Publish and Be Damned

In this age of h indices and impact factors, the choice of where to publish seems to get ever more important and complex.  It used to be, as a physicist, the place to publish was PRL – or at least that was the general belief. I never subscribed to it, well I wouldn’t would I, given that I have never published a paper there. I used to get cross  when hearing statements such as so-and-so couldn’t be promoted/appointed whatever because they hadn’t a PRL to their name because I believe these things are sub-discipline-dependent.  I also got cross when, as an RAE panel member, I had to wade through turgid PRL’s because people (wrongly) assumed that a paper in such a ‘high impact’ journal would necessarily score better than a paper somewhere else. They should have read the small print which said clearly that where the paper was published would not be used as a criterion, only the quality of the paper.  The challenge of where to publish interdisciplinary work is even more acute, and the problems I alluded to about obtaining funding for interdisciplinary working here equally apply to publishing interdisciplinary papers , as  rpg pointed out in his comment on  that post.
When I worked on starch (work I discussed briefly here) I was always perplexed. If I published in a physics journal I could talk about the neat physics but not the relevance; if I published in food journals I got no brownie points in my department but the people who were probably going to use the results were more likely to find the paper; occasionally (through collaborations) I got to publish in ‘real’ biological journals, when the consequences of genetic mutations on the structure were studied. I came to the conclusion one really had to publish everywhere, even if sometimes this meant taking the same, or at least similar, data and publishing it in  different contexts and with different emphases to suit the particular journal.  More recently I have been facing exactly the same issues over the work I do on protein aggregation.

This work started off as an environmental scanning electron microscopy study of protein aggregation in the context of foods, more specifically whey proteins from milk. It rapidly transformed (the joys of research leading you into strange corners of the landscape) into something quite different with an emphasis on the generics of protein aggregation. We observed the appearance of a new type of aggregate we termed a spherulite, because of its optical similarity to the spherulites found in semi-crystalline polymers such as polythene (as in polythene bags: try looking at one under crossed polarisers and you will see something remarkably similar to the beta-lactoglobulin spherulite that decorates the left hand side of the bar across the top of my blog, although to be precise the latter is viewed with an additional lamda plate inserted). From there it was, as a physicist, but a short step to the aggregation that underlies diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease and recently, in a collaboration with bioinorganic chemists from Keele (notably Chris Exley) I published my first paper in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Not the average first port of call for a physicist, but clearly the right place for this particular piece of work.  I give a bibliography below, to demonstrate the breadth of places in which I feel a need to publish.

For new researchers setting out on their career, it is a daunting task, trying to navigate through this minefield.  Should one aim for the high impact journals and risk a series of rejections (in the case of somewhere like Nature, mercifully these usually come very fast) as one cascades down the impact factor ladder, or should one play safe and get a nice solid paper published in a nice solid uninspiring journal?  Should one hold off publishing results to aim at a superlative paper, risking someone pips you to the post – particularly if you work in a hot, topical area – or go for something less wonderful but which gets your name into circulation rapidly and which can then possibly be followed up by further similarly worthy papers. If you follow this path you can opt for the route I describe above, of spreading your favours around different flavours of journal and so, if you are lucky, get the same overall recognition from the breadth of coverage.  I personally favour the latter approach. If you have those beautiful results with a complete accompanying theory – the sort of paper we all dream of but rarely accomplish – then aim for the top. But otherwise, for the benefit of both the PI and the student whose thesis chapters and whose future career we are likely to be talking about, I think getting work out into reputable-but-not-necessarily-top-flight journals is likely to be a better strategy.  And then, for interdisciplinary work, you can play the double entry card of two papers stressing different aspects for each journal.

Sometimes one can be mischievous about this too.  The only paper I ever published with Sir Sam Edwards (whom I described previously here) was on carrots. Yes, carrots. My contribution arose from a project to develop tools to study the mechanical failure of vegetables, using environmental scanning electron microscopy, and we (Brad Thiel and I) concentrated on carrots. Sam, with another theoretical colleague from my department Mark Warner, were working on theories of ‘filled foams’ ie foam structures containing fluids and carrots are an excellent example of these. So, our experiments and their theory came together on this and we published a joint paper in PNAS.  My mischievousness manifested itself in submitting this paper to the 2001 RAE, since I thought the physics panel should be educated that vegetables are an appropriate topic for physicists and after all, PNAS is one of those high impact journals that people care about. However, I suspect (with the hindsight serving on the 2008 panel gave me) this probably backfired; carrots probably just turned people off despite the elegance of Mark and Sam’s theories. Luckily I will never know!

A scalpel blade is driven through carrots, and imaged in the environmental scanning electron microscope: a) fresh ; b) aged one week and c) aged 3 weeks. The carrots get progressively mushier and the failure changes accordingly. From BL Thiel and AM Donald - 1998. Annals of Botany 82 727-33.

Relevant Selected Bibliography


RE Cameron and AM Donald- 1993 Carb Res 244 225-236. A small angle Xray scattering study of the absorption of water into the starch granule.

RE Cameron and AM Donald – 1993   J Poly Sci. 31 1197-1204.  A small angle Xray scattering study of starch gelatinisation in excess and limiting water.

TA Waigh, MF Butler, I Hopkinson, F Heidelbach, C Riekel and AM Donald – 1997 – Macromolecules 30, 3813-20.  Analysis of the native structure of starch granules with X-ray microfocus diffraction. – which featured as a News and Views Article in Nature

SJ Livings, C Breach, A C Smith and AM Donald – 1998. Carb Poly 34 347-55.  Physical Ageing of Wheat Flour Based Confectionery Wafers.

TA Waigh, PA Perry, C Riekel, MJ Gidley and AM Donald -1998. Macromolecules 31 7980-4.  Chiral side chain liquid crystalline properties of starch.

S Zeeman, A Tiessen, E Pilling, L Kato, AM Donald and AM Smith – 2002.  Plant Physiology 129, 516-29.  Starch synthesis in Arabidopsis; leaf starch is fundamentally similar to storage starches.

DC Fulton, A Edwards, E Pilling, HL Robinson, B Fahy. R Seale, L Kato, AM Donald, P Geigenberger and AM Smith – 2002.  J Biol Chem 277, 10834-41.  Determination of Starch Granule Morphology in Potato.


BL Thiel and AM Donald – 1998. Annals of Botany 82 727-33.  In situ mechanical testing of fully hydrated carrots (daucus carota) in the environmental SEM.

M Warner, BL Thiel and AM Donald – 2000.  Proc Nat Acad Sci. 97 1370-5. The elasticity and failure of fluid-filled cellular solids – theory and experiment.

BL Thiel and AM Donald –2000. J Text Stud 31 437-55.  Microstructural failure mechanisms in cooked and aged carrots.

Protein Aggregation

MRH Krebs, CE MacPhee, AF Miller, I Dunlop, CM Dobson, AM Donald – 2004.  PNAS 101, 14420-4.  The formation of spherulites by bovine insulin amyloid fibrils.

MRH Krebs, EHC Bromley and AM Donald -  2005.   J Struct Biol, 149, 30-37.  The binding of thioflavin T to amyloid fibrils: Localisation and implications.

SS Rogers, P Venema, L Sagis, E van der Linden, AM Donald – 2005.  Macromols 38, 2948-58. Measuring the Length Distribution of a Fibril System: a Flow Birefringence Technique applied to Amyloid Fibrils.

SS Rogers, MRH Krebs, EHC Bromley, E van der Linden and AM Donald – 2006.  Biophys J 90 1043-54.   Optical microscopy of growing insulin amyloid spherulites on surfaces in vitro.

EHC Bromley, MRH Krebs and AM Donald – 2006.  EPJE 21 145-52. Mechanisms of structure formation in b-lactoglobulin near the isoelectric point.

SS Rogers, P Venema, JPM van der Ploeg, E van der Linden, LMC Sagis and AM Donald  – 2006.  Biopolymers 82, 241-52.  Investigating the permanent electric dipole moment of b-lactoglobulin amyloid fibrils, using transient flow birefringence.

MRH Krebs, G Devlin and AM Donald – 2009. Biophys J 96 5013-9. Amyloid fibril-like structure underlies the aggregate structure across the pH-range for beta-lactoglobulin

MRH Krebs, KR Domike and AM Donald  – 2009. Biochem Trans 37, 682-6. Protein aggregation: more than just fibrils.

C Exley, E House, JF Collingwood, MR Davidson, D Cannon and AM Donald – 2010. J Alzheimers Disease 20 1159-65. Spherulites in Abeta 42 in vitro and in Alzheimers Disease.

V Fodera and AM Donald 2010.  EPJE 33 273-282.  Tracking the heterogeneous distribution of amyloid spherulites and their population balance with free fibrils.

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18 Responses to Publish and Be Damned

  1. cromercrox says:

    Mmmm. Carrots.

  2. We’ve always advised people (especially early on as independent investigators) to get something out in a respectable specialist journal reasonably promptly rather than “incubating” away in the thin hope of cracking one of the Glamour Mags (Nature., Science, Cell etc etc). This is because we always reckoned that, for the newly independent, what people in the biz were watching for was an indication that they could stand on their own, run a lab, get the data out etc.

    Of course, it is fair to say that most people in the non-Nature publishing sector do not think the actual peer reviewing in the Glamour Mags is any tougher than in the specialist journals – it is getting past Henry et al (the on-staff reviewing eds) that is the barrier.

    Beyond that, I fear that within the specialist journal categories it is impact factor that plays a key role in people deciding where to publish – some comment on that is in my recent piece on peer review. Personally I always liked sharing the papers around – so having things in the Journal of Physiology (British), the American Journal of Physiology, and the European Journal of Physiology.

  3. @stephenemoss says:

    There is an interesting tension developing between ‘what’ you publish and ‘where’ you publish. For decades, as you rightly point out, the journal in which you publish has been critical in determining your future grant success, appointments, promotions etc. But in recent years Government has weighed in with the so-called ‘impact agenda’, much less concerned with where you publish but very interested in what you publish. So whilst other scientists (your peers) may be impressed by a superbly executed piece of fundamental research in Nature or Cell, the public, or the tax payer who perhaps funded the work, might be far more impressed by a paper in the Journal of Experimental Ophthalmology that reports a new way of restoring eyelid tension.

    Of course, while our careers and grant applications remain in the hands of our fellow scientists, we will continue to seek out those high impact journals. But one wonders for how much longer.

  4. Frank says:

    Stephen – also relevant to the impact agenda (and ‘translational research’) is where you get cited. Is your work of interest only to other researchers or does it feed into applied areas (healthcare, technology etc)?

  5. cromercrox says:

    @stephanemoss: ‘But in recent years Government has weighed in with the so-called ‘impact agenda’, much less concerned with where you publish but very interested in what you publish.’

    Amen to that!

    • I’m not entirely sure the impact agenda is even worried whether you publish, let alone where. It is what you are doing with whom that appears to be most important : presumably I should be talking to carrot slicing companies about how to optimise blades (were I still working on carrots) and whether or not I had a PNAS to my name would be irrelevant. But the impact agenda does still remain only a small part of what goes on – in the REF or in RC funding panels, so we shouldn’t get too hung up on it. I think Austin has it right in his advice to new researchers: get something out there in a solid journal to prove you have what it takes to get anything out there at all.

  6. Steve Caplan says:

    The issue of where (to try) to publish is a fascinating one, and probably there are game theorists who can put mathematical equations on strategies.

    It is interesting that “impact factor” is the usual reason presented by scientists for their attempt to get papers published in “top journals”. But if that were the only reason, then wouldn’t a paper in Journal of Biological Chemistry (impact factor average about 6) that’s cited 100 times be be 3-fold “better” than your average Cell paper, with an impact factor of about 35?

    My own personal “take” is that within our respective fields, most of us know what journals are ‘respectable’. My view is that we always keep our eyes open for the “big story”, but as in most cases where the perfect manuscript does not emerge, I am always happy to publish in the journals that researchers in my field respect (Mol Biol Cell, Traffic, J. Cell Sci., J. Biol. Chem, etc.).

    • Frank says:

      Steve – absolutely! When people come to ask me about impact factors of journals I always tell them they’d do better to ask an expert in the field (or themselves!). For some years we didn’t subscribe to the impact factor list but eventually bowed to pressure as so many people want to see these magic numbers.

    • Austin says:

      100% right, Steve. Absent the perfect earth-shattering paradigm-shifting result, it is specialist journals (field specific) every time.

      And of course, sometimes the field specific-ness is very specific. For instance, for calcium signalling, J Biol Chem for some reason became one of the go-to places a while back, even though it isn’t normally a journal that most physiologists would read a lot of (too subcellular and molecular!). So the hierarchy in “calcium signalling for physiologists” went something like (if we ignore the Glamour Mags)

      J Biol Chem –> Am J Physiol (Cell Physiol Sectn specifically) or perhaps J Physiol –> Other mainstream physiology journals –> Cell Calcium.

      - all just IMHO, of course.

      And even then, that list would change if you were a cardiac cell calcium physiologist, in which case Circ Res and J Physiol would probably be together at the top rather than JBC.

      Quite how this “translates” to IFs is anyone’s guess.

  7. One of the troubles with field-specific journals is exactly what makes people who cross disciplines find life difficult when publishing. When I started work on starch, no one knew who I was (I was a polymer physicist in their eyes, although they failed to spot that starch is polymeric) and so I wasn’t ‘known’ and my work wasn’t wanted in their journal. Once I’d established my credibility in the field it was a different matter, and I had to do that by publishing in polymer journals first. So, it isn’t only topic, or IF or any of the other things so far raised that mattered at this point. It was the fact I was coming from outside ‘their’ field. Hence my point about the challenges publishing interdisciplinary work can present, which seems to have got a bit lost in the discussion of impact and impact factors.

    • There is a fair bit of what you say even in things many other people “see” as the same or closely overlapping disciplines, Athene, like medicine and basic biomedical sciences.

      For instance, “clinical-led” journals that publish mostly clinical and some non-clinical research often have high impact factors. But basic scientists working in basic research on the same bit of the body are often heard to mutter that you need a clinical co-author known in the clinical area to get much of a hearing. Officially the idea is that the research should be “relevant to a clinical problem” – but having a clinical co-author tends to mean that relevance is assumed, whereas without one it is more likely to be “assumed not”.

    • Stephen says:

      Interesting stuff. I guess I’m not as interdisciplinary as I thought because I haven’t really come across these sort of turf wars/boundary concerns during my own submissions. It does rather reveal one of the weakness of the peer review system (to drag in another topic), if the presumed field of the author is seen a a factor to weigh up in judging the merits of a particular manuscipt.

      And I love the idea of testing the mechanical failure of vegetables — sounds like an area that Wallace and Gromit would be happy to investigate…

  8. Great post ! The only comment I have is that without getting too specific – I have felt under much pressure from line management to not just publish anywhere but to specifically get ‘high impact papers’ – so while I agree with this and find it so refreshing – it seems that in reality alot of admin people want us younger ppl to do this too. so I find I get conflicting advice in reality – I have also been rejected from grants because I don’t have high enough impact pubs – so I don’t know what to think…

    • I’m afraid the world is divided – hence the conflicting advice – into those like me who disregard the place of publication to a large extent, and those who fancy high IF magazines simply for the sake of it. But these things are field specific, quite apart from anything else, so one has to be pragmatic as I tried to set out. People are always trying to find means to mark down proposals, I’m afraid, so no ‘high impact journal publications’ is an easy cop-out for a referee. Not everyone even looks at the publication list just concentrates on the science. There is, as ever, no single right way to tackle this problem.

      There is a nice anecdote I was told about the French theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner de Gennes, whom I wrote about previously . No idea if the story is true but it was said that if he had some science he was uncertain about, not sure if it was absolutely right, he published it in French so it was less likely to be found. The best science was allegedly always written up in English.

      • Actually you and I are in similar feilds I have discovered – I too work at the interface between biology and physics – looking at liquid structures. I use a technique mostly known to physics to look at biological problems, or rather I try to. so your story is rather inspirational to me. I have tried to do the same things, publish in a variety of journals -and have been varyingly successful and often times just feel like giving up – perserverence is what I gleaned from your post so thanks for that…

        • Thanks Sylvia for your heartening comment. Perseverance is frequently the name of the game. Research is all about not knowing what’s round the corner both in terms of the actual research outputs but also the knock-on consequences of them. So, take heart and plug on. I do think working in non-traditional areas – which interdisciplinary work so often is – is more challenging when one sets out because there isn’t an obvious clique cheering you on. I am fortunate in my case that it seems to have got easier as time has gone on – let’s hope that’s true for you too.

          • Thanks again –
            I have thus far – and I completely agree – I also stubbornly refuse to compromise my research (eg spin it when it isn’t warranted) so I do feel good about that part … the problem I face currently is getting more funding, but I think we are all in that boat…

  9. It is interesting to consider whether changes to the peer review system, discussed in his recent post by fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Frank Norman would make any difference to this interdisciplinary problem. I’m not convinced!