What is “neuroscience”?

January 5, 2016

At the end of December when everyone was out of the lab on vacation the Journal of Neuroscience twitterers ran an episode of Ask Me Anything, Neuroscience. I had responded to an earlier teaser on this and asked the acting Editor in Chief of the Journal of Neuroscience the question which titles this post, figuring she should know. Obviously, I shaded the question….a little.

She replied:

..which is fascinatingly imprecise. Particularly for an EIC who has to decide categorically what is and is not appropriate material for the Journal she Edits. If we were talking about the range of investigation covered by the presentations at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, this would be a great answer. The breadth of science at that meeting is tremendous and I can buy that it covers almost everything “to do with neurons”. This is not the case for the Journal of Neuroscience. Which should probably be re-named the “Journal of Some Neuroscience but not other Neuroscience”.

As you will recall, Dear Reader, I have observed on more than one occasion that as a wee graduate student trainee I realized this fact with some dismay. I was outraged! How can this type of science be okay and this other type of science not, when the only difference is the techniques involved?!??, I wondered. How can these people not see that the Emperor’s New Clothes are not better, more precise or more mechanistically insightful results, they are just different levels of analysis?

Over the *cough*cough*decades this attitude has turned to bemusement, particularly as the Journal of Neuroscience‘s JIF has slid inexorably* down (currently 6.3) into just-barely-above-the-herd levels (25th in the Neuroscience category). Just ahead of such titles as Glia and Brain Behavior and Immunity. It is behind the Journal of Pineal Research, ffs! Yes, yes, JNeuro still punches above its JIF in reputational terms with the cognoscenti but there are many JIF-equivalent-or-better journal options. And after all, we all realize that the JIF still rules where it counts- when people aren’t assessing the science from an informed perspective. So the cost to those who do that other type of science involving neurons that is not acceptable for JNeuro has lessened considerably. The gains of sneaking one into the JNeuro have likewise lessened. Better to try at a less technique-limited venue that has a higher JIF

There was followup from the JNeuro twitter intern:
https://twitter.com/JNeuroscience/status/681927316193165312

and a related reply from the acting EIC.

Also particularly amusing given the place that “shows mechanism” holds in the mind of the average bio-scientist type, most certainly including neuroscientists, these days. I’d like to see an accounting of how many J Neuro articles in a given year reasonably qualify as “New observation without mechanism”. I’m betting the number is so low as to falsify this claim in any reasonable mind.

Then later there was this claim during an unrelated exchange:

Which I think is bizarre buck-passing for an Editor or Associate Editor of a Journal to engage in. At the least, it illustrates how and why it is bogus to claim “New observation without mechanism” is welcome– if one only selects reviewers who will not buy this for a second then where are we? Also, I am curious if AEs use the presumption of what reviewers might say to desk-reject said manuscripts. See also, the above comments about what qualifies as “neuroscience” and whether or not certain approaches and techniques are ruled in/out at this particular journal. Speaking as a reviewer, I try to follow the Editorial lead in the sense that “appropriate for this journal” has to be recommended, I rely on what they have actually been publishing**.

In closing, I’ll point out that I write this for the current version of younger-me. Those of you who aspire some day to publish in J Neuro, because you are a proud neuroscientist and proud member of the Society for Neuroscience. You who bring your posters to the Annual Meeting and then notice, chillingly, that science like yours never seems*** to get published in J Neuro. Have a heart. Leave your Imposter Syndrome behind. There are many so-called “more specialized” (that’s meant to be an insult when reviewers or AEs say that, btw) journals which have better JIFs. Get your work published there. Keep coming to the SfN meeting and chatting with the folks who appreciate what you do.

Keep on with the science that satisfies you.

And feel free to snicker about those people who do cell biology accidentally in neurons and call themselves neuroscientists.

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*all snark aside, I do lament this. J Neuroscience is a great journal and resisted Glamming it up and JIF chasing in response to the invention of Neuron and Nature Neuroscience. It is unfortunate it is being punished for this. And of course, before the aforementioned baby Glams, it really did shine as a pinnacle for a Society published journal.

**Unless, of course, I am engaging in a rather intentional pushback along the lines of what the JNeuro EIC is suggesting, i.e., putting my marker down that I think the journal in question should be publishing a certain kind of paper.

***Yes, there will be the occasional paper that gets into a given journal. And you will think “aha, we have something very similar so let’s submit!”. Give it a try for sure. But don’t be too amped when you get desk-rejected. Often enough you will find out that the relationships between the editorial staff and the authors is slightly closer than you enjoy. Shrug and move on. Or, if a PI and you DGAF about your reputation at that particular journal, write a pointed inquiry to the AE to see what they say. I had one of these at a journal that rhymes with Serebral Kortex awhile ago. The new editorial staff tried to slam the old editorial staff and basically said, well that would never get in anymore. I was amused. And we published that paper somewhere else and moved on. As one does.

Reference to this https://t.co/hc9YYH8Myr popped up on the Twitter recently.
So what constitutes an “observation” to you?

To me, I think I’d need the usual minimum group size, say N=8, and at least two conditions or treatments to compare to each other. This could be either a between-groups or within-subject design.