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Feb 05 2012

Boycotting Paper Submissions To Glamour Journals

This interesting discussion continues over at Michael Eisen’s blogge, where he asserts the following, which extends the thinking from non-open-access journals to glamour journals in general (such as Science, Nature, and Cell, and even those that are open access, such as PLoS Biology):

Encouraging the people we train to focus so exclusively on journal titles as the determinant of their success downplays the many other factors that play into these decisions: letters of recommendation, how effectively they communicate in person, and, most importantly, the inherent quality of their science. Sure, reviewers sometimes take shortcuts, but the quality of the underlying science and candidate matter a lot – and in most cases are paramount.

My own lab provides several examples that demonstrate this reality. My graduate students have gone on to great postdocs and many have landed prestigious fellowships “despite” having only published in open access journals. More curiously, I have had four postdoctoral fellows go out onto the academic job market, who all got great jobs: at Wash U., Wisconsin, Idaho and Harvard Medical School. Not only did none of them have glamour mag publications from my lab. None of them had yet published the work on the basis of which they were hired! They got their interviews on the basis of my letters and their research statements, and got the jobs because they are great scientists who had done outstanding, as of yet unpublished, work. If anything demonstrates the fallacy of the glamour mag or bust mentality this is it.

So, when I suggest that we all refuse to publish in non-open access journals, I am not being cavalier about the career prospects of the next generation. I don’t suggest we abandon them to the winds of fate. Rather I believe we can simultaneous do right by science, by the public AND by our trainees by explaining to them what is at stake, pointing out the holes in the prevailing wisdom they hear from all sides, and then explaining and defending their actions to the hilt when we write letters on their behalf.

Encouraging the people we train to focus so exclusively on journal titles as the determinant of their success downplays the many other factors that play into these decisions: letters of recommendation, how effectively they communicate in person, and, most importantly, the inherent quality of their science. Sure, reviewers sometimes take shortcuts, but the quality of the underlying science and candidate matter a lot – and in most cases are paramount.

My own lab provides several examples that demonstrate this reality. My graduate students have gone on to great postdocs and many have landed prestigious fellowships “despite” having only published in open access journals. More curiously, I have had four postdoctoral fellows go out onto the academic job market, who all got great jobs: at Wash U., Wisconsin, Idaho and Harvard Medical School. Not only did none of them have glamour mag publications from my lab. None of them had yet published the work on the basis of which they were hired! They got their interviews on the basis of my letters and their research statements, and got the jobs because they are great scientists who had done outstanding, as of yet unpublished, work. If anything demonstrates the fallacy of the glamour mag or bust mentality this is it.

So, when I suggest that we all refuse to publish in non-open access journals, I am not being cavalier about the career prospects of the next generation. I don’t suggest we abandon them to the winds of fate. Rather I believe we can simultaneous do right by science, by the public AND by our trainees by explaining to them what is at stake, pointing out the holes in the prevailing wisdom they hear from all sides, and then explaining and defending their actions to the hilt when we write letters on their behalf.

Scientific publishing is broken, and it’s dragging down the field. We can either sit by and do nothing, allowing another generation to be captured by the allure of high impact publications. Or we can show some courage, shake off this silly dogma, and lead the next generation to a place that will be better for all concerned. You know what I choose. Please join me.

In interpreting these comments–which I completely agree with in principle–the following is also essential to take note of:

I’m an evolutionary biologist at UC Berkeley and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

How many post-docs are gonna get jobs like that under circumstances like that who don’t come from institutions like Berkeley and–even more importantly–whose mentors aren’t Hughes investigators?

When one of my post-docs has her paper triaged without peer review by the PLoS Biology star chamber, and then triaged without peer review by the PLoS Genetics star chamber, how can I in good conscience tell her to send it to PLoS ONE–which I know to be viewed as of right now as a “dump” journal by most people whose opinions matter–instead of to another relevant journal that is viewed as of right now as a “prestigious” journal by most people whose opinions matter?

Don’t get me wrong. It is great that Michael Eisen and his post-docs are in the privileged position of being able to tell the glamour journals–including those that are open access–to fucke offe. If more people in that privileged position do the same, it will definitely move the needle in the direction we all agree is desirable.

But not everyone is privileged like that, and cannot be expected to do the same. I was a post-doc in the just-started lab of an assistant professor with no real reputation and definitively not plugged into the Hughes network. If I didn’t publish the most important part of my post-doctoral work in Nature, I wouldn’t have ever got job interviews at the kind of institution where I am now employed.

I know of people who got excellent assistant professor jobs at prestigious institutions contemporaneously with me on the basis of being plugged into the right networks–yes, including the Hughes network–who never got any substantial funding, who never published any research from their labs (presumably thus destroying the careers of any post-docs who were in their labs), who accordingly got shitcanned by their institutions, and who then–again on the basis of being plugged into the right networks–got *second* jobs at equally prestigious institutions to try again (we’ll see how many post-docs’ careers they destroy this time around).

The awesome blogger Driftglass has a very apt saying that he applies to the Beltway political-media Village:

There are two Rules for left-wing bloggers:

(1) There is a Club.

(2) You are not in it.

There is a biomedical research Club. Not everyone is in it. Different rules apply to those who are in it and those who are not.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    Reverend PJ

    No Shit!

  2. 2
    DrugMonkey

    Yes. Eisen’s bragging and shining virtue *definitely* need to be viewed with recognition of his exalted accomplishments/positions. Asking other people to take risks that you don’t actually face yourself (nor do your trainees) should be done carefully.

  3. 3
    Reverend PJ

    At my beloved institution, the provost has decided that if your research isn’t published in a “prestigious” journal it doesn’t count. Prestigious is defined as having a high impact-factor and being listed in the blessed database of worthy journals he bought. I work in computer science, a discipline where peer-reviewed conferences are the primary venue for publication. The position of my institution now is that conferences don’t count because they’re not glamour journals. Open access journals almost certainly don’t count because they’re not in the blessed database of journals. I’m sure that if I worked at a prestigious university with awesome funding and credibility by osmosis there would be no problems. Unfortunately I work at a university that doesn’t know what it wants to be, but by god you had better meet the ever shifting criteria.

    Eisen is simultaneously right and full of shit. I actually agree that there are problems with the status quo. Alas, bucking the status quo for most of the toilers in academe means a short unpleasant career.

    For the record I’m not overly bitter, just looking for a different institution.

  4. 4
    toruokada

    So strange, that this basic fact has to be mentioned separately. The peer review system, which Michael Eisen attacked, is part of the club structure. I don’t want to focus on exemptions like PNAS as paper generator for club members. No, I am talking about the ordinary peer review. Where the reviewer sees the author’s name. How many weak papers are published in highly ranked journals just because the senior author is well-known. Where is the double-blind standard for the review process?
    We definitely need better “quality parameters” for research and researchers. I hope with open access and online post-publication review we get tools to achieve that. But the club members will not let go of the old system easily, because they benefit from it. Just like the publishers.

  5. 5
    Rich Jorgensen

    Why shoot the messenger? Eisen may be fortunate enough to have the blessing of HHMI and UCB, but he is also trying to break up the ‘club’. As is rightly pointed out above, the worst part of the club is anonymous peer review, and Eisen is taking aim at that. The reality is complex and multi-faceted. Overturning the status quo is not any easier in science than in politics and finance – and look how well that’s going in the latter realms… We are in for a long struggle. Not for perfection, but for the greatest degree of fairness and transparency we can achieve. Decisions based on rational analysis, not perceptions of who has the ‘right’ connections, publishes in the ‘right’ journals.

    For years I stubbled in relative obscurity. (My record is public on google scholar [publications] and google plus [positions, etc.].) The only times I’ve published in Science and Nature were as a minor coauthor on genome papers with a cast of dozens. (Well, OK, I published a couple of commentaries in Science; these were not primary research articles, which is the main topic here.) The one time I published in Cell was in 1980 when Cell was not yet a glam mag. I’ve never been part of the ‘club’, never wanted to be, actively sought to avoid it. Being part of the club tends to mean thinking a certain way, which I felt was counterproductive. I was in the biotech industry for 7 years and on ‘soft money’ in academia for 8 years before somewhat reluctantly accepting my first faculty position (U of Arizona) – I needed a job… From 1990 till at least the late 90′s I was considered a somewhat strange, fringe player in plant genetics, and almost completely unknown outside plant biology. Most would now say I’ve been very successful. But I don’t think one should measure one’s success by what most would say, or by whether you have a faculty position in a major research institution or by whether HHMI has anointed you. I prefer to measure success primarily by what I think I have and haven’t accomplished , tempered by the opinions of those few scientists I know well and respect deeply.

    I truly do not believe it matters very much in the long run where one publishes. The most important thing is to publish. It is equally important to get the word out – if you don’t ‘sell’ yourself in today’s world, it’s not likely anyone else will. The approach I am embracing today is to try to weave together standard publication and social media – blogs, tweets, email, etc. I send my colleagues links to papers I publish (mostly in Frontiers lately). I tweet about them, and I tweet my blogs. I also tweet about others’ work and do what I can to promote young scientists who seem to me to have potential. Helping each other is a good thing. You don’t have to be part of any club to do that or to benefit from it. But you do need to interact with others, in whatever ways you can.

    A final word: don’t whine, don’t get angry, get to work, be creative, be an active participant, be open, try to help others as much as you help yourself. There is no answer, only possibilities.

  6. 6
    Michael Eisen

    Your attacks on my privilege are somewhat misdirected. My first four postdoctoral candidates went out on the job market before I had HHMI funding. The first two were while I was in a junior, non tenure-track, soft-money funded position at the good, but hardly “elite club”, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. The latter two while I was an untenured assistant professor at Cal still only dreaming of having HHMI funding. Was I toiling away in obscurity and unrecognized? No. I was reasonably well-known in my subfield. But I was hardly an exemplar of an elite club either – there are literally thousands of PIs in the US whose standing and position were equivalent to mine.

    And I do understand the nervousness that guides peoples’ decisions here. Success in the field isn’t anything remotely like a pure meritocracy. Doing great work plays a big role. But so do all sorts of intangible things like pedigree, connections and luck. I fully admit that all three have played a role in my success. And I don’t blame people for trying to avail themselves of whatever opportunities they feel are necessary to get where they want to be.

    What I do object to, however, is the monodimensional way in which this is often presented to young people in the field. I believe they are getting a distorted view of what really matters, leading them to have the wrong priorities and to make decisions that are not only bad for science, but often bad for them.

    I should also add that, in my experience, the glamour-mag mentality is actually at its most extreme in the “elite club” labs where, as you point out, it matters the least. Many of my HHMI colleagues routinely justify their own publishing behavior in the name of protecting the interests of their students and postdocs. As I think we both agree, people in well-funded, high-profile labs are in the best position to eschew the standard way of doing things. That so few avail themselves of this opportunity is in part due in part to the peoples’ instinctive (and bad) tendency to defend systems in which they have succeeded. But it is also another testament to the psychic power of the glamour game.

    The whole thing sucks. Let’s figure out a way to fix it.

  7. 7
    Comradde PhysioProffe

    Your attacks on my privilege are somewhat misdirected.

    Dude, I hope you don’t really think I’m “attacking” your privilege, because I’m not. Rather, I am glad that there are people with your institutional and reputational privilege fighting the good fight. All I am saying is that it is a lot easier for people in your position to do what you are urging than it is for others.

    The whole thing sucks. Let’s figure out a way to fix it.

    100% agreed. My opinion is that a combined approach is needed.

    Those whose institutional and reputational status makes it possible to overtly tell the glamour magges to fucke offe should do so. And those who can exert pressure behind the scenes on hiring, promotion/tenure, and grant review committees to eschew glamour culture should do so.

    But those with less secure institutional and reputational status should not be vilified for going along to get along.

  8. 8
    davebridges

    These things are obviously connected. Being good gets you to a good department (all things glamormags included) being equal. Being in a good department lets you do good science. Good science gives you more money and more freedom. This builds reputation, this helps your trainees. Eisen’s students are willing to trade in the potential of a glamor-mag for the glamor-mentor. People from great labs with fewer papers might have an advantage over pedigree poor, paper rich types. Decisions are rightfully made based on training, productivity and potential. If papers == productivity then how to quantify potential?

  9. 9
    Reverend PJ

    @5

    As is rightly pointed out above, the worst part of the club is anonymous peer review, and Eisen is taking aim at that.

    What exactly is wrong with anonymous peer review? Non-anonymous peer review serves to build the club and ensure that members are promoted over non-members. Anonymous peer review, in particular double-blind review, helps eliminate the advantages of club membership.

    I truly do not believe it matters very much in the long run where one publishes. The most important thing is to publish.

    I’m going to guess you’re not a bean-counting administrator then. Every “academic” administrator I’ve met puts the most weight on venue of publication. While reasonable administrators do exist, they are almost entirely outside of my experience.

    A final word: don’t whine, don’t get angry, get to work, be creative, be an active participant, be open, try to help others as much as you help yourself. There is no answer, only possibilities.

    People who are not part of the club yet still do good work should be angry. They should be especially angry when they are punished for not being members of the club. They should be angry when they’re compelled, on pain of losing their job, to publish in venues that are inappropriate for their work. They should feel incandescent rage when their work is marginallized because it doesn’t serve the goal of feeding “institutional” prestige. Be loud, be angry, and fight to change the broken system.

  10. 10
    DrugMonkey

    My comment above comes across as unduly critical of Professor Eisen, personally. My critique is mostly for the class he currently represents. His observation about not always being one of the privileged is well taken. Perhaps that prior experience is why he is fighting the good fight now.

  11. 11
    Rich Jorgensen

    RevPJ,
    Anger can be a great motivator – I won’t deny that – but like fear it is a base emotion, and unless we take control of our primitive natures, we cannot truly and effectively fight the good fight. That is the sense in which I meant “don’t be angry”. We are all in this together. Whether I’m a member of the club or not, I’m angry about the system, and have been for more than 35 years. I guess time has tempered the anger and focused me on finding solutions. Like Mike Eisen I’m committed to trying to effect change. That’s why I signed on with Frontiers (as chief editor of Frontiers in Plant Genetics and Genomics). Frontiers is not perfect but it is trying to effect change.
    “What exactly is wrong with peer review?” See my post, and feel free to comment there: http://ibiosphere.blogspot.com/2012/02/universal-open-review.html
    In brief, I argue that for remove anonymity not only from manuscript reviews but also grant reviews and promotion and tenure reviews. It is my opinion that while there is no perfect world, removing the veil of anonymity across the board will help stop people from making unfair retaliatory statements. Transparency is better than secrecy.
    We won’t necessarily agree on specifics, but I respect your anger and your commitment to fight to change the status quo.

  12. 12
    joe

    While I completely agree with the sentiments behind Eisen’s boycott I think it’s misdirected. One may (perhaps rightly) accuse glamor mags of terrible things but open-access is no panacea. Financial interests are not the only factors that distort publishing and review. Another consideration is that the likes of plos one don’t serve the attentional functions of glamor mags. In a world of plos ones people will just tune in to glamor labs.

    I prefer PP’s approach to combat glamor mentality instead.

  13. 13
    Mr. Gunn

    This is a great discussion. I hope people like PJ above who have to deal with pinheaded administrators don’t feel they’re being criticized harshly for just trying to get along. I also hope that those people will take a moment and listen to what Michael Eisen is really saying: Your work will be valued and noticed if it’s good work. Even if it’s in PLoS ONE. The system for doing this will use metrics that accumulate before citations do, looking at things like bookmarks and downloads and so on. So you can say, yes, my paper is in PLoS ONE, but it’s also in the top 10% of downloads for the discipline & I chose to publish in PLoS ONE. Funders, who are the ones who really call the shots, are more and more sympathetic to this kind of argument, and really, as long as the indirect costs keep rolling in for the university, your Provost can fucke offe.

  14. 14
    lylebot

    Reverend PJ @3: I feel you. Sometimes I wonder whether CS conferences should just change the word “conference” in their names to “journal” and keep everything else the same. I mean, they’re essentially journals that publish one huge issue each year and throw a big party to celebrate it. They have peer review, an “editorial board” (the PC/senior PC), editors (the PC chairs), impact factors, etc. If they had persistently open submission sites and sent papers out for review as soon as they were received (and just turned the submission deadline into a cutoff date for appearing in the year’s issue), there’d be almost no practical difference as far as I can tell.

    And for all the teeth-gnashing about reviews for CS journals taking forever compared to conferences, I think if you factor in the 6-month delay between submission and publication (and also read a conference rejection as the equivalent of a journal’s “major revisions”), the difference in time-to-publication isn’t actually that big on average.

    Point being: when the administration just goes by what it’s called, they miss what it actually is. It’s totally an abdication of responsibility.

  15. 15
    Björn Brembs

    The whole thing sucks. Let’s figure out a way to fix it.

    Alright, so think it through all the way: what do journals do that libraries couldn’t? Is there a reason, other than historical, that we have to publish in 24,000 different journals?

  16. 16
    Namnezia

    Not sure how PLoS Biology and PLoS Genetics are not part of the club. I’ve found the same prejudices and biases in the editorial staff and selected reviewers there as in any of the other high-visibility journals, but with much less experience than their for-profit counterparts.

  17. 17
    dsks

    Joe said “Another consideration is that the likes of plos one don’t serve the attentional functions of glamor mags. In a world of plos ones people will just tune in to glamor labs.”

    Yeah, we’re as drawn to celebrity as any layperson scrapping for a chance to sit in the cheap seats of an American Idol show. That’s a pretty deep-seated human social trait that isn’t easy to override. That’s why societies and institutions are constantly inventing new awards to pass around; a form of professional card-collecting that’s popular precisely because it creates clearly definable hierarchies. It should be acknowledged that this problem is not a new one that has recently cropped up to sully teh glorious scientific endeavour; it’s always been this way. It’s always worth taking a crack at even the most recalcitrant trends, but the clan-fan mentality does not primarily drive my own moral support of open access. That’s more down to the simple practical goal of striving for improved efficiency in re spending public money on science.

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    [...] whiff of careerism when choosing a journal, Physioprof pointed out last year out that you’re probably in a position of privilege if you’re saying that. I like Drugmonkey’s attitude, to subvert the system by being entirely reasonable. Among [...]

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