Tuesday, 11 June 2013 11:16

Say ‘No’ to the Impact Factor

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"For the sake of science, the emphasis [on the impact factor] needs to change." 
Randy Schekman & Mark Patterson (1).

Do you know someone who has had a paper out for review for more than six months at one of the 'best' journals? Yeah, I do too. Welcome to the absurdity of the scientific publication process with tales of year-long waiting times between submission and acceptance, of second and even third rounds of reviews, of long lists of experiments to do. Then we race against time to turn those experiments into equally long files of supplementary material. The publication process as we know it should only exist in our worst nightmares.

Instead, it permeates the daily life of every scientist. We all know that in the land of publish-or-perish there are three magic words: NatureScience and Cell. Publications in these journals are the key to stability in the increasingly unstable world of academic research. To the group leader they bring money, promotions, invitations to speak all around the world, and an endless supply of students and postdocs eager to join their lab. For the young scientist they are critical to getting a job and securing abundant funding to start a lab. But the 'magic words' in themselves don't have any special powers; these largely come from their impact factors.

Like the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the impact factor was created by scientists who lost control of their creation and are now being hunted by it. But unlike Frankenstein's monster, the impact factor can hurt us only if we pay attention to it. So, why do we continue to idolize it? And the worst part is that we do it automatically.

Think about it. Imagine a student you know getting in the elevator. You say hi and ask how is their research going. 'It is going well, we just submitted a paper' says the student. 'Oh, that's great!' you answer, followed by the inevitable, 'What journal did you send it to?' As Ron Vale pointed out in a recent perspective (2), the emphasis has become a question of where one's work is published and not actually what the findings are.

It's time to wake up and work together for a better future. A future where sending a paper out for publication resembles a rational discussion of the science within rather than a lottery mixed with a fight to the death. A future with fair evaluations, helpful reviews and fast decisions. A future where my work and your work will be evaluated based on their actual scientific merit. Take the first step towards this future by signing and adhering to the recommendations contained in the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). ASCB is encouraging all researchers to sign, and the support of students and postdocs, the future scientific leaders, is crucial. More important yet, next time you are in the elevator with a student, instead of 'what journal did you send to?' try asking 'what is your paper about?'

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1. Schekman, R. & Patterson, M. Reforming research assessment. (2013) eLife.00855

2. Vale, R. D. Evaluating how we evaluate. (2012) Molecular Biology of the Cell 23, 3285–3289

Laura Diaz-Martinez

Laura fell in love with chromosomes during her PhD studying chromosome segregation with Duncan Clarke at the University of Minnesota. She is currently trying to understand how cells make life or death decisions during mitosis under the advisory of Hongtao Yu at UT-Southwestern Medical Center.

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