What should you write about?

Note that we haven't asked, what should you think about? Few thinkers understand why certain subjects spark their interest, and we aren't recommending that you train your thoughts in any particular or general direction. But once you've passed the stage of inspiration and have begun working out your ideas, convinced you're onto something that will be a valuable contribution to the annals of philosophy, you might do well to pause and ponder the question of where the brilliant paper you envision might find a home. Nothing is more discouraging than lavishing time, self-discipline and care on a creation that turns out to be unpublishable, and not because of its quality. As we shall explain, even in the rarefied, noncommercial world of academic journals, market concerns operate. It might be that with a slight shift in focus or a broadening or narrowing of the topic you can turn a paper that doesn't suit any existing publication into one that several would welcome; you can forestall disappointment by considering this issue before you outline and draft your paper.

In philosophy, journals spring up and survive when an editorial group is willing to put out the effort to develop them and when library and individual subscriptions can sustain them or a publisher, foundation, university or association subsidizes them. New specialties and intellectual trends often spawn new journals, and older journals may die or languish when interest in their focus dwindles. Consequently, the publishability of a paper depends at least partly on changing tastes. For example, a philosophical paper in a style like Derrida's that might have been rejected everywhere fifteen years ago might have better chances today. Similarly, a paper on the cutting edge of today's "cognitive science" might be considered eccentric or passe fifteen years from now.

Certain kinds of papers, then, might be rather risky investments of time now. Papers with a grand, programmatic sweep might be difficult to place, for example, unless they can be delivered at a meeting and published in the proceedings. If you have that kind of vision and aren't in a position to give a keynote address, you might try to narrow your focus or present your ideas as a critique of a well-known philosopher. You might also land yourself in a jam by writing a reply to a certain journal article without checking to see if that journal publishes replies or discussion notes. Some don't, and most journals prefer not to run critiques of articles previously published in other journals. In that case, or if you're tempted to write a comment on a comment on a comment, you could broaden your focus and write instead another paper on the original topic that just happened to include some criticisms of that recent article. Finally, if you want to write an interdisciplinary paper, you might do well to investigate first to make sure a journal exists for that combination of disciplines. If none does, you could slant your paper to be more philosophical (or physiotherapeutical or archaeological) than you had originally planned.

Keep in mind as well that except for special-topics journals and special-topics issues in other journals, publications strive for deep and wide coverage of their area of specialization and balance. One journal editor remarked on his questionnaire that a paper on Rawls submitted to his journal now would have to be especially outstanding to be accepted. There are "hot," "lukewarm" and "cold" topics within the field of philosophy, and these change over time. Writing on a topic that philosophers think has already been discussed enough is thus also risky. Many editors would refuse such papers out of worry that by the time the papers made it out of the backlog and into print, readers would yawn. Editors say that one quality they look for in papers is originality, but this is not a quality in papers so much as a function of what everyone else is saying and writing. Often it's hard to be sure that no one else has developed your idea or anything similar, but one thing you can do is to check the abstracts in The Philosopher's Index and the most recent journal issues in that subject area.

In addition, length can complicate publishability. Most journals have a fixed approximate length for each issue. Facing a choice between three 20-page papers and one 60-page paper, all of roughly equivalent quality and appeal, most editors would choose to print the three shorter papers, thus increasing the journal's variety, scope and usefulness. Many editors would refuse even to consider the very long one, returning it unread. Try to be realistic about this. If you find yourself writing a 60- page article for submission to journals, there are several ways of increasing your chances of seeing it published. Put it aside and then prune it ruthlessly, or hire an editor to cut it for you. See if you can divide it into two independent articles. Or, if the more you think about it, the more your topic expands, try turning it into a book. Or, submit it to Philosophy Research Archives, one of the very few journals with virtually no length restriction.

One big opportunity to get your name into print relatively easily is with book reviews. As our listings indicate, journals differ in their openness to unsolicited book reviews and general offers to review books in one's field of specialization. An assignment to write a book review is preferable to sending in an unsolicited review "cold"; not only is an assigned book review practically assured publication, you also get a copy of the book free. You can try for assignments by sending your vita and a sample book review if you have one to the editor or book review editor of a journal that says it uses volunteer reviewers. If you want to try submitting an unsolicited book review to a journal that says it will consider them, make sure the book is relatively new and within the scope of the journal; make your review about the length, depth and tone of those the journal regularly publishes.

Finding out about journals

Don't restrict your submissions to those journals you, your colleagues or your department subscribe to. Those are likely to be the most popular journals, which receive and reject the most articles. We have included details on about 100 journals, but you shouldn't even restrict yourself to these. Several books listed under "Resources," particularly the Directory of American Philosophers and the International Directory of Philosophy and Philosophers, provide good information on still others. Look for announcements of new, interdisciplinary or relatively obscure journals in "Notes and News" sections or in advertisements at the back of other journals. Librarians may be able to steer you to still other journals or sources of information; ask.

If you become interested in a journal that we haven't included, you can follow the strategy our reviewers used to survey each journal. Look through a whole year's issues of the journal to see what topics and methods were represented, who contributors were and the range in length and technicality of papers. Also look for an editorial statement and editorials. Most of our reviewers volunteered that they found their survey a very educational exercise, even for journals they were already quite familiar with.

If you become interested in a journal that we have included, look for a recent issue anyway; check for changes that may have occurred since we gathered our information. Editorial addresses in particular change very often. Several journals we found extremely hard to track down, and with some we failed altogether. When a journal's editorship, sponsorship or publisher changes, the editorial headquarters may suddenly move to a different continent. Also, a journal may at any time announce a change in policy, switch to a special-topics-only format, or even cease publication. At least three journals we tried to contact for this edition of the Guidebook had recently folded or suspended operations.

Choosing a journal

On our journal questionnaire we asked for a variety of kinds of information that can help you choose a journal for submission of a particular article. Most listings include the journal's circulation, focus, preferences, official statement, acceptance rate, how long it takes for decisions and then how long until accepted manuscripts are published, whether or not it uses blind review, how often it publishes special-topics issues and its ratio of contributed to invited articles.

One factor not mentioned in the listings, which may seem to some the paramount consideration, is each journal's relative prestige. A premise of the Guidebook is that, depending on your own priorities and goals, other considerations besides prestige may be more important for you. So much is said about the prestige of certain journals, often in that peremptory tone mastered by philosophers, that novices can easily get the impression that their reputations will be ruined if the "wrong" journal publishes their work. Although, as everyone will admit, allegedly low-quality journals may publish high-quality work and articles in the supposedly best journals may not all be excellent, there is a sort of halo effect in which the overall reputation of a high-prestige journal casts a glow on even its less brilliant articles. You ought indeed to take account of this. But if your tenure review is fast approaching, you might be better off looking for journals that give quick decisions and offer publication in six months rather than two-and-a-half years. In other circumstances, you might be wiser to aim at the journals that specialize in your subject area, where your paper can reach the audience most likely to read it seriously.

Before you start submitting articles, you should stop and think about what you hope to gain by publishing. Do you want that glow of prestige, regardless of anything else? Then submit only to the high-prestige journals. Will your tenure and promotion committee count up your number of publications and ignore everything else? Look for journals with higher acceptance rates. Would you like to reach the greatest number of people in your specialty? Steer away from general journals in favor of more specialized ones. Do you know that you will be devastated if you receive a rejection without any explanation? Then choose the journals which always include comments on their decisions. Will you be mortified if your published article contains a typo or looks amateurly typed, not typeset? Then read our reviewers' comments on journals' quality of production and examine several issues of each journal yourself. Are you unknown and unpublished, working at an obscure, small college? Aim at the journals, most of them American, with a policy of blind review. Are you already somewhat well known? Then take note of journals that say they prefer authors whose names will be familiar to their readers.

It might be worth your time to read through all of our listings, from Aitia to Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society rather than just looking up the journals you already know or using our subject index. There are bound to be several journals you haven't heard of, one of which may remind you of a paper you hid away several years ago after it was rejected once. You may learn that one journal may have recently changed its emphasis, and that your vague impression of another is wildly inaccurate. If you've already published, you might discover a new journal worth trying; publishing in a wide variety of journals gives your accomplishments the appearance of breadth. Or you may read that a journal you wouldn't have thought of is looking for more manuscripts in your area of interest. You may learn of policies you hadn't imagined, such as that some journals refuse to consider more work from an author whose paper they've accepted until a year has passed. Although we usually haven't been able to list upcoming special topics for journals that publish special-topic issues and announce them in advance, you might want to note down those journals and look up their projected topics and deadlines.

Preparing the manuscript

To Brian Barry's excellent advice above, we would like to add only a few points. Since all journals that state a preference ask that manuscripts be doublespaced, with footnotes collected consecutively at the end rather than at the bottom of pages, you should adopt this as your standard format for submission. In addition, since many journals require that footnotes and long quotations in the text be doublespaced too, you should probably do that standardly as well. Always use 8-1/2-by-11-inch white paper with text on one side of the page only. Never use onion- skin paper, even for overseas submissions; it tears and wrinkles too easily on handling. Never use corrasable bond paper, the kind that is designed to be easy to erase; it smudges too easily.

If you are submitting to a journal with blind reviewing, provide your name, institutional affiliation (if you have one) and address on a detachable cover sheet. Although such journals provide a number or code for each paper so that it can be rematched with its author after the review process, you should help by including along with the page numbers a running head that is either your title or a recognizably short version of it. If you are submitting to a journal without a policy of blind review, there is usually no harm in setting up the manuscript for blind review anyway and indicating in your cover letter that you have done so. The exception is a journal that is almost completely run by one editor and rarely or never uses referees. Otherwise the editor can easily send your manuscript off "blind" even though that is not routine procedure. In addition, you will be letting the editor know that you think blind review should be routine procedure. Journals expect you to submit your article to only one journal at a time. Failing to abide by this expectation may turn good luck into an embarrassing quandary. Some journals, perhaps partly as a hedge against simultaneous submissions, request the original typescript along with one or more photocopies. If you are not sending the original, either because photocopies look much neater or because you are sending computer printouts, mention in your cover letter that you are giving the journal exclusive consideration of your article.

Although fourth-class "manuscript rate" is often cheaper, mail all submissions from the U.S. to American and Canadian journals first class. One reason fourth class is cheaper is that first-class pieces have priority. Particularly during December, fourth-class pieces can be considerably delayed. Some journals do not return any manuscripts, but most ask contributors to enclose either stamps, a check for postage or a self-addressed stamped envelope for a manuscript's return. For journals that require four copies of a manuscript, it may be more convenient to tell them not to return the copies but only to notify you of their decision; you can recopy the manuscript if it is rejected and you want to submit it elsewhere. Always keep a copy of your manuscript.

Remember that U.S. stamps cannot be used to mail something back from any other country. You should be particularly careful not to bruise the sensibilities of Canadian editors in this regard. The solution provided through the worldwide postal network is a small certificate, purchasable at most post offices, called an International Reply Coupon. If you enclose one in something sent abroad, the recipient can cash it in for stamps sufficient to send one "weight" back by surface mail. Unfortunately, few postal clerks have any idea what that "weight" is for each country, or how many coupons can be redeemed for what weight of airmail. One post-office official advised us to buy three International Reply Coupons for an airmail return of two pages. If you want to submit something overseas, check the instructions for contributors in your target journal. You will save everyone a lot of trouble if you send the overseas journal disposable copies and tell it just to notify you of acceptance or rejection.

Finally, see "A Note on Word Processing" for reasons why you should consider using word processing instead of typing to prepare your manuscripts if you don't already and pitfalls to avoid if you do.

How journals process submissions

Of course, this depends on the journal. Nearly all journals log in incoming manuscripts and send an acknowledgement immediately, but afterwards, decision-making methods range from one editor deciding everything to all papers automatically being sent out for review and accepted if all reviewers so recommend. Between the extremes are many journals where an editor (aided perhaps by an assistant editor) screens incoming manuscripts for appropriate subject matter and other specific characteristics and sends most of them on to referees; the screening also helps the editor choose appropriate referees. The editor may customarily accept the advice of the referees or may exercise further screening or selection. At other journals, particularly those run by a department or a small, tightly knit organization, an editorial board reads and jointly decides on submissions, sending out only those outside the fields of expertise of the group's members. Among journals that use outside reviewers, most routinely use one or two; some use three, and many use an extra one in controversial cases. Some journals have a formal pool of reviewers, whose names they list in the journal, while at others editors use their informal contacts.

Journals where one or two editors have great decision-making power are those most vulnerable to dramatic changes when their leadership changes. But even at journals where one or two editors merely make the final decision on submissions, a change of leadership can result in a significant shift in the contents of the journal. Even when the new editor does not deliberately alter the direction or policies of the journal this may occur, just because different individuals have different tastes and judgment.

Most journal editors are extremely busy people, with teaching and administrative responsibilities and their own research in addition to their work on the journal. The same goes for referees. Although most editors tell referees to return a manuscript if they cannot read it within a certain time, problems do arise. An editor can ask tardy referees to return manuscripts or enlist additional help if there are too many manuscripts for the present pool of referees to handle quickly. However, many editors will be reluctant to do those things. The first might offend the referee because it is done so seldom, and the second might constitute a major change in the journal's review policy. But if they receive a polite inquiry from an author who has waited an unreasonably long time for a decision (more than four months, according to the guidelines below), most editors will do what they can to ensure a decision soon.

Many journals pass referees' comments along to the author, deleting any identifying information about the referee or any abusive or otherwise unhelpful remarks. At other journals, the editor summarizes the comments or offers his or her own explanation of the verdict; because of the editor's considerable experience, this sort of feedback can be quite valuable. The most extensive comments sometimes come from younger or less experienced referees, who spend more time and effort on evaluating a manuscript, perhaps because they have fewer such commitments and feel honored to be asked. However, most journals choose referees from among the more established and well-known members of the field.

Guidelines for the handling of manuscripts

In 1974, the Society of Philosophy Journal Editors, in response to the report of an ad hoc APA committee, adopted the following guidelines for the proper handling of manuscripts. According to the Society, "they should be treated not as legislative rules that brook no exceptions but as principles whose intent should be achieved even if, in some cases, particular editorial circumstances necessitate a departure from the recommendations in matters of detail."

1. Special directions for the preparation of manuscripts shall be publicly announced by journals which have them.

2. Journals shall notify authors by return mail of the receipt of manuscripts and where possible indicate the approximate time needed for evaluation procedures.

3. Unless authors are notified to the contrary, such evaluation procedures will normally not extend beyond four months from the date of receipt. After this period of time authors are encouraged to inquire concerning the status of their manuscript.

4. Authors of accepted manuscripts shall be notified in the letter of acceptance of the approximate date of the publication of their manuscript.

5. If articles are held for two months or more, letters of rejection shall normally include one of the following: a) the comments of the referees, b) a brief summary of the referee's comments, or c) the editor's reasons for rejecting the paper. The signed comments of a referee may be forwarded to the author only with the referee's explicit permission. Editors shall not be expected to reply to further inquiries about their evaluations.

6. Editors shall not suggest other journals to authors, except on favorably evaluative grounds.

7. Authors have full responsibility for the proper preparation of manuscripts. When the manuscript is not properly prepared, services performed for them by editorial offices, as well as author changes in proof, are properly chargeable to them.

8. Changes in manuscripts by an editor other than those necessary for the style of the journal (footnotes, spelling, layout, etc.) shall be made only with the approval of the author.

9. Authors shall normally review their articles in proof before printing.

10. Authors shall submit the same manuscript to only one journal at a time.

11. Authors have responsibility for arranging (through envelopes, return postage, etc.) for the return of their manuscripts.

12. A letter of acceptance from an editor is normally an agreement to publish the article in the journal.

Getting the results

The best possible verdict, of course, is having your paper accepted as it is, without any revisions at all. Just below that is the gray area usually called "accepted subject to revisions." The changes requested may be extremely minor, or so major as to require practically a different paper. The more substantive are the requested changes, the more likely it is that the journal will send your revised paper back out to referees -- perhaps even different referees -- who may not be satisfied with the revisions. Because the "accepted subject to revisions" status means that referees and/or the editor saw significant value in your paper, it is always better than a rejection, but it may be very far from an acceptance. If you receive this verdict on a paper, do your best to make the changes you can, and explain in a cover letter why you cannot or will not make the others. If you think the referees' comments are bizarre, stupid or unfair, explain that in your cover letter as diplomatically as you can. Naturally you also have the option to try again with a different journal instead of rewriting, but that means taking a big risk; all journals have very high rejection rates.

Sometimes a journal will recommend extensive changes without making any commitment to accept the revised paper. Although this may be unsatisfying, at least you have an idea of what the journal wants and assurance that your paper will have a chance if you revise and resubmit it. The comments and recommendations may even be the kind of careful, conscientious criticism many philosophers dream of; if you're lucky enough to receive such comments your chances of improving the paper enough to get it published rise dramatically.

The worst result is a rejection without any explanation or comments. Your paper may have been a victim of the journal's need for a balance among topics, or the editor might have agreed with a referee that your paper was inane, incompetent and boring. You just don't know. It's natural to feel disappointed, but don't give in to your urge to stick the paper away and forget about it. If you're absolutely certain that you've done the best job you possibly can, prepare the manuscript for your next-choice journal and send it off. (It helps to have had another journal in mind for just this possibility.) Otherwise, put the paper aside only until the sharp edge of disappointment wears off. Then reread your paper critically. Do you have a clear thesis? If not, formulate one now and rewrite. Does the argument proceed clearly and in an organized fashion? Referees and editors may not make the effort to pluck gems out of murky and rambling prose. If this might be your problem, rewrite or consider hiring an editor. There is nothing unethical about paying a professional to help prune and restructure your paper -- indeed, such editing is standard in book publishing. When you're sure you have a cogent, well-written paper, send it to another journal and keep sending it out until it's accepted, you receive substantive comments or you run out of appropriate journals.

The last possibility is receiving, along with a rejection, comments from the editor or the referee(s). When these strike you as irrelevant or inaccurate, this may be even more frustrating than no comments at all. Do not suppose that a mistaken or irrelevant comment is just a careless way of the journal saying it doesn't want your paper. If you think a referee has misread your paper, consider first the possibility that the fault is yours. Reread the paper to see if you wrote in a way that could have been easily misconstrued. If so, rewrite it. If not, write to the editor, explaining the problem and asking for another reading. Your letter should be neutral in tone, diplomatic and clear.

You have the option of resubmitting a substantially rewritten paper that was originally rejected to the journal that rejected it, but this is not customary. Editors are likely to remember the article and to be loath to send it out to be reviewed again. Unless your paper is inappropriate for other journals (for example, a discussion piece on a article in the original journal), submit the revised version elsewhere. If you do resubmit a rewritten paper to a journal that rejected it, mention in your cover letter the substantial changes that you made and ask for reevaluation.

Whether you receive comments with a rejection or not, keep in mind that journal evaluations are subject to the same sort of variation as other subjective evaluations. Faced with the same paper, different evaluators will probably disagree. A lot depends on who reads what. This does not mean that journal decisions are unfair, but rather that even the fairest evaluation procedures are quite variable.

The fate of your paper depends on many things beyond your control and quite independent of its quality. Instead of bemoaning this fact, you should let it influence your attitude toward publishing. (1) Do not take the rejection of an article as an evaluation of your abilities or your paper (i.e., don't let it get you down); and (2) do not estimate other people's abilities in terms of where or how much they have published. Reserve judgment until you actually read their work, whether published or unpublished.

After acceptance

If your paper is accepted, you will have to look at it again at least once more before publication -- in proof form. Practically all the journals we surveyed send galleys or page proofs to authors to proofread before publication. You should take this responsibility seriously. If any mistakes slip by you, they will remain in print that way forever. The best way to proofread is to use two people, one reading aloud from the typeset copy, spelling out unusual words or names and mentioning each punctuation mark, and the other following along carefully on the author's original. To proofread your own work alone, force yourself to look at each typeset word by moving your finger along the text slowly word by word. Otherwise you won't see certain kinds of errors; your mind corrects them when you read quickly. When you do find a mistake, mark it in the text and correct it in the margin, using standard proofreader's symbols. Consult the Chicago Manual of Style or O'Neill and Ruder's chapter on proofreading (see "Resources") if you're not sure how to do this.

The journal will probably caution you not to make any changes in your article at this point. Resetting type is extremely labor- intensive and therefore expensive, and any changes that are not the fault of the typesetter, beyond a certain small allowance, will be charged to the journal. Most journals pass that cost on to the author. If you do find infelicities that you feel you must improve or mistakes that you didn't catch before you submitted your manuscript, try to correct them in such a way as to leave the total number of characters on each line roughly the same; that way just the line and not the whole paragraph can be reset. You may find that your work has been copyedited for style as well as for format. If a copy editor has changed your words or punctuation in such a way as to distort your meaning, change it back and explain in a cover letter why the "correction" was wrong. Finally, it's best to do all this the day or the day after you receive the proofs in the mail; if the journal doesn't get corrected proofs back promptly it will proceed as if everything was all right.