The widely held notion that high-impact publications determine who gets academic jobs, grants and tenure is wrong. Stop using it as an excuse.

In response to my previous post on boycotting non-OA journals, my friend Gavin Sherlock made the following comment:

I laud what you are doing, and you have changed the world of publishing forever for the better. However, I was specifically told by my chair that I need a Nature or Science paper to make my tenure packet bulletproof, so you shouldn’t underestimate the tenure argument.

This comment pretty much sums up why closed access publishing still dominates. Like most scientists, Gavin agrees that the system we have is bad, and that progress towards open access is a good thing. But, in the face of advice that he needs a glamour mag paper for his tenure package his pre-tenure facebook feed was filled with “Just submitted a paper to Nature” and “Just submitted a paper to Science“.

I am not here to criticize Gavin. These few indiscretions not withstanding, he has a long and exemplary history of open access publication. Rather I use him as an example of just how powerful and toxic the glamour mag culture in science has become. If it can get to him, it can get to anyone.

I am also not here to dwell on how crude a measure of impact the impact factor is [1], or how the tyranny of the impact factor is destroying science. Peter Lawrence (see also this list put together by Sean Eddy) has written extensively and eloquently on the subject.

Rather I want to challenge the key assumption – made by nearly everyone – that choosing not to publish your work in the highest impact factor journal you can convince to accept it is tantamount to career suicide. It is ubiquitously repeated by everyone from the most successful senior scientists to first year graduate students. And, judging by their publishing practices, most of them must believe it to be true. But I don’t think it is.

Before I explain, I should note that my comments will deal exclusively with science in the United States. We have, mercifully, not followed the incredibly misguided policies used in many European and Asian countries which use formula that explicitly include impact factor to allocate jobs and money. The underlying attitude may be as strong here, but at least it is not hard-coded.

I can not deny that there is a very strong correlation between the impact factor of the journals in which someone has published and their success in landing jobs, grants and tenure. The evidence is all around me: 11 of the 15 assistant professors in my department at Berkeley had published at least one Science, Nature or Cell paper as a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow (we’ll return to the other four later). And more systematic studies have found a similar correlation [2].

But, as we know, correlation does not imply causation. Even if hiring, grant review and tenure committees completely ignored journal titles and focused exclusively on the quality of the science (as they should), we would still expect there to be a strong correlation between success and impact factor. Scientists are so conditioned to believe that impact factors matter that most design their experiments, write their papers and jostle with editors to get their work into the “best” journal possible. Since the peer reviewers who ultimately make (or at least strongly influence) the publishing decisions are drawn from the same pool of scientists who make hiring, funding and tenure decisions, it is no surprise that the same work is valued in all of these venues. Thus, the idea that impact factors are paramount would be a self-fulfilling prophesy even if it were completely untrue!

Of course it is not completely untrue. I have seen too many colleagues lazily use the presence or absence of SNC publications as the primary factor in screening job applicants, as a reason to or not to fund a grant application, and as a proxy for whether someone should or should not be tenured. It is also undoubtedly true that, all other things being equal, high impact publications can make a difference. However, glamour mag publications are neither necessary (see the 4 assistant professors discussed above), nor sufficient (we routinely pass on candidates with SNC publications).

Encouraging the people we train to focus so exclusively on journal titles as the determinant of their success downplays the many other factors that play into these decisions: letters of recommendation, how effectively they communicate in person, and, most importantly, the inherent quality of their science. Sure, reviewers sometimes take shortcuts, but the quality of the underlying science and candidate matter a lot – and in most cases are paramount.

My own lab provides several examples that demonstrate this reality. My graduate students have gone on to great postdocs and many have landed prestigious fellowships “despite” having only published in open access journals. More curiously, I have had four postdoctoral fellows go out onto the academic job market, who  all got great jobs: at Wash U., Wisconsin, Idaho and Harvard Medical School. Not only did none of them have glamour mag publications from my lab. None of them had yet published the work on the basis of which they were hired! They got their interviews on the basis of my letters and their research statements, and got the jobs because they are great scientists who had done outstanding, as of yet unpublished, work. If anything demonstrates the fallacy of the glamour mag or bust mentality this is it.

So, when I suggest that we all refuse to publish in non-open access journals, I am not being cavalier about the career prospects of the next generation. I don’t suggest we abandon them to the winds of fate. Rather I believe we can simultaneous do right by science, by the public AND by our trainees by explaining to them what is at stake, pointing out the holes in the prevailing wisdom they hear from all sides, and then explaining and defending their actions to the hilt when we write letters on their behalf.

Scientific publishing is broken, and it’s dragging down the field. We can either sit by and do nothing, allowing another generation to be captured by the allure of high impact publications. Or we can show some courage, shake off this silly dogma, and lead the next generation to a place that will be better for all concerned. You know what I choose. Please join me.

UPDATE: I want to reemphasize my central point. Getting jobs, grants and tenure is a competitive process in which the quality of an individual scientists previous work and future plans are evaluated. Getting a paper published a competitive process in which the quality of a piece of work and its potential impact is evaluated. It is no surprise that the results of these two processes are correlated. But it is a logical fallacy of the highest degree to conclude from this correlation that it is the journal in which your work gets published, rather than its inherent merits, that plays the dominant role in determining your success in science.

In spite of this perfectly reasonable (and I believe correct) alternative hypothesis, the scientific establishment, and most scientists, continue to reinforce the idea that one must always grope for the highest impact factor journal. Given that this leads to so many negative consequences for science – encouraging glamour over rigor, slowing scientific progress by delaying publication while papers bounce from journal to journal, and massively inhibiting the much-needed transformation from subscription-based to open access publication – it is absolutely essential that we not only fail to act on its precepts, but that we challenge its underlying assumptions, highlight empirical evidence that counters it, and otherwise do whatever we can to eradicate this deeply cynical and highly destructive mentality from our field.

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