More Neuroscience Smack

May 17, 2016


I select these journals for comparison for a reason, of course. First, I’m in the addiction fields and Addiction Biology tops the JIF list of ISI Journal Citation Reports for the subcategory of Substance Abuse. Second, Biological Psychiatry and Neuropsychopharmacology publish a lot of behavioral pharmacology, another superset under which my work falls

The timeline is one of convenience, do note that I was in graduate school long before this.

When I entered graduate school, it was clear that publishing in the Journal of Neuroscience was considered something special. All the people presenting work from the platform at the Annual Meeting of the SfN were publishing relentlessly in JNeuro. People with posters drawing a crowd five people deep and spilling over the adjacent posters in an arc? Ditto.

I was in graduate school to study behavior, first, and something about the way the body accomplished these cool tasks second. This is still pretty much true, btw. For various reasons, I oriented toward the chemical communication and information transmission processes of the brain as my favored level of analysis. In short, I became a behavioral pharmacology person in orientation.

In behavioral pharmacology, the specificity of the analysis depends on three overarching factors. First, the components of the nervous system which respond to given drug molecules. Second, the specificity with which any given exogenous drug manipulation may act. Third, the regional constraints under which the drug manipulation is applied. By the time I entered graduate school, the scope of manipulations were relatively well developed. Sure, not all tools ended up having exactly the specificity that they were assumed to have. New receptor and transporter and intracellular chemical recognition sites were discovered frequently. Still are. But on the whole, we knew a lot about the interpretive space within which new experiments were being conducted.

I contrast this with lesion work. Because at the time I was in graduate school, there was another level of analysis that was also popular- the brain lesion. This related to a set of techniques in which regions of the brain were surgically deactivated/removed as the primary manipulation. The interpretive space tended to include fierce debate over the specificity with which the lesion had been produced. The physical area removed was rarely consistent in extent even within one study. Different approaches to the target might entail various collateral damages that were essentially ignored within a paper. The regions that were ablated contained, of course, a multitude of neuronal and glial subtypes and occasionally axonal tracts that were just passing through the neighborhood. Specificity was, in a word, poor.

I noticed very early in my days of grinding reading of my areas of interest that the Journal of Neuroscience just LOOOOOOOVED them a lesion study. And absolutely hated behavioral pharmacology.

I was, for a time, dismayed.

I couldn’t believe it. The relative level of confidence in the claims versus the experimental evidence was ridiculously poor for lesions versus pharmacology. The designs were less comprehensive and less well controlled. The inconvenient bits of evidence provided early were entirely forgotten in a later rush to claim lesion/behavior impairment specificity. The rapid fire exchange of data in publications from the competing labs was exciting but really pointed out the flaws in the whole premise.

At the very least, you could trade one level of uncertainty of the behavioral pharmacology for an equally troublesome uncertainty in the lesion world.

It boggled my mind that one of these technique domains and levels of analysis was considered The Awesome for the flagship journal of the very prestigious and large Society for Neuroscience and the other was considered unworthy*.

Particularly when I would see the broad stretch of interpretive domains that enjoyed space and an audience at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. It did not escape my attention that the SfN was delighted to take dues and Annual Meeting fees from people conducting a whole host of neuroscience investigations (far, far beyond the subject of this post, btw. I have another whole rant on the topic of the behavioral specificity and lack thereof.) that would never be considered for publication in J Neuro on a categorical basis.

It has been a long time since my dawning realization of these issues and I have survived just fine, so far, doing the things that interest me in science. I may have published work once or twice in J Neuro but I generally do not, and can not. They are still no fans of what I think is most interesting in science.

It turns out that journals that are fans of behavioral pharmacology, see Figure above, do publish some of the stuff that I think is most interesting. They are accepting of levels of analysis that are most interesting to me, in addition to considerable overlap with the J Neuro-acceptable analyses of the present day. And as time has gone by, the JIF of these journals has risen while that of J Neuro has fallen. Debate the reasons for this as you like, we all know there are games to be played to change the JIF calculation. But ultimately, papers are cited or not and this has a role in driving the JIF.

I watch the JIF numbers for a whole host of journals that publish a lot more pedestrian work than these journals do as well. The vast majority are on slight upward trends. More science is being published and more citations are available for distribution, so this makes a lot of sense.

J Neuro tends to stand out as the only one on a long and steady downward trend.

If J Neuro doesn’t halt this slide, it will end up down in the weeds of the 3-5 JIF range pretty soon. It will have a LOT more company down there. And it’s pretensions to being the venue for the very best neuroscience work will be utterly over.

I confess I am a little bit sad about this. It is very hard to escape the imprinting of my undergraduate and graduate school education years. Not too sad, mind you, I definitely enjoy the schadenfreude of their demise.

But I am a little sad. This Journal is supposed to be awesome in my mind. It still publishes a lot of good stuff. And it deserves a lot of credit for breaking the Supplemental Materials cycle a few years ago. I still like the breadth and excitement of the SfN Annual Meeting which gives me a related warm fuzzy for the Journal.

But still. If they go down they have nothing but themselves to blame. And I’m okay being the natterer who gets to sneer that he told em so.

*There is an argument to be made, one that is made by many, that the real problem at J Neuro is not the topic domains, per se, but rather a broader issue of the insider club that runs SfN and therefore the Journal**. I am not sure I really care about this too much because the result is the same.

**One might observe that publications which appear to be exceptions to the technique-domain rules usually come with insider-club authors.

29 Responses to “More Neuroscience Smack”

  1. namnezia Says:

    Dude, JNS publishes a bit more broadly than “lesion studies”. And the editorial board is sufficiently diverse that it would be hard to buy the argument that they have a specific publishing agenda. Not everyone who publishes there uses trendy techniques or is an insider either. Do they sometimes take a too-big-for-their britches attitude? Maybe. But its hard to argue that there’s any kind of agenda, I think it really depends on whichever RE is handling the paper.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    JNS publishes a bit more broadly than “lesion studies”.

    I was relating both a historical example and focusing on one clear domain of comparison. I did not assert that they only published or publish lesion studies in the least. Lesions are probably no longer sufficient, I would estimate. They once were, which is the point.

    it would be hard to buy the argument that they have a specific publishing agenda.

    They clearly do have limited agendas, as witnessed specifically and recently by my efforts to get the current EIC to define the scope of “neuroscience” on twitter.

    But its hard to argue that there’s any kind of agenda,

    It is not hard in the least to argue this but I don’t really care to get that personal with respect to any current authors or Journal of Neuroscience staffer on the blog. Things don’t change in concept, merely in detail. I guarantee you that in this day and age there are levels of analysis and technique domains that are 1) well represented in the membership of SfN, 2) not accepted at J Neuro on a categorical basis and 3) cannot be shown by any rational analysis beyond the Justice Stewart level to be less insightful or high quality/caveat free/wtfever and therefore to be scientifically inferior* to stuff that gets in like Flynn.

    *see Figure


  3. mH Says:



  4. MoBio Says:

    @DM: well for once I agree more or less completely with your observations. I, too, sadly watched the decline of J Neurosci and rise of NPP and BioPsych.

    There is something to your observations, though I have no particular idea on whether or not the JNeurosci can be turned around. I also note that fewer and fewer of the papers catch my interest…sad.


  5. MorganPhD Says:

    One hypothesis is that most society-level journals have been on a downward trend with respect to JIF because the fancy journals took over. Journal of Biological Chemistry (ASBMB), Journal of Cell Biology (ASCB), Molecular and Cellular Biology (ASM), Journal of Bacteriology (ASM) are all dropping (JCB less so). Genetics (GSA) and Cancer Research (AACR) are holding steady, but Genetics was always pretty low for JIF, even if it was fairly well-respected.

    With that being said, I like your thoughts on how editorial “interests” might drive people to publish particular data in particular journals. Or how sub-sub-specialization has driven people to publish (and read) in journals that reflect their type of science. Interesting stuff.


  6. Grumble Says:

    “we all know there are games to be played to change the JIF calculation”

    Yeah, like publishing reviews. All JN needs to do is start a reviews section, and maybe have a few themed special issues with reviews from BSD types. JN still has the stature to attract content like this from bigwigs. It’s sad that the new EIC has done nothing along these (or other) lines to revitalize the journal before it’s too late. Complacent leadership is the last thing the journal needs at the moment.


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    There was a very interesting comment about review articles in the Editorial in the current issue of J Neuro.


  8. drugmonkey Says:


    I think it is always possible to change a JIF trend. And it can become self-reinforcing in a virtuous cycle, see Addiction Biology.


  9. drugmonkey Says:


    For the journals that I follow in the behavioral pharm, behavioral neuro realm, almost everything has been slowly drifting upward over the interval plotted above. Or holding steady at the worst. JNeuro really stands out with its long steady deflation trend.


  10. Pinko Punko Says:

    I think MorganPhD has something. Do Neuron and Nature Neuroscience directly target the growing Addiction/Behavior journals to the same extent that they target J Neuro’s domain?

    I wonder if there is feeling that if going to publish in broad journal go above JN, if that doesn’t work, many might consider more targeted journals in their subfield to maximize visibility in alternate way.


  11. drugmonkey Says:

    Oh absolutely the demise of J Neuro is related to Neuron and NN. Absolutely. JNeuro used to occupy that demiGlam space.


  12. neuromusic Says:

    obviously the best way to retake the demiglam spot is to mimic the journals that have usurped the position


  13. drugmonkey Says:

    Oh, and this seems relevant to the newly appointed EIC of JNeuro


  14. MorganPhD Says:

    I wonder too how much the push to “disease relevance ” has altered the publishing landscape.

    DM, in your field, it seems the ascendant journals are those that focus more on direct disease, or are at least framed that way. I think anecdotally that is similar across other fields.

    In my field, the lazy critique is “no insight or relevance into disease”. Basic molecular discoveries are pooh-poohed if Figure 5 doesn’t show your gene mutated in cancer or a mouse model. Cancer is shoe-horned into every paper.


  15. MorganPhD Says:

    “It’s in JBC, they must not show mechanism or disease relevance”


  16. Dave Says:

    Ha! From recent experience JBC is very much about mechanism, disease relevance and mouse models. It’s trying to climb back up after all!


  17. MorganPhD Says:

    Absolutely true. That quote is paraphrasing some mentors I’ve had…

    I want to do a seminar course next year with only JBC papers and show my students that awesome science is published everywhere (ie bust out the JBC Nobel Prize papers). You just have to avoid being intellectually lazy and assume that all good science is published in glam.


  18. Grumble Says:

    It’s encouraging that the new EIC is thinking about revitalizing JN. I hope she does increase the number of review articles. That will slow the decline in the JIF, although whether by enough to stabilize it is a different question. Unfortunately it could be that the only way to bring it back to the 8-10 range might be to demand that papers tell a Complete Story that wouldn’t be out of place in the glams. That would mean becoming more ruthlessly selective than it is now. I’m not sure that would be a good thing.

    Yet if JN doesn’t go that route, I suspect that people 10-15 years from now will lump JN and Brain Research in the same category – broad neuroscience journals that aren’t the place you’d publish your most compelling stories.


  19. Curiosity Says:

    The whole publishing ecosystem has changed so much in recent years. Neuron and NN have been around for a while, so I wouldn’t look at them exclusively for JN’s recent slide. I sense that the likes of the *kind of* next tier mystery-zone startups like eLife, Cell Reports, Nature Communications, etc, siphon good, broad papers away from JN mainly because JN has so little cache AND is a pain in the ass to publish in. It doesn’t help them that they debased their brand with eNeuro, have opaque parts of their review process such as subjective ‘impact’ scoring by reviewers that is never communicated to the authors, coupled with very high standards. It’s a tough ship to turn around for sure, but I sure hope they can. Neuroscience is better for an excellent society journal that everyone reads. Right now, I’m with those who snore at the TOC.


  20. Nat Says:

    Nature Comm, eLife, and Cell Reports all started at 2010 at the earliest.

    Nature Neuroscience started in 1998, the year before the first shown in the above graph.

    Nature Neuroscience definitely started the trend to siphoning good papers away from JNeuro. Prior to 1998, if you had a >4 figure paper that you thought was great, you tried Neuron, and if it didn’t get in there, then you went the J Neurosci route.

    Obviously, the addition of Nature Neuroscience changed all that. And I would argue it was the success that the baby Natures had in siphoning off the papers that were pre-1998 J Neurosci quality is what then led to things like Nature Comm, Sci Signalling, Cell Reports. Those journals just hoovered up what was left remaining.

    Still, count me in with the people who are sad at the current state of J Neurosci. I remember checking the TOC every week, and indeed messing with the URL to see the new TOC before it was linked to on the main home page.

    Of course, those feelings are also tempered by the experiences of submitting multiple papers to JNeuro, which was almost always a pain in the ass. Plenty of reviews that were essentially “nice, technically good, but not interesting enough,” which I always took as a reflection of what reviewers and editors thought about the place of the journal. Only a nice third reviewer and my advisor’s name got my first grad school paper into J Neurosci- which now has nearly 300 citations. It would probably never get in now.


  21. poke Says:

    Does the glass cliff criticism apply if the predecessor was also female?


  22. WH Says:

    With regards to the JBC discussion above, is there a point of no return for a journal’s IF?

    As a grad student in a biochemistry lab a few years ago, I watched as some of the other papers from our lab had to fight against ‘show mechanism’-style reviewer critiques at JBC and took a while to get accepted. I decided to submit a JBC-level paper to PLoS ONE instead, and got a quick acceptance with minimal headache. The 1-ish IF points weren’t worth the risk of demanding reviewers. Am I alone in that sentiment?


  23. Pinko Punko Says:

    The Nature Comm and Cell Reports types- these are the nail in the coffin. They are explicitly designed to keep dollars within publishing ecosystems. You can bounce two journals with same reviews starting at Nature, then —> NN then —> NC. Saves time plus feeling of getting in “best place you could”, especially when a lateral move elsewhere or even down elsewhere might require new reviews, or reformatting.


  24. drugmonkey Says:

    Oh you had to bring up Brain Research, didn’t you, Grumble. So effing sad.

    Poke- when did the trouble start, eh?

    WH- I’ll take an easy-in over a single JIF point. But there are always other factors to consider….


  25. qaz Says:

    Additional factors that have led to the demise of JNeurosci are the loss of the in-depth follow-up paper, the invention of supplemental material, and the invention of the multi-panel figure. It used to be that a short paper was published in glam (Sci/Nature) and a full-length paper with all the (additional) details was published in JNeurosci or JNeurophys. In addition, if you had a twenty-figure paper, Sci/Nature were simply not options. Once SOM was available, you could get that twenty-figure paper into Sci/Nature. Now that one can make multi-panel figures easily (thanks, Adobe), one can even stuff a twenty-figure paper into that tight Sci/Nature format before SOM. (And now JNeurosci doesn’t allow SOM, so in fact there are papers that can go to Sci/Nature that are too long for JNeurosci.)

    The other aspect is the rise of Impact Factor as a measure of journal quality. The CellPress and NaturePress journals beat impact factor and used it to bludgeon JNeurosci down. When I was a wee tyke, JNeurosci owned the demiglam market. In many fields (particularly the one I was in), Neuron and Synapse and Cell (no one in my field read Cell – Cell was the equivalent of JNeurosci, but with a higher impact factor because of how the molecular biologists did citations) were specialist journals that didn’t affect the importance of JNeurosci. But as impact factor became critical to getting grants, jobs, and promotions, people started turning to Neuron and Nature Neuroscience and, yes, Cell.

    And finally, no, it doesn’t help that JNeurosci is trying to limit their incoming publications, raising the hurdle of even submitting. Now, they’re talking about doing editorial rejections. (Do we have to pay submission costs if it gets editorially rejected?) Why would we start with JNeurosci now, when it costs $150 to submit a paper? Might as well try our luck at other journals with higher impact factor (Neuron, Nature Neuroscience) or lower costs (JNeurophys).


  26. drugmonkey Says:

    That submission fee is returned for desk rejects. Think of the howls otherwise.


  27. pablito Says:

    Blood has had a $50 nonrefundable submission fee for years, and they have editorial rejection. Been there, done that.


  28. drugmonkey Says:

    Nice little scam.


  29. poke Says:

    “Poke- when did the trouble start, eh?”

    Uhh…based on your graph, sometime before 1999?


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