Am I having impact?

For the last few days there has been some buzz around the non-use of Impact Factors as a criteria for the UK’s Research Excellent Framework. Richard Catlow (head of the Chemistry REF panel) put it in writing here in an article in the RSC’s Chemistry World. This is a nice thing to know as an academic, your work should be judged on its quality not where it is published.

Stephen Curry is Sick of Impact factors too, where you can just take one look at the comment thread and see he’s not alone.

I have written about being concerned about impact factors before as a judgement of my worthiness as a scientist and as a relatively early career academic I haven’t stopped worrying. I have no idea what publications in high-impact vs. lower-impact journals will mean – in terms of a future career, not only for me but for my students and post-docs. I still am afraid that yes high impact publications do matter, even when I see the official reassurance. I do trust and believe my more established colleagues, but I gotta admit I immediately think is ‘what about unconscious bias’? Sort of like in the movies when some very crafty lawyer leads a witness into saying something that they shouldn’t and the judge tells the jury to ‘strike that from the record’ and that it can’t be used as evidence. Does that really ever work? This may be cynical on my part.

I just had a paper rejected from a high-impact journal this week, before it was sent out to review by the editor filter. This happens (to everyone) and I tried and I will try somewhere else. I am not feeling too bad about it. Partly because I know I am not the only one familiar with this experience, it is relatively common in academia. You tend to get rejected (a lot) for paper submissions if you try for higher impact journals; before it is even sent to review. So why do we bother? I have been asking myself this question often lately and I don’t really have an answer. But

High impact isn’t all bad. And as Homer Simpson (allegedly) says ‘If you don’t try you can’t fail’.

The reason why I sent this publication to this particular journal is because I would have liked it to be read by the particular audience that reads this particular journal. Or more realistically, the audience I want to believe reads that journal. Really. I didn’t do it for the pleasure of high-impact smugness or spin but because actually I wanted to try and get my work more widely read by a different (bigger) audience. I work at an interface of three disciplines – biology, physics and chemistry – there is no particular ‘journal’ for interdisciplinary work; as a result I am fairly omnivorous in my journal choice. That being said, there are places I can send work to get a fairly-wide readership, but I was shooting for a slightly different audience; a more general audience. It is hard to achieve that goal if the paper doesn’t even go to review.

I think having a widely-read paper in a high-impact journal is a good thing, if it is actually widely read. I doesn’t mean you are science big-wig but what it does mean your work might get read by a new broader audience – you know preaching to the choir and all that, avoided. At least I still have this hope which is, perhaps, slightly naive on my part. I do know that even if a paper is in a high-impact factor journal, this doesn’t actually mean it will get read – or indeed get more citations and as Dorothy Bishop pointed out. In fact sometimes your work actually gets less exposure and less citations in high-impact land, my most highly-cited paper is not in the highest-impact factor journal I have even published in.

But high impact can be bad, when you are judged by that alone.

I think is this is the real issue, and why we are all feeling a bit relieved in UK academia about the upcoming REF-judging statements by panel heads like Richard Catlow. But I am still on the fence about how important high-impact papers are, and honestly whether or not I want to try for them. It is a huge amount of work to re-craft a paper for a new journal, just to have it rejected before it even goes to review. Reviews are key. Equally, I do want my papers more widely read, I want other people in other fields to look at my work and tell me what they think. But I wouldn’t want high-impact papers to be the sole judge of my work . Honestly, at least in my estimation there are plenty of good papers in high-impact journals, they are not all horrid, but some really,really are. The only thing I do know for certain is that my favorite paper I have ever written is in a low impact factor journal and has a pretty low number of citations.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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2 Responses to Am I having impact?

  1. Mike says:

    I work at an interface of three disciplines – biology, physics and chemistry – there is no particular ‘journal’ for interdisciplinary work


    These are important points, Sylvia. How can we be sure that the REF panels won’t take the IF (or ‘perceived quality’) of a journal into account when they review the submissions?

    My vote (which I apologise for repeating on OT, but I’d really like to get the message across), would be for submission of ‘pre-print’ formats of the published papers, so the REF panel simply can’t take journal ‘quality’ into account, even subconsciously.

    Either that, or for them to explicitly admit that they will take these sort of metrics into account, so we can all set about gaming the system appropriately (and equally).

  2. Bob O'H says:

    I think having a widely-read paper in a high-impact journal is a good thing, if it is actually widely read.

    And, I think, being in a higher impact journal is more likely to make the paper highly read. At least it should help in getting it noticed. But, of course, that doesn’t guarantee it’ll be read or cited.

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