society Newsletter, have their advantages: P.S.N. may have only 400 subscribers, but you can be sure that every single one of them is interested in Petronius or at least in the ancient novel in general, and the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for Vergilius. Besides, only a very few journals have circulations over 1000, and 400 is far from the smallest.
Some journals have a minimum or maximum length. For instance, J.R.S. doesn't seem to publish anything under about 10 pages, though they have lately announced that they are open to shorter pieces, while J.H.S., C.Q., Hermes, and Mnemosyne, among others, often print notes of less than half a page.
3. Schools and Tendencies: This could be a whole book, but I will be brief. Some journals are more open to some kinds of scholarship than others. The most brilliant emendation ever made on Nonius Marcellus is unlikely to interest Ramus or Helios or Arethusa, while the most brilliant Lacanian interpretation of the masculine gaze in Roman elegy is unlikely to interest Museum Criticum. In general, North American journals seem to be more literary and critical-theoretical, European journals more traditional, though there are exceptions on both sides of the Atlantic, and most journals on all continents cover a fairly wide ideological range.
It's easy enough to tell whether a journal is worth trying. Does it publish articles like the one you have written? If not, does it at least publish articles that you find worth reading? If there is no journal in the world that falls into either category, you are either a genius or a fool, and the latter is far more likely.
4. Fringe Benefits: Little things can affect one's feelings about a journal. For instance, if your work appears in Mnemosyne, which is published by E. J. Brill, you get a 30% discount on all Brill publications. Phoenix has a website on which it posts abstracts of every paper, along with the author's current address for feedback. Museum Criticum (an annual) provides 70 handsome offprints of each paper instead of the usual 25, plus a free copy of the journal. Get something accepted every year, and it's like a free subscription to a good and rather expensive journal which is not widely distributed, at least in North America.
As for little things that affect one's feelings in a negative way, there's nothing like incompetent proofreading (for accepted papers) and inept referees' reports (for the rejects) to sour one on a journal. The former needs no explanation: more on the latter below (§ 11).
5. Time to Decision and Time to Publication: These are two of the most important factors, particularly so for the untenured. Journals can take anywhere from weeks to years to make up their minds, and time to publication is even longer and can vary almost as widely. I have had papers appear less than 6 months after I mailed the manuscript, including rewrites to take care of referees' objections. Anything under two years for the whole process is not bad, and anything under one year excellent. At the other extreme, waits of five, six, and even seven years are not unheard of, and one distinguished journal that shall remain nameless apparently has a consistent backlog of five years or more. Who needs that?
As for decision time, I once received an acceptance from Mnemosyne 12 days after I mailed them the paper - including a round-trip between Tuscaloosa and the Netherlands, which must have involved several changes of plane in each direction. In fact, of the ten papers I have submitted to Mnemosyne over the years, the longest I have ever had to wait for a decision was five weeks, and that was something I mailed at the end of July. If, like most Europeans, the editors spend the entire month of August at the beach, it seems that they still made the decision within a week of seeing the paper. Obviously, the quick decision-time is one of the reasons I send them things so often. Other journals that I know from personal experience consistently make up their minds very quickly (under six weeks) are Illinois Classical Studies, Museum Criticum, Papers of the Leeds Latin Seminar (P.L.L.S. ), and the Petronian Society Newsletter. I'm sure there are others.
6. Refereeing and Editing Standards: Here there are two very different standards. Most continental journals provide little or no editing except for format and no referees' reports, and state no reason for rejecting your paper if they reject it. It's thumbs up or thumbs down, and a paper that is accepted appears pretty much as submitted. Most English and North American journals provide a thorough work-over, with the editor and one or (more usually) two referees providing detailed suggestions for improvement. Which is better depends on the author's taste, and the nature of the paper. If you can't stand the thought of anyone messing around with your elegant prose, send it to the continent. If you're sure that you're right on the main issue, but don't know quite as much as you'd like about some tangential details, an English or North American journal might be safer. Of course, if you're unsure about a lot of the details, or (worse) about what you are trying to say, your paper isn't finished yet, and you should be ashamed to waste the editor's and referees' valuable time.
In practice, the two standards are not as different as they seem. Continental editors sometimes ask for changes, and refereeing is not always entirely anonymous. A professor of my acquaintance once told me that he (or perhaps she) can guess the author of papers he referees "about half the time". This is not surpising. If you spend twenty years or more working the same corner of the Classical garden, you will inevitably come to know many of the others who are working the same ground, and will become familiar with their theoretical approaches and stylistic tics. This means that methods such as double-blind refereeing are not fool-proof (or knave-proof), and depend on the fairmindedness and good judgment of editors and referees. (Why editors? Because they can send papers whose authors they dislike to referees who can be counted on to reject them on ideological grounds. There is no need to break confidentiality. Similarly, they can send their friends' papers to referees who have allied approaches or are just generally easy to please. How many editors actually do this sort of thing, I do not know, but it must be a constant temptation.)
7. Language and Nationality: Nearly all journals accept articles in English, and most that aspire to an international reputation will also accept articles in German and French, often Italian as well, and sometimes Latin or Spanish. (This is truer of Europe than North America, where American journals seldom publish anything except English, and Canadian journals anything except English and French.) With three relatively minor exceptions, it doesn't really matter what country a journal is located in, or what language the inhabitants of the country speak:
a. If the tenure and promotion rules at your university mention an "international reputation" as a desideratum, it obviously helps to submit papers to journals in foreign countries, and maybe even aim to cover a lot of different countries on more than one continent. (Most classical journals are located in Europe and North America, but there a few exceptions.) It's easier and cheaper than visiting these places, though not as quick and not as much fun. If you send good articles to foreign journals, the editors are likely to be glad to see you when you do visit.
b. On the other hand, it may be useful to submit papers to journals in countries where you are looking for a position, which will most often be your own country. People do tend to read their own countries' journals more than others, partly because many journals come with membership in a national or regional classical association. In addition, editors are more likely to remember your name than readers, since they have to look over submissions very carefully to decide on them. They will be favorably disposed to you if you send them papers they are glad to get. Of course, if you make yourself unwelcome by failing to return corrected proofs promptly, or trying to put in massive changes after the paper is already in proof, they will not be so favorably disposed. In fact, if you make a complete ass of yourself, you may well damage your chances of academic preferment.
c. If you are submitting a paper in a language you are not totally comfortable with, you should send it to a journal whose editors are native speakers. No one should write in an unfamiliar language without good reason, but sometimes there are good reasons. For instance, if your native language is Norwegian or Slovenian and you have something to say that will interest the scholarly world in general, you had better write the paper in English, French, German, or Italian. Though German journals sometimes publish articles in French and vice versa, it would obviously be safer to send a paper in French to France or Belgium and one in German to Germany or Austria, where the editors are more likely to catch obscurities and infelicities. You will want to consult expert advice before submitting to make sure these are as few as possible, but it never hurts to have one more check.
8. Should You Argue with a Rejection? Only if the editor invites you to. She will sometimes say things like "sorry, we're not interested, unless you have a good come-back on objection # 3". Your come-back had better be good, as you don't want to annoy her unnecessarily. There are dozens of other places to send a rejected paper. No single journal in Classics is universally agreed to be 'number 1', so a single rejection, no matter how unfair, cannot damage your career - except of course that recycling a paper wastes precious time when a tenure clock is ticking: one more reason to admire those journals that make up their minds quickly (§5.)
9. What Should You Do with a Rejected Paper? It all depends. You have several choices:
a. If your idea has been decisively refuted, or proven to have been anticipated in full by a previous scholar, you probably want to discard it - maybe even burn it - and try to think of something else to write about. If you don't have any more ideas, I can't help you.
b. If the idea is true, but not quite new enough, or true enough, or important enough, for the journal that rejected it, and if you agree (however reluctantly) with that assessment, you can move 'downmarket', and send it to a less exclusive journal. And then, of course, to a lesser and a lesser and a lesser . . . . A depressing thought, but a friend of a friend once had a paper (in one of the Social Sciences, not Classics) accepted on the fourteenth try. Of course, moving downmarket only works if you aim fairly high to start with, or have no sense of shame.
c. It sometimes happens that you will find the referees' objections so lame or off-target that they convince you that your paper is even better than you thought. In that case, you can try to move 'upmarket', and send it to a more exclusive journal. This has worked for me, though less often than going in the opposite direction.
d. When in doubt, put it aside for later consideration. Again, you should have other ideas to try out. And it never hurts to show the paper and any referees' reports to a trustworthy friend or colleague.
10. How Do You Decide What to Do with a Rejected Paper? If the editor gives reasons, her own or her referees', you have a lot to go on (§ 6). Otherwise you have to guess. Unfair rejection letters and referees' reports can be painful and depressing reading - fair ones even more so - but you should avoid the urge to stuff them in a file drawer and forget them. Pour yourself a stiff drink and read them with care. Careful annotations can be useful in preparing a rewrite: you want to make sure to cover all the objections. Even the wrongheaded ones can help: if your paper can be easily misunderstood as saying something that it does not say, then your presentation needs work, even if the basic argument is unimpeachable. Rewriting also provides opportunities for petty spite: once or twice I have put a footnote in a recycled paper beginning "Since some of my readers [meaning the referee] have misunderstood this point, I would like to emphasize that I am not arguing [whatever it was he thought I was arguing]". In fact, the very act of annotation can provide the same opportunities, without the danger, since you can put rude remarks in the margin next to the less percipient objections: refereeing the referee, as it were.
11. What Should You Do About a Demonstrably Unfair Rejection? Referees are human, and some are overworked. They have been known to make serious, occasionally even downright stupid, mistakes, though not as often as the authors they referee.
In most cases, the problem is with a particular referee, and what to do about it is a judgment call. If you can prove that he did a shoddy job, you can always tell the editor that, and provide evidence. She is more likely to believe you if you are not asking for reconsideration of your paper but have already submitted it elsewhere (§ 8). Of course, if she passes your complaint on to the referee, he will find out who you are when your paper appears in another journal, and you will most likely make yourself a permanent enemy, all the more dangerous in that you will never know his name. And if she doesn't pass it on to him, what's the point of complaining? (There's always the possility that the referee will be left wondering why his editor never sends him any papers to referee any more, but you can't count on that.)
If the problem is the editor, all you can do is stop submitting to the journal, at least until they change editors, with or without a nasty letter telling her why. Again, such a letter is a good way to make a permanent enemy, and most editors also possess other forms of power, so I don't recommend it. I haven't given up on a journal yet, though I know people who have, and there are one or two that I'm in no hurry to send anything to.
Questions, comments, and anecdotes are welcome, and will be used (with acknowledgements) to improve and expand this essay. Send them to: email@example.com.
© M. Hendry 1998-1999. Last updated: 17 September, 1999.