What would you rather have?

Posted: February 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

I was chatting with one of my postdoc colleagues over lunch about citation metrics and papers etc, and he asked the following question:

“What would you rather have: a paper published in Nature and cited 4 times in the first year or a paper published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry cited 50 times in the same time period?” (Note: the impact factor of Nature is 36, of JBC is 5.3)

Sadly, my answer to this question is: “The Nature paper of course, it’ll help get me a job interview!” Whereas we all know in our hearts that the answer to this question should be: “the JBC publication”, as it clearly had the greater impact on the scientific community.

Perhaps it is just me, but the impression that I’m getting as a member on the bottom rungs of the scientific ladder is that if you don’t publish in Cell/Nature/Science or the next tier below (Nature Whatever, or Molecular Cell/Neuron/Developmental Cell etc.) you might as well pack it in and not even think of applying for a tenure track position.

This point is hammered home here in the UK by the RAEs (Research Assessment Exercises, but now called the REF: Research Excellence Framework) that they do to evaluate Universities. In the  most recent version of this back in 2008, when they took into consideration publications of faculty members, they only considered the impact factor of the journal in which the papers are published in. They ignore the  actual impact of an investigator’s publications (although it is my understanding that for the upcoming assessment this may be changing).

This point was also reinforced by my experience as a graduate student member of a faculty search committee. Whilst on the committee evaluating candidates I noticed that the only candidates invited for interviews were ones with the types of publications mentioned above (10+ impact factor). The great irony of it was that few (if any) of the faculty members on the search committee had ever published in such journals.

The signal to young researchers is loud and clear: “If you’re not publishing in journals with an impact factor of 10+, you might as well not bother publishing at all”. Unless of course you want to be a postdoc the rest of your career. I’m not sure how accurate this sentiment is, but for better or worse it is the one filtering down to us young’uns…

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