Once upon a time, science journals were run by scientific societies and their editors were active scientists. Very few of these remain today. Instead, nowadays most journals are own by private, usually very large, publishing companies and their editors are “professional”. That is, their only job is to be journal editors, they are not active scientists. Most of them were active scientists earlier in their career, but left academia to become “professional” editors, usually, shortly after their postdoctoral studies. Because of this, most professional editors are much younger (no problem there) and considerably more inexperienced (hmmm… ) than the principal investigators from whom they receive manuscripts for consideration. Typically, these “youngish” editors can get advice and (one would hope) guidance from more senior editors within the same journal or publishing organization, but they are pretty much in charge of the main decisions of the manuscripts assigned to them.
I do not live in a bubble, so, in a disappointing way, I was not surprised. But it was difficult for me to keep myself from venting a remark of frustration, “O., you tell me where you are publishing your work, but you don’t tell me what the work was about, what you have discovered! Isn’t that the important thing?” Well, I did not actually make that last rhetorical question, but I should have.
Here is O.A., one of my former students, one of the promising ones, explaining his research in terms of the journals in which it is getting published, as if that were the only thing that matters in his science. Yes, he may have been trying to make an impression on his former mentor. But… where did the science go? Isn’t that what really counts? The “Journal Syndrome” has advanced to such point that the title of the journal in which the research is published becomes more important than the research itself and hence the preferred short-hand description for science output.
How did we get to this situation and can this trend be reversed? Without doubt, this is a direct product of the current addiction to Impact Factors, the mother of most curses in modern science. However, while making Impact Factors disappear would appear very difficult at this time, avoiding the Journal Syndrome should be relatively simpler. When someone asks about your research, pretend he or she is a distant relative with no inside knowledge and simply tell them what you found in as few and simple words as possible. Journal Syndrome manifests most commonly when the other person is also a scientist. In this case, you can allow yourself a bit more jargon and specifics, but the key point is always to keep the focus on your new findings. Try this next time. And if you are at the other end, as I was with my student O.A., don’t let them get away with the journal babble. Force them to tell you what they found. Hopefully, they’ll know…
I have been around long enough to remember the time when there were no impact factors. (Don’t know what an impact factor is? Read HERE). We all knew that, say, Nature, was more prestigious (or sexy, hot, trendy, impactful, whatever you want…) than, say, JBC. And that JBC was better journal than many (actually many!) other (ie lower) journals. We did not need any impact factors to realise that. And of course this “intuitive” information was used to evaluate job candidates and assess tenure. A paper in Nature was very important, we all knew that, and did not need any impact factors. The problem now is that impact factors put a hard number on what earlier was an intuitive, soft process. So, now we know that not only is Nature “better” than JBC, it is actually 10.12 times “better”. And PNAS is 2.23 times “better”. That is what has generated so many problems and distortions. The temptation to use those numbers is just too high, irresistible. For the journals, for the papers in them, and for individual scientists. And the numbers change every year. When applied to individual papers this gets totally crazy. Imagine. The “value” of a given paper can be higher (or lower) this year than, say, 3 years ago when it was published. The same paper, the same data. And let’s not get started with what the impact factor has done to innovaiton and creativity. (For a good view on this, read Sydney Brenner’s interview HERE
Thank you for sending us your paper “Downregulation of HlpxE-mediated transcription doubles median life-span expectancy in humans”, but I am afraid we cannot offer to publish it in The Current Biologist.
We appreciate the interest in the issue you are addressing, and your results sound potentially significant for the field, but our feeling is that at this stage your paper would be better suited to a somewhat more specialised journal.
I am sorry that we cannot give you a more positive response, but thank you for your interest in The Current Biologist.
Many of us —professional scientists writing research articles— have had to confront this type of letters from journal editors. We have grown accustomed to them. A standard cut-and-paste piece of text used knee-jerkedly by editors without much thought or consideration. We file them promptly, and move on. After all, there are plenty of journals around, both general and specialized. No big deal, right?
However, the concept of “a more specialized journal” remains as elusive as ever. Admitedly, The Current Biologist is a half-invented journal, but there are still plenty like it that claim to be “generalists” and yet publish papers with titles like “Slicing-Independent RISC Activation Requires the Argonaute PAZ Domain” or “Distinct Roles of Talin and Kindlin in Regulating Integrin α5β1 Function and Trafficking” or “SUMOylation of the α-Kleisin Subunit of Cohesin Is Required for DNA Damage-Induced Cohesion“ and so forth… How about that for “specialized” knowledge?
A journal that publishes papers containing three or more abbreviations or jargon terms in their titles can not honestly claim to be a generalist. To ask their authors to submit their work to a more specialized journal is –at the very least– disrespectful to the authors who have put so much work behind a research study. Understandably, however, polite alternatives require more time and effort from journal editors. “We feel that the results presented in your manuscript lack mechanistic insights and therefore seem too preliminary for our journal” would seem like a more honest and realistic alternative. Or why not simply let them know the truth: “The topic of your study falls outside the scope of our journal”? Alas, either of these requires editors to have read the manuscript, which —sadly— is not always the case.
Perhaps it’s time to launch the “Journal of Specialized Biology” , a forum for all those research papers that —like the one above on human life-span doubling— have been deemed to too specialized for die-hard “Argonaute PAZ Domain” generalists.
The Science podcast has several problems, the biggest one is podcaster Robert Frederick. I can not imagine a more unnatural, robotic voice on Earth. Does he speak like that to his friends? Even the text-to-speech voice in my Mac sounds more human that this guy. I also find the usual bit about science policy terribly uninteresting. As in the World Series, this is only concerned with US policy, of course. If listening at night in bed, I am surely asleep by this moment. Both Nature and Science have another feature in common that I think takes unnecessary space, that is the bit on news at the end in which one journalist interviews another. This practice has become very popular in TV talk shows and news programs, and sometimes I can see the point of asking questions to a journalist deeply specialized on a particular topic. But those are not the guys at Nature or Science. I find it totally uninteresting, I much rather have the actual scientists telling the story.
The Cell podcast focuses only on interviews, which is good, but again, I see it lacking on spontaneity. The editors read text, it’s obvious, and this becomes very unnatural and off-putting. I don’t know where they record this, but their voices have a funny echo as if they were speaking from a closet or bathroom. Otherwise the interviews are great and feature terrific scientists. I also like the fact that they draw from different Cell journals. It adds a nice variety. A practice common to the Cell and Science podcasts is to refer everyone by their Dr. title. Dr. this, Dr. that. Thank you Dr. Is this an americanism? It’s very stiff and off-putting. How about calling them by their first names? This is what Nature does. It’s less distracting and so much fresher and friendlier.
In conclusion, the Nature podcast is the favorite one. I’ll keep listening to Science and Cell, but I am very thankful for the fast forward button in my iPod!
Robert Frederick is no longer with the Science podcast. Stewart Wills has replaced him and… oh boy, what a difference! Great to have a sentient human being talking to you. Much better!