On ‘lower impact’ publishing – it’s better than you might think.

Over the course of the last two or so years, I have had a number of personal issues to deal with. Family illnesses, the sudden death of my older brother and some other things (I will spare you the gory details). Fortunately for me, my scientific research kept going. Why? Because I had an absolutely fantastic research group who worked hard and stayed in touch with me during my absences. During all of this the group had 2 PhD and 4 MSc students finish and we managed to publish 13 papers since 2016. Hoorah.

my group
Me with my research group in November 2016.

One of the choices I made during this time was to stop submitting things to high impact factor (or top-tier) journals. Why? For speed and for my sanity. I have nothing against top-tier journals, they serve their purpose. I have several publications in these journals which I am proud of. However, top-tier journals are not the only journals out there and they are not necessarily the most well read in a particular research area.

One of my favourite journals is The Journal of Chemical Physics. This is an excellent physics journal, which has a lower impact factor than, for instance, Nature Physics, but to quote one of my collaborators – ‘people read the shit out of that journal’. My experience with J. Chem. Phys. is that they are fair, fast and on the whole you get very reasonable reviewers. The editors are exemplary and the accepted publication production process is streamlined and easy. I have a bunch of fairly well-cited papers in this journal and I have read a number of damn fine papers in this journal. Word on the street is that you must have good technical chops to get published in J. Chem. Phys. If you ask me, this is what good science is about.

However, there are some among my peers who don’t think publishing in lower impact journals is useful. In fact, they think quite the contrary, that it shows your research isn’t *good enough* to be accepted to a *better* (meaning higher impact) journal. To some scientists and importantly to some people who are in a positions of power to decide who is a good scientist, only the top-tier journals are *good*. If you don’t publish in them enough – as a corresponding or first author – than your research must not be as good. I am not going to name any names but I am sure quite a lot of people think this, because I have heard quite a lot of people say it. It is, quite simply, a ridiculous, yet pervasive myth. There are a number of reasons why some research is not published in top-tier journals rather than just because it isn’t *good enough*. A given researcher may not have many publications in a top-tier journal because they haven’t submitted them there. Perhaps, like me, they are in a hurry to get something out and don’t want to spend the 8 months it takes to go back and forth between the reviewers and the editors – in my experience publication in top-tier journals takes about 100x as long. A given piece of work may have a better fit somewhere else, somewhere where it will have the shit read out of it . This does not mean the research (or the researcher) is not any good, it just means that piece of research is not in a top-tier journal. I, for one, have never decided NOT to cite an interesting piece of work because it is not in Nature or Science.

In the end, science has to stand the test of time, not the test of what journal you happened to get it into during your lifetime as a scientist. The truth is, none of us know what that future looks like – as much as we like to think we can predict where science will go next. In the future, it certainly won’t matter if our contribution was read in Nature or The Journal of Chemical Physics. It is the science, rather than the vehicle it is published in, that actually matters the most.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain
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22 Responses to On ‘lower impact’ publishing – it’s better than you might think.

  1. This is an extremely well stated argument that is often unspoken! To take it slightly further and to be a bit provocative I often tell trainees “the better the journal the worse the data” and am only being partly tongue-in-cheek. Then I also also say that when you have something amazing you do submit to the “high impact” journal (e.g. the proposed structure of the DNA double helix was in Nature), but it is not necessary most of the time for your work to go to such journals in order for it to have an important impact.

  2. LF says:

    Very good points. Probably worth noting that the ‘good’ journals are said to be good in large part because of their IF…which is an average and its inflated in the highest IF journals by a subset of papers that get huge amounts of cites. Most papers are well below the average. Is an uncited paper in science better than a well cited paper in X low impact journal because of the venue its in? Hell no.

  3. Saul Shiffman says:

    Three thoughts:
    1. With online search and online retrieval, where something is published matters less than it used to, because content from all journals shows up in searches (if the journal is indexed), and is retrievable. (Though you would think this would raise the citation count of low-impact-factor journals, which contradicts the premise….)
    2. With the spread of predatory journals that are truly trash (I am a psychologist, and regularly invited to submit to and be an editor of journals in chemistry, oncology, materials since, etc.), there is a middle ground. One may not want/need to publish in the highest-end journals, but one should avoid the bottom-feeders.
    3. A problem with the highest-end journals, alluded to in the blog post, is that they favor the most spectacular or surprising or ground-breaking research that makes the biggest splash, including garnering media attention, which these journals crave. But there is considerable evidence that research with such ‘astounding’ results is also the least likely to replicate

  4. Pietro Ghezzi says:

    Interesting perspective, I wonder whether this only happens in physics. I am a biomedical scientist who published some papers in PNAS, Science, Journal of Experimental Medicine and (as you might expect) many many more in “lower impact factor journals”. If I look on Goggle Scholar, all those in the high impact journals are cited much more than the others (of course, review articles are an exception). Maybe in my field it’s different?

  5. MaryQ says:

    And any day now, I expect tenure and promotion committees to come around to this kind of thinking, I don’t, actually.

    I value what you say here and I thank you for expressing this important perspective. I, too, made similar choices early in my faculty career. I had several very high impact publications from my PhD and postdoc years, but during my time as an assistant professor I focused on just putting out good solid science, being content with the fact that my graduate students at a not terribly selective graduate program were getting great training (and I take pride in what we accomplished together and what they have accomplished since graduating), engaging in the life of my department and university beyond just my research program, and taking care of my family. I tended to undershoot when it came to submitting, as evidenced by the fact that all of my papers where accepted to the first journal submitted, my citations are significantly higher than average for those journals, and some of my colleagues successfully published lesser manuscripts in those same journals.

    The tenure committee called this a “downward career trajectory” and sent me packing.

    That said, I can’t say I have too many regrets. But some people would have regrets about that outcome. So, while I think what you advise here is very good for sanity, pride in ones work, and some semblance of work-life balance, early career scientists should consider your advice with eyes wide open.

  6. Rachel London says:

    Early on it is important to have high-impact journals in there because it proves you can.

    I don’t think you necessarily need to repeat this trick repeatedly though, and publishing in a variety of journals, ones which particularly address your audiences, is important.

    I aim for a mix, I’m mid-career.

  7. Hamdi says:

    I agree with the post. I love APL and JAP and read more papers there than Nature Materials…

  8. Abram Falk says:

    Good advice from one tenured professor to another, but I would not particularly recommend this route to anyone else. Sure, people in your specific subfield can appreciate high quality j Chem Phys, but everyone else only has brand name to go on. If you are expecting to look a job some day, high profile journal articles are pretty much the only ones that count.

    • I am not tenured, I am not even tenure-track but a research fellow on soft money. I also do not have no high impact papers. My point is merely that we as a community are still biased towards these hi impact papers and this is not a Mark of how good you are or aren’t. There are many issues around this – but I think your comment shows my point. Why is it you have to have a high impact paper for tenure? Does seem right to you ? To get tenure you have referees if you have good solid output which your 10 referees can surely determine and funding and etc why is a Nature paper a must? This makes no sense to me.

      • Hal Levin says:

        Sylvia,

        Thanks for your well-thought and well-argued post.

        Your comment to Abram Falk seems to me to assume that referees are fair and can shed their biases. I don’t believe this is the case most of the time. Bias is built into scientific activity and satisfying a PhD committee usually involves avoiding toe-stepping and perhaps, recognizing their contribution to your enterprise.

        My experience when I referee for journals that send the decision letter along with all referees’ comments to each referee is that we referees perform at widely varying levels including ‘too busy to read the paper or take the time to be helpful with their comments, to very seriously committed to the process and to helping raise the quality of published papers.

        I have seen very poor papers published in relatively high impact factor journals in my domain — buildings and their impacts on occupant health and very good papers in journals with lower IFs.

        Thanks again, Keep on writing.

  9. disagree says:

    Low IF journals are not going to get you tenure, so I sure hope assistant professors don’t take this advice to heart. Publishing low for the sake of your own sanity is also terrible for your trainees who, like it or not, are being judged by the journals where they’ve published.

  10. Julie Welburn says:

    I think it’s a great post and I agree with much of it. Everyone should be doing that. A paper for every PhD student and for postdocs regularly is really important for the CV and moral, some people can get no papers in years because the PI only wants to publish in Science/Nature. Also the papers should be preferably open-access

    • JuliaM says:

      Yes — this is a really important aspect as well. I suffered from a PI who only wanted to publish in the biggest impact titles, with a group of ~15 students/postdocs. There were never enough first author spots to even give most of us a chance. Not to mention the fact that every breakthrough that’s reported in one of the top impact factor journals is built on the backs of small, niche breakthroughs reported elsewhere.

  11. J Law says:

    Not sure I agree. Most journals are quite opportunistic, and so does tenure evaluation process. Indeed there might be gems in low impact journals and those profs might be excellent scientists, but why not settle for excellent work published at high impact journals?

    We give A to students for specific reasons and this argument sounds like “I don’t mind getting a GPA of 2.7 as long as I graduate”. True, but good luck on finding a good job.

    What needs to be done more by journals is to push for bringing in industrial expertise to editorials to balance the evaluation of the societal impact of the study.

  12. Scott Zona says:

    The ability to publish in the high impact journals depends not only on the splashiness of the research but also the field of study. As a plant taxonomist, I’ve found that the “elite” journals are closed to me. Have you ever seen new species of plant described in Nature or Science? A taxonomic paper — unless it’s a new homonid or dinosaur — has no chance there. In contrast, the society journals (those published by professional societies) and museum journals are doing a super job of publishing solid, peer-reviewed research. And with Google Scholar and other on-line tools, these papers are discoverable. Moreover, they place the research in front of readers who are most likely the users of that research. Besides, I prefer to support the society and museum journals rather than the for-profit publishers of the high-impact journals.

  13. I would hope scientists know which journals in their field are solid independent of the Impact Factor of the journal. That is the main thing a journal should offer, a solid peer review. Apart from that tenure committees should judge your work by reading it, anything else is an abdication of duty.

    If you publish a lot in journals where the other articles are cited less, you may be interested in a new initiative I have started: grassroot scientific journals. Where we collect and assess published scientific articles and manuscripts. An always up to date review of the field with quantitative assessments of the papers.

    An example grassroots journal for my field can be found here:
    https://homogenisation.wordpress.com/

  14. Amy K. Eoff says:

    Dear Dr. McLain,

    Not a scientist. Not published. A librarian.

    Loved this post, as it addresses one of the more pernicious effects of the continued corporatization of the academy: buzzword bingo. “Impact Factor” sounds suspiciously like nothing more than a marketing term, with the journals having quantities of same the ‘winners’ in that particular game, thus suffering from a case of being currently fashionable. Fashions change, the buzzwords are routinely updated to keep up with fashion, and yet the tools available to the average researcher make such popularity unnecessary, and perhaps even an encumbrance.

    Huzzah to you for insisting on solid science, and eschewing the swimsuit portion of the current academic beauty pageant. May your stance be the ‘winner’ in the next round of competition.

    You have my most sincere wishes for a long and prosperous career.

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  17. Kevin Floate says:

    I agree that publishing in high impact journals will enhance career progress, but I also agree that IF is a flawed metric upon which to judge a paper’s impact or the quality of the researcher(s).

    In 2007, the European Association of Science Editors put out a statement with the recommendation that “journal impact factors are used only – and cautiously – for measuring and comparing the influence of entire journals, but not for the assessment of single papers, and certainly not for the assessment of researchers or research programmes either directly or as a surrogate.” (http://www.ease.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/ease_statement_ifs_final.pdf).

    Managers, promotion committees, and granting agencies, please take note.

  18. Gyanshankar Mishra says:

    Very nice thoughts.

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