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Journal Fever: Is the pressure to publish in high-profile journals harming science?

April 2006--Some Hopkins research labs break out the champagne when a paper is accepted in Nature, Science or Cell. Others celebrate more soberly. Still, publishing a paper in a top-tier journal is always a high-five moment for the authors and for the lab.

But in recent years, the pressure to publish in “brand-name” journals has ratcheted up to a disturbing degree. Researchers jockey to have their papers accepted by a few popular journals, fueling a trend that Professor of Molecular Biology Randy Reed calls “the Zagat guide to scientific publishing,” in which a journal’s name recognition determines (for some audiences) the quality of the science published within its pages.

This leads to a host of troubling questions. Has publishing in the so-called “top three” publications become not just optional but obligatory? Does career progress, here and elsewhere, increasingly depend not on what is published, but where? And what criteria are editors using to determine which articles are published in those journals anyway?

Hopkins scientists at all career levels express some degree of concern about these issues, despite the fact that few here have much difficulty publishing in high-impact journals. Reed says that unlike some institutions, Hopkins doesn’t evaluate candidates for recruitment or promotion using “pseudo-quantitative” systems like the ISI impact factor—a metric that assesses journals by the number of citations in the scientific literature each receives. However, this type of quantification is increasingly prevalent in academia, according to articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Nature that cite the pernicious effects of “the cult of the journal” on individual scientists, institutions and on the journals themselves.

Many of the same issues were mentioned by faculty and students here. They point to the subtle pressure within labs to submit papers first to Science, Nature or Cell, to spin results to make them more newsworthy and to court journal editors. They’re also acutely conscious of the effect that high-impact publications have on how grants are reviewed and scored. For that reason, if no other, they say, where papers are published matters, not only to the individual scientist but to the whole lab.

“Let’s face it,” says Erika Matunis, an assistant professor of cell biology, “funding depends on productivity, and when your grant reviewers check out your publications, it does matter how many you have and where you’ve been published. Even though no one uses the words impact factor per se, it’s a big help to be published in those journals.”

Two graduate students working with a young professor in a hot, highly competitive field say they are very aware of the pressure their advisor feels to establish himself and that part of that process is publishing in the right journals. “We haven’t published in a non-high-impact journal since I’ve been here,” one says. “Of course, the fact that we are working on a hot topic helps.”

And there’s the rub, say senior faculty, who point out that the quality of the science isn’t always the determining factor these days in what gets published in Science and Nature. “It’s influenced by trends and what’s sexy and what isn’t,” says Gerry Hart, director of the Department of Biological Chemistry. The great majority of the papers submitted to those journals, he adds, never even make it to an editor, much less a reviewer. “Instead, a reader has a look at the title and decides whether or not it is newsworthy.”

Because of the enormous number of submissions received by the top three journals—in the case of Nature, 9,000 manuscripts a year—and the difficulty of catching the reader’s eye, an increasing number of scientists say they resort to personal connections to gain a hearing for their data. “These days,” Hart says, “you have to schmooze a little, call and talk to the editor and persuade them that the piece is significant.”

Although students and postdocs often want their papers submitted to a brand-name journal like Science or Nature, Reed notes that “when you objectively assess the scope of the work, the other work in the field and the likely reviewers, it all argues for submitting to a specialty journal. There, it’s more likely to get in on the first shot and will be seen by everybody in the field.”

Specialty journals are read by a smaller but better-informed audience and, according to Reed and Hart, are far more rigorously reviewed.

“Papers are published in those journals based on the science alone,” says Hart, who sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry. “And their impact is much greater because the 1,000 people working in the field will all see it. That’s not true of papers in the top three. In fact, they make you take out most of the data.”

Still, when push comes to shove, most researchers admit that there’s nothing like seeing your name—and your student’s name—in a high-profile journal. “You spend all this time working on a project,” Matunis says. “It helps if it is published somewhere it’s going to be noticed.”

--Deborah Rudacille

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