Selecting a journal for submission, case study: Journal of Arid Environments is ‘hot’ for facilitation

We are currently working on a manuscript exploring the importance of microenvironmental conditions versus seed source for desert annual plants.  Plant facilitation is a central tenet of the paper, however, we are more focussed on plant-seed/seedling interactions and less on plant-plant interactions.  There are some confirmatory findings, i.e. that positive interactions are likely species-specific and that microenvironmental differences are important, but there are also some novel findings (teaser so you read the paper).  An exceptional collaborator did this research as part of her honor’s thesis project, and it is absolutely publishable and technically correct. This study adopted a similar protocol to a recent contribution from the ecoblender team in Austral Ecology but with different species and a different purpose (and in fact, it predates this publication and was the pilot for the protocol). However, it is sometimes a challenge to publish a good idea demonstrated empirically with either mixed results, a single protocol (i.e. controlled conditions and not field), repeated testing of previously published similar research, or limited in extent of capacity to explore either full range of variation or extensive sample sizes. I think this study is great, and it is so tempting to overinterpret because the idea is so attractive and I like it. Nonetheless, it is prudent to select an appropriate framing of the problem and matching journals for submission. In discussing the writing, we are also concurrently considering the outlet.
Here is the workflow we used in selecting the journal.
Generalized journal-choice workflow
1. Write first-second-third draft.
2. Edit, repeat, and begin discussions on relationship to larger literature landscape and ideas.
3. Make a list of top journals that fit the scope of study to test hypothesis.
4. Check each journal for contemporary papers on topic to ensure that we are correct in estimate of fit/niche.
5. Check lit cited of current ms to see if certain journals are cited more frequently. Add to list and explore/rule out journals that we may cite frequently for big, specific ideas that are likely beyond out reach.
6. Make a list of journals entitled ‘journal pipeline’ recognizing and reminding ourselves that rejection is part of the process and beneficial. Remind again 🙂
7. Select journal.
8. Check lit cited within manuscript for journal citation matching patterns.**Rule of thumb – a good fit should have a few key papers cited from that journal. The rationale is NOT to ingratiate with editors, but to ensure that the current research offering matches previous/related research.  Some editors do however check the lit cited of submissions, and if not a single citation to a previous publication in that journal, can consider rejection for offerings that are outside her/his primary research expertise.
Disclaimer: I am not a fan of ratcheting from higher-tier journals to lower. This wastes time all participants in the peer review process. Sometimes however, this is a disservice to my junior collaborators as we end up in lower-tier placements but waste less time. Efficiency-impact trade-off, but it is difficulty to predict handling times by perceived impact of journal. I also strongly advocate for OA journals and this also sometimes leads to non-ISI placements. I do recognize that we each have different career needs, but I am confident that strong work – regardless of journal -can be found online easily now and will capture interest.
Case study
Linking back to preamble that got me thinking of our collective workflow, that always include discussion within team, we generated a short list of three journals to consider.
Journal of Plant Ecology
Journal of Arid Environments
I have enjoyed many, many papers from all of these journals. A cursory search of the lit cited, online offerings, and discussion indicates that all three are viable with some caveats.
PLOSONE – High impact, great visibility, open access, and reviewed for technically correct designs.  However, it is our collective opinion that this could be a stretch. There are many general plant facilitation papers, but we have a narrower scope.  Whilst reviewing for technical correctness only and not impact, PLOSONE is nonetheless very reductionistic in their experimental/result/analyses reviews.  I have had perfectly appropriately, well-designed experiments rejected. Never for impact reasons.  There is no perfect experiment, but PLOSONE is nonetheless handling a very, very high number of experiments and thus seeks substantiative experimental designs.
Journal of Plant Ecology – A solid, mid-tier ecology journal. Interesting papers on facilitation. More emphasis on ecology then we necessarily tackle in this particular ms, and we are also focussed on plant-seed interactions.  Seeds are the key life-stage in this study.
Journal of Arid Environments – I have read many papers over the years and always enjoyed.  Sometimes less ecological and lower impact relative to previous two options.
How to decide – In summary, all three are certainly viable with difficult probabilities to estimate associated with both acceptance rate and handling time. We decided to examine the following questions explicitly to move forward, and in doing so, found the perfect fit (and a surprise too).
1. In PLOSONE are there a few seed biology/ecology papers or ecotype/reciprocal common garden papers that are comparable in sample size and number of species tested?
2. In JoPE, are there any seed biology/seed ecotype papers or is it more plant focussed?
3. In J of Arid Envts, are there a few plant facilitation papers or seed ones?
No other reason than assuming it was less ecological and more broad.  There were many perfect papers related to our topic and design in the Journal of Arid Environments!
Sample connectance publications 
Journal of Arid Environments is a great fit for this paper. Concerns include lowest IF, non-OA journal, and handling times.  We will keep you posted, but I thought it would be interesting to share how we approached submission of an interesting, well-executed experiment that is a mix of confirmatory and insightful findings.