early career academics and the fuss about glam

Trying to publish glamorously in a high impact factor journal is not a bad thing if you do it purely by having a great, high quality study to publish that changes the world – or at least influences your field. But reading such ‘glam pubs’ I sometimes feel they were pushed into that journal by just boldly overselling the work’s importance. Scientists are usually very carefull with their statements. So what makes them completely oversell what they did? I think it is the high competition among early career scientists and career path insecurity.

I want to make clear right from the beginning that I have never been on faculty position search committees myself. Everything I am talking about here is my personal impression that I got from talking to people – mostly first hand. This impression is NOT specific to my current affiliation. It is a fusion of many conversations I have had – most of them not with faculty at my institution. I do not want anybody to think I knew exactly how the process works in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Why do I want to write about this, if I am not an expert? Because I want to put out there the perspective of the mid-way-through postdoc and explain, why we feel forced to go for ‘glam’. The discussion about this was induced by Erin McKiernan’s blog post
Confessions of an early career scientist
, who boldly stated that she will not pursue glam pubs like a mad woman. This then started some conversation on twitter (I know, I always seem to write about twitter stuff) about whether or not glam pubs are necessary to get into tenure track positions. The guys who stated it wasn’t all have their own glam on their CVs, though, even if it wasn’t the name of a journal.

The impact factor measures how well a journal does in publishing studies that have an impact on the scientific community. The glam pub journals have high impact factors because of harsh acceptance guidelines, large readership, and many citations of these articles (?). The articles in these journals are suited for everbody with some higher education. They are a little bit like a TED talk on paper. Pitched, short, big picture argumentation, mighty language and relatively little detailed information for people in the field. Overall just enough information to make a strong point and readers who want to know more, are referred to non-edited, badly presented ‘supplementary data’. So, in a way they have a glamorous façade and a not so glamorous interior (the substance might still be solid, though). And that is in the interest of the journal, because if a broad readership can understand it and every article sounds like the top of the pops, you can sell your journal more. I would totally go with the strategy just because I like to read spectacular science, too! So nothing against it, per se!

The impact factor is a measure for the journal, but apparently search committees (and funding agencies) use the impact factor to evaluate individual scientists! And they do it out of necessity. Let’s say you are searching for the next faculty member at your institution. You got literally (yes literally) 1200 applications. What do you do? Do you want to read all the papers these people published before you decide if they are worth a second look? No. You don’t. Seriously, no sane person would do that. You don’t even want to read all the research statements!

You need to cut down on the list with the broadsword before you carefully cut out the goodies you want to invite for interviews, with a scalpel. So, the applications are being scanned for buzzwords. In this way they select for
1) accomplishments: you have high impact factor journals in the publication list
2) heritage: you worked with renown people (who published in high impact factor journals)
3) location: you worked at renown places (where labs often publish in high impact factor journals)
*Of course, it doesn’t come down ONLY to high impact factor journals, but then it kind of does.

It seems to me that the first round of application evaluation is all about the glam. You need something in your CV that catches people’s attention enough to make them think ‘huh, this person might be worth a second look’.

The very sad part is, and everybody agrees on that:
while it is true that great work is published high IF, great researchers can select the best people to work in their labs and great institutions attract great researchers, the converse argument is not necessarily true! Just because you ended up on a high impact factor paper doesn’t mean you are a great researcher, it means somebody on the author list is good at selling the work to a high impact factor Journal – justified or not. And I add ‘or not’ because, as nature say themselves: if you use citation as a measure for success, then the body of work published in high impact factor journals isn’t actually that successfull. Only a small percentage gets many (and I mean seriously outstandingly many) citations, the rest doesn’t get more citations than those in low impact factor journals. (source: Deciphering impact factors) Isn’t being read by many more people but only being cited just as few times actually a sign for not-so-interesting? Also, working with a genius or next door to a genius doesn’t make you one. In fact, my personal experience with geniuses is, that they can’t show you the path to success, because they just ended up there. Of course, if you ask them, they come up with all kinds of explanations how they did it, but that worked for them because of who they were in the first place. Doesn’t necessarily work for you. It could even be that this genius master mind of a PI prefers working with minions who just do what he says, and they don’t really learn anything from him and end up everything but independent.

It all comes down to the point where committees need to sort out many applicants and use metrics to do so… and some day they picked the impact factor and they just won’t stop using it.

This is why so many young scientists, especially those who don’t have great academic heritage and location, desperately want glam pubs.

P.S. Another metric used to measure the success of scientists is the h-index. However, this one brings its own issues:
The h-index – what does it really measure?

5 thoughts on “early career academics and the fuss about glam

  1. “(Committees) picked the impact factor and they just won’t stop using it.”

    I think you underestimate the potential for change. Article-level metrics stand a good chance at displacing journal-level ones, because so many people readily acknowledge the failings of journal-level metrics. I suspect article-level metrics will have some of their own problems, but I think they will be smaller than the journal-level ones. And I think change will be slow, because this is academia, after all.

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