Most Scientists are Perfectly Happy Not Publishing in GlamourMagz

August 20, 2008

An absolutely brilliantly expressed observation on a recent post reminded me of a point that I cannot make frequently enough, whilst we are rambling on about publishing as highly as possible, impact factors and the like. We were discussing the implications of always submitting your manuscripts to journals in which you have high confidence of successful acceptance versus frequent submission to journals of higher repute but less likely acceptance. Coturnix dragged the discussion back around to reality in a comment:

Remember that CNS Disease afflicts a relatively small (but loud and prominent) subset of scientists – those working in biomedical fields, molecular biology, immunology, cancer, etc. and want to get tenure-track jobs at hyper-competitive Ivy League schools.
Most scientists do not do that, do not even consider submitting to CNS, have no wish to ever work at Harvard, laugh at the super-competitive crowd, publish in society journals and have their students nicely employed in nice departments in nice schools around the world.

First of all this is a true observation. Despite the salience of general science journals such as Nature and Science, and the majority-rules domination of journals which cater to large sub-fields, the enterprise of biological science (very, very broadly defined) is peopled with numerous published scientists who will never publish in such journals of the highest repute.
Despite the hype of people who operate in the GlamourMag environment, there are plenty of scientists who have perfectly viable research careers publishing in a more pedestrian fashion. My failure to highlight this fact even more than I already do is a failing of my mission here. So bad on me. I am doing a disservice to those who operate in a more-typical environment and think that there is no future since they do not anticipate being a CNS scientist, ever. I am also missing my opportunity to reach the poor suckers in one of those “Teh Hawt and Only Teh Hawt” labs who cannot see beyond the limits of their current environment which does not appear to be a career path of interest.
It is easy to assuage the fears of the first population since they are most likely already in fields which contain many people who have viable careers without GlamourPubs. As I frequently mention, most of the drug abuse world could be so described although most of the big figures do hit a Nature or Science once in awhile (Cell is rare, IME) and we have a handful of GlamourLabs. All the low-profile-postdoc population needs to assess this in their own fields is to conduct some judicious PubMedding for names and then go CRISP searching for these individual’s grant support. The first thing you will notice is that there are plenty of well-funded or long-term funded investigators who have published at the society journal level for most of their careers. The second thing you may notice is “Holy Crap! How does that guy keep/get his grants????”. The point is not to answer such questions today but merely to point to the less-salient evidence. Grant funding from the NIH is not the only source of support of course, but it is important to realize that even this career touchstone is hardly the exclusive province of GlamourScience.
Assessing the population of new-hires in a given subfield is a little more difficult because it is impossible to get a bead on populations such as all the Asst Profs hired in your subfield for the past three years in your own country or especially, worldwide. Absent prepared data, you might look around at your subfield specific conference at some point and take special note of those who have been recently hired. In drug abuse, for example, the two dozen people achieving independence in the recent past that I think of are not exactly CNS type scientists. Similarly, walk through your big meeting and really think on this issue. For example, the population of big-name neuroscience groups is substantial, but not really all that large. A population that you can very easily see is tiny in the context of all the labgroups on display at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting.
Now, my friends that are already in “Teh Hawt” career paths have a fairly consistent response to this line of discourse; namely “Who in the hell are these people?”. Expressed with both condescension and resentment that such clearly inferior scientists have 1) independent jobs and 2) grant funding, whilst said snob is under the impression that s/he will never ever have a shot at independence as a grant wielding PI. This is where I get on one of my soapboxes which is that of “Do you want a career in science or not?”
And this is where coming to a fuller appreciation for the truth of Coturnix’s observation will help. There are a LOT of ways to have an independent, productive, well-funded science research careers that do not require you to publish in GlamourMags. If you cannot imagine how this can possibly be so, you have some homework to do regarding the breadth of the biological sciences.
Update 08/21/08: River Tam has some related thoughts. Update 08/22/08: Prof in Training has done what I frequently recommend to postdocs in highly competitive (usuallly quite basic) fields. Take your skill set and approaches into some relative backwater field where they will think you are the second coming.

No Responses Yet to “Most Scientists are Perfectly Happy Not Publishing in GlamourMagz”

  1. Coturnix Says:

    Thank you. I was going to write this post myself tomorrow morning, but now I don’t have to – I’ll just link to yours. You wrote it better anyway.
    Perhaps I’ll think about writing Part II (examples, notable people, personal experience).


  2. anon Says:

    Sour grapes…


  3. PhysioProf Says:

    This entire post is a PERSONAL ATTACK VIA MORTAL INSULT FIGHTING WORDS!!!! I will see you in Weehawken at dawn, motherfucker!


  4. DrugMonkey Says:

    anon @#2, to be most accurate, it is my sustained bashing of CNS-seeking science as being the bane of all that is Good and Right in TehSkienz!!11!!! that should take fire for being sour grapes.


  5. BiophysicsMonkey Says:

    I was landed a TT job in a top 10 department with no CNS papers, but a solid record of well cited papers in journals just below the CNS level.
    My graduate adviser is generally recognized as the world leader in his field, and published 1 science and 1 nature paper in his 45 year career.
    My postdoc adviser has more, because she habitually submits about 1/3 of her papers to CNS. We (her postdocs) noticed, however, that there was a tenuous correlation between quality and acceptance (which I suppose supports PP’s advice). Papers that we thought were truly groundbreaking and were a shoe-in were rejected while “hail Mary” papers that we were sure didn’t stand a chance were accepted.
    Personally, I think that CNS (especially Cell) are fine and serve a valuable role despite their limitations (page count & etc.). It’s the way that CNS publications are fetishized by administrators and HR people that’s the problem. These journals do favor a certain type of research. And when publication there is made a requirement for hiring/promotion/tenure the message is that only one type of research is allowed.


  6. YouTalkTooMuch Says:

    If most people don’t know what you wrote in this post, then they haven’t been in science very long. It is a simple question. Do you want to work on topics that you AND many others find interesting? Or do you want to work on topics that perhaps only you and a few others find interesting. This is not rocket science (pardon the pun).
    Getting on a soap box and constantly preaching that CNS is all that is bad about science and publishing does indeed sound at best like a justification for something and at worst, indeed, like sour grapes. There is nothing wrong with aiming for the top. There is nothing wrong with aiming for only what you believe in. Stop bashing those you have a different mindset than yourself. It is a double standard.


  7. PhysioProf Says:

    Stop bashing those you have a different mindset than yourself.

    Don’t worry about it. DoucheMonkey is just trying to piss me off.
    Weehawken at dawn, motherfucker!!!


  8. Mike_F Says:

    “Most scientists do not do that, do not even consider submitting to CNS, have no wish to ever work at Harvard, laugh at the super-competitive crowd…”
    Frankly, this is a truly depressing mindset. What would you think of a professional athlete who does not even consider trying to compete in world championships, has no wish to win an Olympic medal, etc etc …?? I know many fine people in my field who have never published in the few top-ranked journals, but they nonetheless from time to time try to send their best work there. Striving for excellence is an integral part of being a scientist, both in choice of research problems and in choice of avenues of publication. Sure you can have a career based on ‘low-risk’ research and ‘solid’ publications. It will be about as interesting and exciting a career as that of a tennis pro’ who wins enough local tournaments to make a living, but never stepped on the court at Wimbledon. The choice is up to you…


  9. PhysioProf Says:

    DoucheMonkey’s point is that “striving for excellence” and “striving for GlamourMag pubs” are completely orthogonal. I happen to think he is mostly full of shit, but at least get his point correctly. And yes, I am a tool of the system, perpetuating the DESTRUCTION OF PURE SCIENCE yadda, yadda, yadda.


  10. Mike_F Says:

    Ummm, I was responding to Coturnix’ original post actually – that was why I quoted it. Nonetheless, if DM thinks that “all the labgroups on display at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting” are striving for excellence, then he or she is self-experimenting in drug abuse…


  11. juniorprof Says:

    For some of us, glamourmagz are nice and all but the main goal of the research is to push ideas and mechanisms forth to drug discovery and clinical trials. While the ultimate for many basic scientists are CNS pubs the ultimate for others (including myself) is to see mechanistic studies lead to clinical application. At some point chasing the CNS goal starts to detract from the human disease aspects of the work and leads to diminishing returns. For instance, pleasing all those reviewer requests may be completely meaningless in terms of drug discovery or clinical potential making it better to cut your losses, send the work to another, less glamourous mag and get onto the next step in moving ahead. You’ve got to know your institution and where your career advancement goals lie before you make these types of decisions.
    Its also important to note that for some the best stuff is first seen in the form of a patent application and that process may lead to a significant delay in publication submissions that lead to eventual scoopage. Again, which direction you go is institution, collaboration and career goal specific.


  12. Eric Lund Says:

    The phenomenon you describe occurs in the physics world as well as the biomedical world. Substitute Physical Review Letters for Cell, and it’s the same story. You have the GlamourLabs that only count publications in N/S/PRL, and you have many scientists who have productive careers without publishing in those three GlamourMagz. People are people, and snobbery still exists. My own opinion: If I get something that I think worthy of the GlamourMagz, I’ll go for it, but “publish in GlamourMag X” is not an explicit goal where I work.


  13. ancient physics postdoc Says:

    “The phenomenon you describe occurs in the physics world as well as the biomedical world. Substitute Physical Review Letters for Cell, and it’s the same story.”
    Er, not quite. By the sound of things, publishing in C/N/S actually helps the careers of the bio/life science folks, but in physics publishing in PRL is completely useless (except for postdoc fellowship competitions).
    When starting out in physics research I thought that publishing papers on my own in our supposed glamor mag was a sure way to overcome an un-illustrious background and make a research career. That turned out to be totally naive. What really matters to the powers that be is whether or not they have something personal at stake in your career success. If they don’t then no number of single-author publications in PRL will do you any good. (This is based on my own experience and also that of a few others I know of who tried this route.)
    I envy you folks in bio/life science the possibility you apparently have to advance your careers by publishing in glamor mags. It’s an option that people who would otherwise be overlooked can turn to. Sure it’s an imperfect way to assess the value of someone’s research, but still a hell of a lot better than having your career prospects determined entirely by your background, connections, and ability to suck up to big shots, which is what we are reduced to in theoretical physics.


  14. Julie Stahlhut Says:

    Worrying about whether Nature papers are on the whole “better” than papers in major specialty journals (examples: Evolution, Ecology) is missing the point. The question is not necessarily one of paper quality or research quality, but of breadth of interest. Journals like Nature and Science publish cutting-edge research in just about every area of science imaginable, while specialty journals publish what is often cutting-edge research but is more narrow in scope.
    Think about it — if you discover, for the sake of argument, a new property of nucleic acids, your research has an impact on all biologists. If you discover a new property of ant colony organization, your research has its primary impact on a subset of researchers — the people who study the behavioral ecology of social insects and their close relatives. That’s not to say that papers in the latter field don’t make it into journals like Nature — they do — but perfectly good papers get rejected from GlamourMags for the simple reason that they’re too narrow in scope. Put the same paper into a journal in its appropriate specialty, and it will be read and, if it’s really useful, cited.
    The word “excellence” has become one of those words like “liberty”, “family”, “morals”, and “intelligence” — everyone thinks they know what these words mean, but no two people ever seem to be working from the same definition. (I won’t even get onto my favorite rant about conflating prominence or fame with obligate excellence.) In the meantime, I’ll take “appropriateness,” thanks. I’ve been blown away by some of the stuff that gets published in Nature and Science, but I find Molecular Ecology to be much more useful (and cite it much more frequently.)


  15. PhysioProf Says:

    I envy you folks in bio/life science the possibility you apparently have to advance your careers by publishing in glamor mags. It’s an option that people who would otherwise be overlooked can turn to.

    Yep. PhysioProf did not have any bigwigs or well-known people pulling for him at all. I got the job I have by publishing as a first-author in GlamourMagz while a post-doc.


  16. DrugMonkey Says:

    It is not so much that striving for excellence and GlamourMag acceptance are orthogonal, more that achieving GlamourMag acceptance does not directly correlate with “excellence”. It is my opinion that our structures of evaluation have moved too far into believing in this false equality which is the source of much of my critique.
    Obviously I am talking about shades of influence because my point in this particular post lies in suggesting that it is not (yet?) necessary to strive for GlamourMag acceptance to have a perfectly viable career. Yes, while achieving scientific excellence.
    The points I did not make specifically but do happen to agree with are related to juniorprof’s comment. Not everyone is in science for the same reasons and not everyone has the same goals. Some have applied goals that are pretty much disdained by a certain segment of the CNS-publishing, We-are-the-bomb, circular logic science elite. Some have reasonably personal, “I just want to figure this stuff out” goals. Some have score-keeping goals (totting up the CNS pubs, awards) and relatively little interest, so far as I can tell, in a defined scientific question.


  17. PhysioProf Says:

    You are purposefully, and disingenuously, leaving out the segment of scientists who are driven by addressing defined scientific questions, but who also wish to compete for CNS pubs, awards, etc.
    You’re starting to sound like fucking Sol.


  18. DrugMonkey Says:

    You are purposefully, and disingenuously, leaving out the segment of scientists who are driven by addressing defined scientific questions, but who also wish to compete for CNS pubs, awards, etc.
    True (cept for the disingenuous part), but I figured you had that handled! Look, our usual discussion around here breaks down to “do great science and don’t neglect career reality such as seeking the highest impact factor/profile possible”. I’m just trying to do some (re)balancing here…


  19. PhysioProf Says:

    You’re trolling your own co-blogger, you fucking bastard!


  20. DSKS Says:

    “If you discover a new property of ant colony organization, your research has its primary impact on a subset of researchers”
    For my A-level biology project, I discovered that standing next to a nest of Formica Rufa in Spring, wearing boxer shorts for underwear, is a terribly bad idea.
    Despite the wider significance of this finding, I imagine only PLoS One would consider it for publication. I had an n of three, after all.


  21. PhysioProfp Says:

    I had an n of three, after all.

    Wow! You really are a stupid motherfucker, aren’t you? How many times did you touch the hot stove when you were a kid?


  22. neurowoman Says:

    I have to dispute the ‘you don’t need CNS pubs to get a PI job’ statement. In my humble experience as a recent and ongoing job seeker, in my subfield it seems everyone recently hired had a recent C/N/S paper (I would substitute ‘Neuron’ for ‘Cell’ though). The legions of folks who never publish in CNS were hired a generation ago, and/or are 3rd tier or SLAC institutions, where the expectations are different (but even there it helps to apply with high profile papers). I imagine search committees would have to explain to deans and higher ups why they hired Joe-Society-Papers instead of Joe-Hot-Stuff who might have fewer, but hotter papers. Timing is a major factor as well- grad school CNS papers don’t get you job offers…


  23. DSKS Says:

    “Wow! You really are a stupid motherfucker, aren’t you?”
    LAy off, dude, the New Forest was all out of bike shorts and ankle clips, and I had only one day to do the whole damned project.
    Besides, I lost most of the feeling in my legs at the first nest, so the other two nests weren’t such a big deal.


  24. NM Says:

    I’m with juniorprof on this one. CNS is utterly irrelevant to me. 20 years from now if I can point to a body of work that I was in part responsible for, say that it changed clinical practice for the better, and that it now improves/saves the lives of a few thousand people a year (for instance), I will be far more satisfied than a pointless CNS (or in my case Lancet/NEJM paper).
    Having said that I’m still going to work my bollocks off to get said Lancet/NEJM paper so I can keep doing (hopefully) good work. I think this is DMs major point?


  25. Lab Lemming Says:

    Astronomer Mike Brown has an interesting take on glamor magz
    He explains that while many disparage the quality of the science in these publications, that doesn’t necessarily prevent folks from submitting if they think they found something interesting.


  26. BKProf Says:

    I am completely with Coturnix, Drugmonkey, and JuniorProf on this. While I confess that I have indeed submitted to CNS (and did publish in one, though a few years ago), the vast majority of my publications are submitted to society journals where I know I have a relatively good shot of acceptance. While I admit that the need for CNS papers may be subfield specific, in my field at least, I don’t see that publishing in these places is such an urgent need. My reasons for thinking this are as follows:
    (1) I was hired into a tenure-track job in a very respectable, though not Ivy League-caliber medical school department. Although I had a Cell paper at the time, it was somewhat ancient history at that point, and probably didn’t count for much. But more importantly, none of the people in my department hired after me had any CNS papers. It just didn’t matter. (And half of us are tenured now. It still doesn’t matter.)
    (2) In my subfield, CNS papers don’t help much in getting grants. I sit on one of the two major NIH study sections in my field, and the vast majority of people who get funded don’t have track records in these journals. The people who do may be given a few extra brownie points in their evaluation, but when all is said and done, it’s really the strength of the proposed research that carries the day.
    (3) I have had very good success in getting NIH funding with my mostly-society-journal CV. I have multiple RO1s/equivalents and so do the other more recent hires in my department who publish mostly in society journals.
    (4) As JuniorProf articulated quite well, sometimes it’s more important to move the work forward than to do what can be a ridiculous amount of (usually needless) work to publish in a GlamourMag.
    (5) I am loathe to delay publishing the work of a trainee who needs to move on to another position simply because I’m holding out for the best journal possible. Doing so can add well over a year in publication time, and most trainees can’t afford to have their manuscripts held up. Besides, I also need to have as much work published as I can when I go up for grant renewals.
    I do believe that for people in some fields and high-end research venues, these CNS papers are very important; however, this is certainly not the case across the board. I would hate to see people early in their career frightened off by the prospect of having to have a GlamourMag publication in order to succeed. It’s just not so.


  27. DrugMonkey Says:

    BKProf @#26- brilliantly put!
    DSKS @#23- it isn’t your ‘legs’ that are concerning when you mention ‘boxer shorts’ holmes…
    Eric Lund @#12 (and also River Tam at the linked post at ProfChaos)- One thing I’d like to understand better is what is the Cell equivalent for various other fields. I think it was RiverTam who wanted to know “why Cell”. the answer in short is that it has an impact factor similar to the general sci mags and there are hardly any others (save review journals) that do.
    neurowoman @#22- Ok, you are my audience here. My point is not that one can choose to succeed in just any department of high reputation that one wants. Notice I did not say this. Nor did I say that you can succeed in just any narrowly defined subfield. Success may require a change in your standards relative to the stratospheric lab you train in. That’s life. It may be necessary to take a hard look at your scientific interests and choose to go in a direction that is less competitive. It may be necessary to take a job at “Tier 3” that you seem to disdain. Frankly, I’ve been seeing some people take jobs at apparently minimal research focus Universities that surprise me. Both for who they are (training, pubs, etc) and what they subsequently accomplish (gee, just what I would have expected them to do at a ‘better’ University). I would very much encourage people who fear their prospects are dim to get out of the mindset that only jobs in the very highest reputation departments are acceptable. It sounds crazy to some Readers but my experience is that many trainees in stratosphere labs have this myopia.


  28. neurowoman Says:

    yes, DM, your points are well taken – there is life in science outside of the “stratosphere”! I admit to some degree of myopia and elitism.
    However, believe you me, I’ve applied to ‘tier 3’ and if they’d offered me a job I’d have most likely (assuming reasonable offer of space, startup & we can find spousal accomodation) taken it. No disdain implied, really. I’d happily publish regularly in society journals (ours is good) the rest of my career, no CNS, and be perfectly content, if I got to do the science. In fact, I have greater respect for folks who take the time to work through a problem or system in full length papers over a career, rather than chasing a new sexy story every six months. I will admit to some fear of not being able to get funding because of a school lacking a reputation, or not being able to get enough work done due to heavier teaching, less research support, fewer facilities.
    But I still think it is an uphill battle to GET such jobs without recent CNS on your CV because it’s too competitive.
    Going to a SLAC (who may actually be slightly biased against the CNS-publishing type) would necessarily mean revamping a research plan to fit the time and personnel constraints (read: getting research done with undergrads in the summer!), defining entirely different research goals – something I need to think through.
    BTW – I’ve already moved in to an area that is more niche and ‘less competitive’ – and I think it makes it a harder sell on the job interview where search committees have a preconceived notion of ‘fit’.
    Just saying, it’s not as simple as adjusting your expectations…


  29. Coturnix Says:

    “I will admit to some fear of not being able to get funding because of a school lacking a reputation, or not being able to get enough work done due to heavier teaching, less research support, fewer facilities.”
    I don’t think the institutional reputation has much impact on grants getting funded. The teaching load is either explicit in the job ad, or negotiable – many people at tiers 2,3,4 school teach zero, or one class per year, or one per semester. You will be surprised how many of these schools (especially state universities) have top-notch facilities and support. And on top of it all, the atmosphere is not dog-eat-dog and you can enjoy your work, like your colleagues, have a hobby and a family, and still do excellent research which makes your reputation in your field go up to the very top.


  30. […] is a perceived real “pressure” only to submit such Manuscripts to High IF Journals aka GlamourMagz.  As mentioned in the last link, the term “CNS Disease” was coined by Prof. Harold […]


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