“Student journals” – The good, the bad and the ugly

In this post, I want to share some experiences regarding “student” or “young researcher” journals. By “student journal” I mean journals which specialize in supporting young researchers, mostly only accepting publications from authors who don’t yet have their PhD. While this is a great idea in general which should absolutely be supported, I find that it can often be misleading and less-than-great in reality. In these journals, often even undergraduate students (before finishing their Bachelor’s) would be qualified to submit. But I find that they tend to be too much of a hassle, especially as they are not perceived as ‘high quality’ journals. Also, like the title suggests, my own experiences were mostly not so good.

So, the gist of what I am going to say is: I wouldn’t recommend them. “Student journals” are “worth less” in your CV and, confusingly, I have found them to be more trouble than normal journals are. So, mostly a total waste of time and energy if you ask me. Read on for the details on good aspects and my own experiences which influenced this judgement. In short: The student journals I have tried had given me the illusion that it would be easier and more quick to get a publication out here than elsewhere. The complete opposite was the case! (If you just want the summary without my ramblings, it’s in the last paragraphs.)

What do I mean when I speak of “student journals”?

By “student journals” I mean journals accepting only authors until at maximum their dissertation / PhD thesis is finished. This is done in the goal of creating a “safe space” where young researchers can get publishing experience early on without having to worry about being in competition with full professors.

The good and the bad

On the up side: You, as a young researcher, maybe even without a degree at all, will get heard.

On the down side: The reviewers they have might not be specialized in your field – which will either make the publication less good and the review less trustworthy or it might even generate conflicts (as it happened to me, read below). Also, reviewers are usually aware that they are about to review for a “student journal”, ergo they know that you don’t have your PhD yet which might cause them to scrutinize over your work in a way they might not with a real journal (so the ‘blind’ part of ‘blind peer review’ is not actually a given anymore). This is probably the main factor that leads to publication being more difficult here than in a ‘regular journal’. Another main aspect of the hassle are, sorry to have to point this out (I won’t give any details on the journals I tried to retain anonymity), the inexperienced editors.

Inexperienced “student editors”

These “student journals” are mostly students’ initiatives and so the editorial board consists of, you guessed it, people in the same stage of their career as the early career scholars trying to get published in this journal. This might sound like a good thing at first – believe me, it’s not!

This means they don’t really have experience yet and since most “student journals” cover really broad topics (such as “Classics” in total) which would be difficult to have a full overview about even for a full professor, the editors themselves are not qualified to judge your work. In a great majority of cases. (Sorry editors, nothing personal.) Yet, since they are not yet experienced and – sorry again – mostly feel slightly pompous about themselves being first-time editors of a journal, will tend to interfere in ways which they are not qualified to do. Also, arguing with them on an objective basis will probably not be possible since they have no clue about what you’re talking about.

One of the editors in my cases even lacked knowledge of a basic technical term of our field which I found quite shocking (and wrote a comment like: “What does XY mean?”). Still, since the editor was in a position of power over me, in a way, I had to bend to their feedback even though they had displayed a frankly astonishing lack of basic knowledge of the field we were talking about. Since the editor works on a very different sub-field than me and was on the exact same career stage as me, I totally lost confidence in the editors and had a hard time taking them seriously after that.

To continue the not-so-professional processing, they subsequently assigned me a new editor (probably the editor in chief with more experience) after the situation had gotten weird. I don’t generally criticize the fact that they did but rather the fact that they did so without providing any sort of explanation. At that point, I already felt like they didn’t actually want my paper anymore and were merely looking for an elegant reason to reject it. The tone had changed drastically as well. I had built up somewhat of a personal relationship with the old editor (which probably already was the first mistake) and then it all was very cold and written in a very politically correct way like they were trying to weasel out of the situation and get rid of me without honestly saying they intended to.

Also, another interesting fact: They were really religious about anonymity. That is until they compromised my identity in the “blind” review. Which I only know because I requested to get the full written reviews after that one paper had been rejected and saw that the reviewing person noted in a comment that they should take better care when anonymizing the papers. I had initials in the footnotes indicating some of the translations were my own and of course, I cited one of my own papers on the topic in the references. Thus, my identity was disclosed to the reviewers within seconds, without them having to google me or anything. Not that I cared particularly much (it had no further consequence), but it just added to the overall impression of lacking professionality.

The reviewer’s board is not specific to your field

Also, the reviewers board, while mostly consisting of full professors who (should) know their stuff, will not be specific to your field and only be able to cover the topic in a very broad way which might cause conflict as well.

So if you’re in for bad feedback, rather go get it from a journal pertinent to your field. In case you get bad feedback (which you probably will in any case), you can at least be sure that the editors and reviewers are competent and relevant to your field of study. I have had the experience of getting feedback from reviewers as well as the editors themselves who totally distorted some of what I had said. Regarding some of their feedback, I would have been able to provide 5+ standard publications indicating I was right. After all, I hadn’t “invented” this “bold and coloured statement”, like they claimed –  I had merely repeated (and cited) it from standard sources where it is common sense. Which they obviously were not aware of. I am not sure how a mutually beneficial review can happen under those circumstances. After the reviewer had criticized this general tone of my article (which was in totality a summary of standard works on the field, the statements weren’t even intended to make a point – they were just the introduction), the editor seemed to think me incompetent and got really strict with me, asking me to change those things. I agreed to leave out one whole “problematic” paragraph, but refused to correct statements I believe to be correct in general. This whole problem emerged from an authoritative opinion of the reviewers which they hadn’t backed up with one single reference. It was my word against theirs. This is not good scientific practice, as they should very well know. I can merely assume this situation was produced through the power situation of the review situation which is not “peer review” but a teacher reviewing a student. One of the reviews even mentioned grades in the review. Like, “some changes would make the paper from a C to a B”. I am sorry, but being treated like a stupid pupil was not what I had hoped to get in a peer review publication. Had I not submitted in a student journal, there was no way for them to know I was less senior than they were (at least no official ways).

My personal advice: Steer clear of “student journals”

It’s really not worth the pain. I have done it twice and had trouble both times.

I felt, not to be mean or anything, that the young editors wanted to “use their power” on me. That they felt superior to me even though they were not at a higher level of qualification at all.

I am sure not all young editors are like this and I sure as hell am not trying to suggest that. I just have to state that, sadly, this was my experience. It seemed to me that these young researchers just lost sight of where they stand and what their competences are or where they end.

Also I somehow felt that the reviewers (which were probably important professors mostly, judging by the board) were more strict with me than they might have been had they not known that I am still “at the beginning of my career”. They did not trust me to have knowledge in my particular narrow field of expertise. Even though they didn’t seem particularly well-informed on it themselves.

The ugly: Lengthy rambling with examples of my personal experiences

Here follows a lengthy rant about how it went for me (without calling names, of course). Skip it if you’re not interested. However, I think my experience might be relevant to you when choosing where to submit your paper (which probably represents the distilled sum of months of your time). Please note, however, that all of this is my personal opinion and might not be representative of your experience or the phenomenon of “student journals” in general. Just some innocent, highly subjective observations of mine.

“Student journal” fail story number one

The first time, everything went well until basically the day before publication. Then, all of a sudden and for no discernible reason at all (I suppose it was just stress-induced), the editor started yelling at me via email that I was not being grateful enough because it is an honour for me to publish in their journal. Which, I have to add, I don’t really see to begin with. It’s a student journal without reputation and I am very well able to publish with “real journals” and have done so. Publishing with a “real journal” would be better for me and they don’t ask me to be grateful. I mean, honestly, what the fuck?! An unsolicited aggression like this from a person I have never met, had never happened to me in academia before. And it’s not like weird things didn’t happen to me in the wondrous land of Academia on a regular basis (ass-grabbing during a panel and the like).

If the editor doesn’t think my paper is good enough for their journal, they should not have accepted it in the first place. Also, both the student journals I have published with (I will not name names and don’t want to blame anyone here), had like a maximum of 2-3 papers per issue. So it’s more the other way round: They needed my contribution (or any contribution whatsoever for that matter) or else they wouldn’t have anything to publish. Which isn’t much of a quality indicator for the journal I handed the precious fruits of my labour to. I was frankly pretty angry at this out-of-nowhere yelling via email (I honestly don’t think I did anything wrong up to that point and felt I had put in tons of effort in being polite). Then – seeing as I have quite a temper myself 😉 – she got the full blow back. Like, does she honestly think she’s the only one working crazy hours for free in the Humanities? That had been one of the points, that she works for free and I’m not grateful etc. And, hell, I really get how this can be frustrating seeing as that had been my exact situation at the time as well. Working 60 hours to get this grant proposal done and getting paid for 10 hours which was totally not enough to live off. But hey, that’s the Humanities. You signed up for this and you knew it was going to be like this. Don’t take it out on fellow PhD students who suffer from the same system…

Student journal fail story number two

So that was story number one. Story number two was after that. First I had this really (a bit too) good relationship with the editor who was overly friendly and helpful. At some point – once the review had come in and I had worked in the suggestions – the editor kept accusing me of not having integrated the suggestions etc. The paper was sent into review again to see if it had improved and the reviewers said no. I was a bit confused about the fact that I didn’t hear back from the editor in months and was only told afterwards that they had sent it to the reviewers once again. Which would have been fine by me but I kind of felt attacked having not been informed about this and then criticized after the review had come back. Apparently, the reviewers could not see how I had worked in their remarks. But seeing as I work on a very narrow field, I pretty much know mostly everyone in that field. The reviewer had made some comments on a historical person which led me to frankly doubt their ability to judge my paper since they were ridiculous, not at all backed up by any literature I know of and seems to me totally contrary to current opinions.  Of course, the esteemed reviewing professor is not asked to back up their claims by literature, while I am. Maybe I misjudged this, but I still found that highly dubious… Also, before, having worked in the suggestions from the first review, I gave the paper to multiple professors from “my circle” to criticize and worked in their feedback as well. I had done a private round of, not even peer- but “boss-review”. So I really felt a bit hurt at the accusation of not having worked in the suggestions. I don’t think most people add in private review rounds in between peer-reviews (nor have professors around who are willing to take the time to do this, which I am grateful that I do)… The longer this went on and the longer the emails between me and the editor became, I had the suspicion (which I had secretly been doubting since the very first feedback) that they didn’t want me to make some changes. They were not happy with how my paper was done in the first place.

Since I don’t think this is what peer-review is for, I only corrected the smaller issues. If the editors don’t like the overall making and idea behind the paper, they should just reject it straightaway, shouldn’t they? That would have been fair to me since at that time, it would still have been easy to make minor changes and send it in to another journal. After a million very specific corrections which had ever only made sense to the editors, not to me, I didn’t have that choice anymore. The paper had been altered so fundamentally according to their requests and wishes that already, I felt it was not really “my initial paper” anymore.

Also, I had to furnish lots of justifications of my choice of words which I deemed unnecessary and a bit weird, to be honest. One of the main issues had been my language (which nobody else has ever had a problem with in the past). Apparently, I am not “reflected” enough, whatever-the-hell that means… It went to a point where you were not even allowed to normally use any word anymore. You had to justify every choice of words, put any term which could possibly be misunderstood in quotation marks. Ambiguity is an inherent characteristic of language, folks. Sorry to have to break it to you. I wasn’t even really allowed to talk about my topic anymore (it was about superstition) because that is such a judgemental word. Science needs to be objective and free of judgement, blah blah. But I had stated about five times already that I don’t intend to judge any historical practices and just wanted to discuss religious deviance which was regarded as potentially superstitious. Honestly, I have hardly ever lived anything more annoying and frustrating than this.

To end this story, I have just received a rejection of my paper (after the draft for this post had already been done). They had sent out the paper for a third review, this time by a neutral other person. (And they, of course, hadn’t bothered telling me because why should they… It’s only a question of being polite and professional.) Since that person had criticized similar points than the other one and the atmosphere between me and the editors had gotten rather cold, they rejected me. Annoyingly, however, all of the reviews had stated they thought my paper was really good and interesting, except for the continuously problematic parts.

Reviewer 1 had criticized me using subjectively derogatory words to describe certain religious practices and “had used vocabulary worthy of conspiracy theories” (which I rather find to be a quite derogatory and subjective statement in itself). Reviewer 2 had criticized the presence of some ‘problematic terms’ which weren’t reflected upon enough, so I assume they must have concluded, I hadn’t made the changes they had asked for. Interestingly however, the words which had been criticized in the first review weren’t even present in that third version of the paper anymore since I had fully deleted the paragraph in question. So the criticism could not have possibly pertained to the same problem, even though the problem description / issue was a similar one. My view is that the new reviewer just had other preferences – which will probably always happen once you invite a new person into a discussion.

The same things were criticized in the paper, though the paper had been changed quite substantially between the three reviews. I felt I had responded to everything I had been asked to do. I am still at a loss of what the problem was in the end since both reviewers stated that the article was generally really interesting and they recommend its publication, if some minor changes are made. The changes I have made in this process were far from minor. I am now left feeling like this would have spun into an endless story hadn’t they put an end to it by rejecting me. I am not sure they knew what they wanted from me.

I am not the only one to feel like this about student journals either

You might think now that my rant on “student journals” is only due to my personal “fail stories”. Fair enough point. I respect that opinion. I probably wouldn’t believe it either without further proof to sugest the point is valid. I would love to say that my case is the only one. Since I really believe in the idea behind those “student journals”.

But I have heard equally disastrous, disappointing and unnerving stories from others as well. Papers ending up not being published after all, even though there had been no problem before and the author really needed this publication before a job application, etc.

Also, a professor I work with told me she was really disappointed because she wanted to look into these journals and support them and was treated in a most impolite way. Sentences in her paper had been changed without telling her by somebody who obviously didn’t understand her field of specialization very well, so they ended up not making any sense anymore.

Other friends of mine have similar stories to their portfolio.

Not an opportunity of a ‘quick paper’ but a lot of trouble

So, sadly, as much as I would like to encourage you to try those “student journals”, I really have to advise you to stay away from them. I can’t see one single advantage to you. The process is not easier than in any other journal. The editors who don’t get lots of contributions have “too much time” to spend on your paper and since they are not in the habit yet, you will probably end up as their lab rat (which clearly happened to me one time). They will take your paper apart more than senior editors probably would do but they don’t even really have the competence to back them up in this endevour.

Also, my hope of just getting a “quick paper” out using this approach did so not work. While the first paper was published in time, with the second one I wasn’t sure anymore whether the journal still wanted it after a whole year of back-and-forth. It ended up being rejected. After this year now, however, I have moved on to a new focus and don’t  currently have the time to rework it to submit it elsewhere. This is sad and stupid. A publication lying around for another year might not matter to a more senior researcher, but for my growing publication list, this is still a blow.  I had already been thinking about withdrawing the paper (which my professors had urged me to do due to lack of professionality from the editors) but I since had made so many changes already which the editors had specifically requested that I would have had to undo to hand it in anywhere else. So I kept hanging in even though professors from my circle of friends and colleagues strongly urged me to withdraw the paper straightaway at this unprofessional behaviour.

This is, honestly, a most ridiculous situation. These ‘young journals’ are supposed to be a source of empowerment and a safe space for new researchers. Yet in reality, they use their power to put pressure on you or let out their bad temper and frustration out at you.  They should be an opportunity for you to get taken just as seriously as a “grown-up” researcher and yet a reviewer talked about ‘grading my paper’. This didn’t feel exactly empowering to me, in any case. At least that was my experience and not only in one single case. In a third journal where I submitted, it seems they forgot about my paper and it’s been lying around for over a year now. Here as well I had already made tons of changes which will probably have been a waste of time in hindsight.

This opinion of mine is not pure conjecture either. I honestly received this pages-long angry email by one editor at one point shortly before publication was due. The person obviously was suffering from very high stress levels. I hadn’t done anything to provoke the aggression and the editor basically accused me of being ungrateful and said things like I didn’t appreciate how she worked for free, etc. (as though she was the only young researcher in the Humanities who ever worked for free… At that time, I worked 60h per week while being paid for 10. So thanks, but I really didn’t need a reminder to what it’s like…)

You really don’t need that. Try to find some professor or senior researcher who is willing to take care and really help you in your endeavour of getting you first publishing experience if you can. Submit to a journal they trust. Include them in all parts of the experience so they can help you should things go sideways. Steer clear from student journals.

To sum it up

If you do not yet have a Bachelor’s degree and think that you actually have something publication-worthy in the pipeline, “student journals” might be for you. Maybe even if you don’t have your Master’s degree yet, although you could probably already submit to most ‘normal journals’ by then. Once you have the possibility of submitting your work to a ‘real journal’, always choose the ‘real journal’. With blind peer review you should have the same chance of being accepted as everyone else.

Since you are not so far along in your studies yet, you also don’t have millions of papers to hand out. So I suggest you don’t “waste” your one good paper on a bad journal bad (in the way that it doesn’t have a good reputation and might not be perceived as a ‘real journal’). Your first publications are about building your CV’s publications list (see the post on how to build your publication list for young academics on this), so the choices you make matter way more than they will later on. Also, don’t submit your paper to a “student journal” if you need a ‘quick publication’. While no journal will guarantee a ‘quick publication’ (whatever that means), a journal which appears quarterly and is well established is far more likely to be able to “deliver” in this respect.

So, like I said, take what I have written with a grain of salt. The post is definitely coloured by my own bad experiences but since I myself have found it difficult to find information on how to get started publishing / building a publication list, I thought my experiences might be helpful and welcome to somebody. And while my experiences are definitely coloured by what happened to me, I submitted to three different such journals and none of the results were exactly pleasing, so I do have to conclude my experience must at least be kind of valid. I am very sad to have to say so, but I really regret submitting to student journals and will never do so again in the future. Mind you, I tried three different ones in three completely different fields (none of them DH). They basically all were similar. So please, if it’s your one good idea, have some self-respect and dare to submit it to the best journal in your field (especially if it’s the summary of your MA thesis, so the result from multiple months of work). If they don’t accept it, you can still scale down.

Best,

the Ninja

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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