Can IR Have Its Own “Big 3” Journals?

30 November 2020, 1230 EST

This is a guest post by Krista Wiegand, Director of the Global Security Program at the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Tennessee. She is co-Editor-in-Chief of International Studies Quarterly.

I was once asked on a job interview by a non-IR political scientist why I hadn’t published in the “big 3” journals – American Political Science Review (APSR), American Journal of Political Science (AJPS), and Journal of Politics (JOP). My response was that I had published in top IR journals where my IR colleagues read my work. I also mentioned how I had received a couple desk rejections from these journals suggesting that my research fit better in a specialized IR conflict journal. I’ve increasingly heard this comment from several of my IR colleagues about the big 3 journals over the past few years. I know a very well-known, highly published IR colleague who has submitted more than 20 manuscripts to APSR and never received an acceptance. It seems like it’s increasingly difficult for IR scholars to place articles in the top 3 general political science journals.

As co-editor of International Studies Quarterly (ISQ), I’ve been thinking about whether IR can have its own big 3 journals that are just as well respected as the big 3 political science journals. Should IR scholars be aiming for publications in mainly IR journals or both IR and general political science journals? Is it possible for the top IR journals to someday be equivalent in reputation to the top political science journals?

Reputation vs. Ranking

Everyone in political science knows the big 3 general journals, but does such a grouping exist for IR journals? IR scholars themselves have mixed views of the top journals in the subfield. Rankings, reputations, and what is taught in IR graduate courses vary widely. Unlike the other subfields of political science, IR has its own ranked lists produced by InCites Journal Citation Report (JCR), Scimago, and Google Scholar. According to the widely used JCR, there are 95 ranked IR journals, as well as a good number of unranked journals that are new or just not included. In political science, there are 181 ranked journals. To make things complex, 52 of the ranked IR journals are also included in the list of ranked political science journals, but with very different rankings. Not a single IR journal is listed on the Google Scholar political science journals list. Some have argued that IR journal rankings are heterogeneous, including journals that don’t really belong in the list, such as the oceanography journal Marine Policy or Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which is clearly not a political science or IR journal. Others have pointed out that non-peer reviewed journals Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs don’t belong on the list of ranked IR journals. Another problem is that many of these top journals are US based, but there are many top ranked European IR journals such as European Journal of International Relations (EJIR), British Journal of Politics & International Affairs (BJPIR), International Affairs (IA), and Review of International Studies (RIS) as well.

These different lists can cause great confusion among non-IR political science colleagues in departments across the US and beyond. When IR tenure track scholars are evaluated annually or for tenure and promotion in political science departments, they often have to explain and justify to their colleagues and chair/head of department what the best IR journals are. Getting published in one of the big 3 political science journals can even be a requirement for tenure and promotion.

We know from previous research that journal rankings do not match always journal reputation. The most recent Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) survey shows that based on reputation, the journals that most influence IR scholars are International Organization (IO) (#1), International Studies Quarterly (ISQ) (#2), and International Security (IS) (#3), which could be considered the big 3 in IR. This list also includes APSR (#5), AJPS (#10) and JOP (#20), so clearly IR scholars see articles published in the big 3 political science journals as influential in IR as well.

A Proposed List of New Rankings for IR Journals

With so much disagreement between rankings and reputations, I created new rankings for journals to which IR scholars generally submit. These new rankings provide a much more realistic picture of the top journals in the subfield. The lists exclude non-peer reviewed journals and journals from other fields outside of political science. The list of JCR political science journals also excludes non-IR journals to which IR scholars are unlikely to submit (such as Political Behavior or Journal of European Public Policy. Some scholars will disagree with some of the exclusions, but this is exactly the kind of debate we need in our subfield. We need more agreement about the best journals in IR, and which non-IR focused political science journals to include in this list. With a few exceptions, most of the same journals are on multiple lists. This means we might actually be able to agree about a list of top IR journals: (in alphabetical order): AJPS, APSR, BJPIR, EJIR, IA, IO, IS, ISQ, JCR, JPR, RIO, RIPE and WP.

New RankingInCites JCR – IR JournalsInCites JCR – PS JournalsScimago – IR & PSGoogle ScholarTRIP Survey
1IS (#1)IO (#2)AJPS (#1)JCR (#1)IO (#1)
2IO (#2)AJPS (#4)APSR (#2)IA (#4)ISQ (#2)
3IA (#4)APSR (#6)IO (#3)IO (#5)IS (#3)
4EJIR (#6)Annual Review of Political Science (#8)BJPS (#5)JPR (#7)APSR (#5)
5Review of International Organizations (RIO)(#8)British Journal of Political Science (BJPS) (#9)JPR (#6)ISQ (#8)WP (#6)
6JPR (#11)RIO (#15)JCR (#8)RIPE (#9)JCR (#7)
7JCR (#12)JPR (#28)IA (#9)EJIR (#10)EJIR (#9)
8BJPIR (#14)Journal of Politics (#29)WP (#10)Terrorism & Political Violence (#11)AJPS (#10)
9WP (#15)JCR (#31)EJIR (#15)SD (#12)Security Studies (#11)
10International Political Sociology (IPS) (#17)BJPIR (#34)Conflict Management & Peace Science (#17)Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (#13)JPR (#13)
11Security Dialogue (SD) (#18)WP (#36)ISQ (#19)WP (#14)International Studies Review (#14)
12Review of International Political Economy (RIPE) (#19)IPS (#39)RIPE (#20)RIS (#15)RIPE (#15)

The Curious Case of ISQ as a Top IR Journal

In theory, as the flagship journal of the International Studies Association, ISQ – the second most influential journal reputation wise – is supposed to be the equivalent of the flagship journal of the American Political Science Association – APSR. Like APSR, ISQ publishes a broad range of topics covering the whole subfield, all types of research methods, and covers varied countries in the world. Like APSR, it receives a very high number of manuscript submissions per year. Like APSR, it is ranked as a top journal…or, wait, is it?

Unlike APSR, which is always in the top seven journals in political science, the ranking for ISQ is much lower. The most recent JCR ranking for ISQ is #22 in IR journals and an embarrassing #49 in political science journals, while Google Scholar ranks the journal at #8. If IR scholars were to seek publication in the top ranked IR journals, they would not submit to ISQ. Yet we received 725 manuscript submissions in 2019, and we’re on target to go beyond that number of submissions in 2020. Clearly the reputation and ranking don’t match, as shown by the TRIP survey. How much of a problem is this for ISQ and other journals in a similar situation? Using the re-ranked lists, ISQ is #16 in both IR and political science journals. As co-editor of ISQ, I would obviously like to see the actual rankings increase, but this means achieving a much higher journal impact factor. Impact factors are not determined by total citations. For example, ISQ had 4,353 citations in 2019, compared to 433 citations in the journal ranked just above ISQ in the list of ranked political science journals. To improve impact factor and ranking, a journal not only needs more citations, but also a better ratio of articles cited to articles published. Editors can promote their journals on social media, select articles that are expected to have a big impact, and ask authors to promote their work. Beyond these attempts, it really depends on scholars citing articles published in a journal. At the same time, clearly citation counts are not the main measure to use for journal reputation, as demonstrated by the case of ISQ.

Double Dipping in IR and Political Science Journals

The benefit of the big 3 political science journals is that they include all subfields, including IR, which means that scholars from all the subfields are citing articles published in these journals. For subfield journals, the pool of scholars citing subfield journals is smaller. Yet we see success for IR subfield journals like IO, which is ranked #2 in both lists of IR journals and political science journals, and IS, which is ranked #1 in IR journals, even though it has a much narrower focus. One could say that IR scholars get to double dip, with a set of IR journals from which to choose, plus a set of broad political science journals on top of that. Is this fair for scholars of the other subfields of political science who don’t have as many journals in which to submit or publish? Maybe so, maybe not.

What does all this mean for IR scholars when it comes to selecting journals to submit their research? Should IR scholars be promoting the reputations of the big 3 IR journals separate from the big 3 political science journals? There clearly needs to be more consistency among rankings and reputations of IR journals, as well as expectations of political science departments. One way to resolve this dilemma is to consider the revised lists provided here. Scholars can use the lists when thinking about where to submit. Departments can use these lists as more realistic measures of the best IR journals. Over time, perhaps these more realistic rankings and the big 3 IR journals will be recognized as more legitimate measures of IR scholarship, not only for tenure and promotion, but for respected work in the field.