It is officially time to get a grip.
Over at writedit’s voluminous comment thread discussing NIH scores and paylines I ran across this gem:

rumor has it that NCI is limiting funding of new projects there, to prevent losing Institute dollars when that part of the portfolio moves to the new addiction institute

So if you’ve been following along, the NIH is planning to disband NIDA and NIAAA and launch a new Institute on Substance Abuse / Substance Use Disorders. Name is yet to be determined.
Also yet to be determined is the portfolio of such a new institute. It did not escape the attention of the sharp-eyed that there are substantial amounts of addictive-disorders related funding being handled by the NCI, a comparatively much larger Institute. So the present state of affairs appears to be an effort to take an accounting of various existing grant portfolios that are related to substance use and therefore might be best placed in the new Institute for all addiction-related science. This taskforce/working group accounting and proposing effort appears to be the latest kicking-the-ball-down-the-road strategy* for Francis Collins, Director of the NIH.

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In the “ya learn a new one every day” files comes a Tweet today which says:

We are required to pick J Club articles from high IF journals.

This is stupid. Just…..stupid. And unscholarly. The notion that a laboratory uses this as a criterion for which articles that are permissible to discuss is just….foreign to me.

Journal club, for the uninitiated few in my audience, represents a meeting in which the members of the laboratory discuss a scientific paper. Methods can vary but usually the paper is selected and sent to the laboratory staff about a week in advance of the meeting. One of the lab members generally opens with a presentation of the paper. Maybe at the power-point level with a couple of figures copied in, perhaps with a lot of background context involved as introductory material…but perhaps not.

The reasons for selecting papers vary tremendously in purpose and intent.Just a few I can think of off the top of my head.

  • A review of a foundational paper in the field- for general didactic reasons (“kids these days never read the old stuff“) or because new developments warrant a reconsideration of that prior paper.
  • The very hottest and newest paper in the field is going to revolutionize everything!!!1111!1
  • A paper (foundational, brand new or otherwise) from a tangential field that the laboratory needs to be moving into.
  • Techniques that are of interest to the lab’s current or future directions.
  • A super-complicated paper which is hard to understand and the efforts of the lab brain trust can bring clarity.
  • Education of the most junior trainees on how to properly read and assess a paper for meaning, breadth, scope and clarity.

I don’t see where these goals are served by using some sort of IF cutoff for the journal in which the paper was published.

As we are all well aware, the actual scientific impact of a given paper on the ongoing work of a specific laboratory is entirely uncorrelated with the IF of the journal in question. Unless, of course, your laboratory exists solely to butt-sniff other GlamourMag laboratories and/or solely to publish in the GlamourMags by whatever means necessary. If you are interested in actual science, however, it is inconceivable to me that a lab which can sustain a journal club (i.e., greater than two members) can never have any interest, in or gain any value from reviewing, papers from a variety of journals.

There are downstream implications of this. Another key feature of journal club, especially as the groups get larger, is that a given person will notice a paper that would be of general interest that the other members of the lab (ok, the PI) haven’t noticed yet. And an important function of Journal Club is this literature-scouring part. If the lab head inculcates the group to only focus on that limited subset of GlamourMags (which is what is being done by insisting this is the selection criterion for Journal Club discussions) then those lab members are going to stop reading anything else. They are going to adopt the a smug superior pose that if it ain’t in Science, it ain’t worth reading. This will leave them with an inferior understanding of their own science, first, so this is a big mentorship failure right there. Second, they are going to be unable to serve that literature-filtering and literature-discovering function which, in my view, helps everyone in the laboratory. Most especially the PI, I will admit. If everyone is reading the same four journals there is no hive mind advantage when it comes to covering the scope of possibly-related scientific discovery.

This IF-exclusionary approach will also lead to a follower mentality in the laboratory’s scientific directions. Interesting and novel stuff in science results all the frigging time from a translation of techniques and approaches in one area of science to another. Often times it is the cross-application that turns the ho-hum from one field into something really amazing in another. Interesting stuff also results from long-forgotten minor observations being rescued and followed up with current capabilities, techniques or knowledge that has been developed in the mean time. Someone has to be reading off the beaten path and make the connections to other work for this to occur.