In this recent editorial in the journal Genetics, editor-in-chief Mark Johnston expresses his dismay that major decisions in the academic world (grants, hiring, tenure decisions) are becoming more and more influenced by the impact factor of the journals in which people publish. Even though impact factors were never intended to be used to evaluate individual papers, as the volume of funding and job applications have strongly increased over the last decade, this metric is being used as a shortcut to rank candidates’ achievements. Because a journal’s impact factor is no guarantee that an individual paper is of high value, Johnston (and others) have argued that its widespread use is misguided.
However, this is where Johnston’s logic falls off the rails. He declares that putting so much weight in impact factor is misguided not because the metric doesn’t reflect quality at the individual level, but because high-impact journals are run by (scandal alert!) professional scientific editors and not active researchers. When they’re not making poor decisions about which papers should be sent out for review, professional editors are choosing inappropriate referees, with the balance of their time spent drawing on those reviews to make more bad decisions. Thank god Science and Cell have editorial boards of “well-regarded practicing scientists”, otherwise, I can’t imagine what kind of garbage they would publish. Wait, Nature doesn’t have an external editorial board…
Everyone who wants to pull their Nature submissions, please feel free to take a few minutes to do so now.
This just in— top-tier journals publish mostly excellent papers! Even if impact factors weren’t published, people want Nature or Science or Cell papers because they’re extremely well-respected journals. Does every Nature paper change the face of its discipline? No. But in an average issue, there’s more likely to be a paper that has a major impact on the way we think about a particular scientific problem in Nature than in the Journal of Your Favourite Random Subsubsubfield Whose Readership Is….Just You. Impact factors did not create a hierarchy of journals. A hierarchy of the overall quality and breadth of papers did that.
Professional editors at top-tier journals have the full-time job of surveying major advances across multiple fields, and deciding which are significant enough for publication. Active-scientist editors have to do that while being deeply focused on their own fields, supervising their trainees, and applying for grants to keep their lab running. But Johnston argues that they’re far more qualified, because professional editors are just administrators. Kind of like the ladies in payroll.
[Decisions] should be influenced by editors who have trekked the same trail as the authors, who know from hard-won experience what it takes to tell a significant story.
Perhaps Mr. Johnston hasn’t looked at the credentials of the professional editors at Nature recently. Although it’s fun to dismiss anyone not in active research as a scientific failure, if people with PhDs and postdoctoral training are incapable of understanding life at the bench and judging the quality of research, academia is in rough shape indeed. This is simple scientific snobbery.
The reason that members of hiring, tenure, and grant committees don’t read candidates’ papers is likely due to lack of time. Asking them to also take over the work of professional editors is not going to solve that problem.
Patricia Gongal works with researchers to improve the structure, clarity, flow, and style of their scientific writing, and has lots of opinions about science and academia.