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Say you write a paper that you feel makes a borderline case for publication in a prestigious journal (Annals, Acta, Inventiones, JAMS, etc). What are the advantages and disadvantages of submitting the paper to the prestigious journal over a less prestigious journal where your paper is very likely to be accepted? My novice take is that there is little downside since if the paper is rejected you can always then submit it to a less prestigious journal. Are there factors I'm not considering? Of course, in most cases, the paper is Arxiv'ed early on so one's claim to the result is never hurt by a lengthy publication process.

I'd be interested to also hear about the implications on job applications. How much does it hurt a job applicant to have a very good result Arxiv'ed and submitted versus accepted? (Presumably if the validity of the result was a make or break factor for a job the hiring group could take a look at the preprint or talk to an expert in the field. Maybe that is an unrealistic expectation).

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If your paper is borderline, likely it will take a long time to be refereed. If your paper is well below the standards of the journal, you'll get a quick rejection. So if you're interested in quick acceptance and if you don't think it clearly qualifies for the journal, it's better to submit to a journal with a quick turn-around time. –  Ryan Budney Mar 22 '10 at 21:09
How do you know your paper is borderline for publication in a top journal? Did you consult someone more expert and experienced about this? I would advise you not to decide on the basis of your own judgement. Show your paper to someone you trust and ask for his or her advice on what to do. –  Deane Yang Mar 23 '10 at 6:01

7 Answers 7

I somewhat disagree with some of the earlier answers on the "jobs applications impact". First, I think it makes absolutely no difference whether you have "submitted to Annals" or "preprint" on your CV. Everyone knows the acceptance chances and will ignore this line. Second, it is really important that all your papers are available on the arXiv or your personal web page. Often, the hiring committee can't judge the applicant's work, and will ask a local expert at the department to take a look at the papers and give an impartial opinion. If the papers are not available, the committee is forced to trust the applicant on their existence, a bad situation all around. Finally, except for the really top journals, having a paper published vs. having it still in a preprint form is of minor difference - if the local experts and/or reference letters are all saying that these recent papers are really good, that's sufficient. From that point of view, you should basically ignore the job application considerations, and always do what's best for the paper.

P.S. If I may make a suggestion, I think it's much more important to choose the right people to write reference letters than worrying about minor points in your CV. Especially now, in the mathjobs era of mass applications, it is the letters that really help people stand out from the crowd. So my advice would be to start thinking well in advance who can you ask for the letters, and learn how to better communicate your results (to them and everyone else).

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This requires a conditional response. First, who is submitting?

  • Tenured professor: Not much repurcussion either way. Worth the wait if you think it deserves publication.

  • Graduate student: Some downside to waiting a long time and not having the thing published come application time, but this can happen at a lesser journal, too (for grads, the paper is often submitted only shortly before they are graduating). And postdoc hiring is not as publications-based as tenure-track hiring. Letters of recommendation mean more.

  • Postdoc. Here, submitting with a high probability of a rejection after a long wait can be a major gambit. Mitigating factor: does the postdoc have other worthy publications? If this will be the flagship result, it's hard not to think that a slightly lesser journal would have a higher expected yield (in terms of jobs). Note that it is true that some journals may reject your paper quickly -- then you can turn around and submit somewhere else -- but those papers are not really the marginally-great ones being asked about.

In the end, you are left with a hard decision. I don't think there's a formula which can help. In this case, you either go for broke or you don't.

  • Collaboration: decide based on the member with the most to lose.
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+1 for thoroughness; +100 (morally speaking) for the last bullet point. –  Yemon Choi Dec 24 '10 at 23:16

There is one disadvantage I know of, but it's a biggy: waiting. It can take as long as a year for a journal to turn around a paper, and if you do this several times, it can be very aggravating. I recently had a paper accepted on its third go-round, and while it still got in a pretty good journal, the whole process took about 2 years. In particular, I went on the job market with this paper as a pre-print rather than an accepted paper as a consequence. I doubt this fact was consequential, but obviously it would have been better to have had it accepted.

That said, I always aim high (within reason), and generally think it's the right policy. There's so much uncertainty about what belongs in what journal that one might as well give it a shot.

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I'm currently waiting. Another difficulty that arises is in what to do with follow-up work, which is nigh inevitable when the referee process takes more than a year. I'm now submitting work that relies in an essential way on still-unpublished work. How on earth anybody can referee that is a mystery to me. –  Kevin O'Bryant Mar 23 '10 at 12:57
@Kevin: As other posters have already pointed out, that's where posting your preprint on the arXiv comes in handy. –  mathphysicist Mar 23 '10 at 16:16
Send it to same referee you're waiting on for the first paper! –  Ben Webster Mar 23 '10 at 20:32
Kevin, if your paper A depends in an essential way on your unpublished paper B, then you send a copy of B to the journal to which you submit A, with an explanation of what you're doing. It gives the referee of A a fighting chance. –  Gerry Myerson Mar 23 '10 at 22:17
It depends on the editorial process. E.g. JAMS has a fairly fast screening process, i.e. they ask referees for a quick opinion on "Is this article worth publishing in JAMS (assuming it is correct)?" If the result is "no", you have only lost a couple of weeks. If the result of this survey is "yes", then it does have a fair shot to get published (although the referee may still decide that on closer inspection, the paper isn't quite as good as on first impression). –  Arend Bayer Sep 6 '10 at 14:22

We shouldn't forget the most obvious and glib answer: If your paper makes a borderline case for a top journal, send it to a journal that itself makes a borderline case for being a top journal. There is no dichotomy between "top journal" and "other journal".

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I think this is a really tough question, and I've never been on a hiring committee, but I'll try answering it anyway.

If your paper deserves to be published in a top journal (the Annals, let's say), then there should be an expert in your field who holds that opinion. If fact, if your paper actually gets accepted by the Annals, the referee will be such a person. If some such person has suggested the Annals as a place to submit your paper, then you could ask that person for a letter of recommendation expressing their opinion of your paper, and then submit it. I think it's much more likely that a hiring committee will carefully read a letter from an expert than that they will look carefully at the details of your paper. Seeing "submitted to Annals" on a CV at least shows you think you've got a great result, but that probably needs to be backed up by either an acceptance or a second opinion.

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If you've written an excellent paper, that's still no guarantee that it'll get into the prestigious general journals (such as those listed in your question). For example, the editors or referees might declare your topic to not be of general interest. If this turns out to be the case, you should consider publishing in a prestigious specific journal (not necessarily a less prestigious journal).

The worst possibility is the long rejection -- that is, having a paper refereed for a year or so, only to be rejected. This seems to happen a lot with the general journals as the referees are trying to maintain a high standard (and the editors can't always tell if a paper is worthy or not). The refereeing process is confidential, so the only downside is time wasted, and you might get some excellent feedback too.

For job applications, it's much easier for a potential employee to gauge the merit of a general journal (LMS, AMS, etc.) then a specific journal. They can be 100% a result published in these general journals is decent, regardless of which field they are in. Whereas, it can be difficult to explain the importance of a specific journal.

I heard from one university that they had 600+ applications for one position. If the hiring committee looked at one application per minute, they would still take 10 hours. They won't have time to look at arXiv, chat to colleagues, etc. for the vast majority of applicants. Moreover, even if the paper is on the arXiv, unless the committee are experts in your field also, they won't know whether or not your paper is decent. You can explain the merits of your work in-person at a job interview.

Having a paper on the arXiv (vs. not having it on the arXiv) counts for nothing in job applications. Generally, you want not-yet-accepted papers listed as either "in preparation" or "submitted".

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On our search committees, having a paper on the arXiv is definitely better than "in preparation". It means that the author is eager to disseminate his/her work, and that is a big deal for a small department. Basically, "in preparation" papers are ignored, "submitted" are noticed, "on arXiv" is noteworthy, and "to appear" and "on arXiv" counts as a publication. –  Kevin O'Bryant Mar 23 '10 at 12:54
@Kevin Are "in preparation" papers completely ignored even if they prove significant results with well-known and -respected coauthors? –  Andrew D. King Oct 10 '10 at 22:55
@Andrew D. King : Yes, they usually are ignored. However, your letter writers are free to comment on things you haven't written up. But the best advice if you are on the job market is to get your papers written! –  Andy Putman Dec 24 '10 at 21:45

As suggested in passing in Douglas Stones' answer, one advantage of submitting to a better journal is you're likely to learn more mathematics from the referee reports, accepting or no.

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That's possible. But it's also possible that a journal that considers your paper simply not of sufficient quality will turn it down with little or no specific comments. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 23 '10 at 4:58
I got a lovely rejection letter from the annals once. 4 pages of useful comments. I mean, as lovely a rejection letter as you could hope for, I suppose. :) –  Ryan Budney Mar 23 '10 at 5:40
Pete, you're absolutely right - I was taking it for granted that the author was correct in the assessment that the paper was "a borderline case for a top journal." –  Gerry Myerson Mar 23 '10 at 6:14

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