In an earlier post I touched on themes that are being kicked around the Science Twitters about how perhaps we should be easing up on the criteria for manuscript publication. It is probably most focused in the discussion of demanding additional experiments be conducted, something that is not possible for those who have shut down their laboratory operations for the Corona Virus Crisis.

I, of course, find all of this fascinating because I think in regular times, we need to be throttling back on such demands.

The reasons for such demands vary, of course. You can dress it up all you want with fine talk of “need to show the mechanism” and “need to present a complete story” and, most nebulously, “enhance the impact”. This is all nonsense. From the perspective of the peers who are doing the reviewing there are really only two perspectives.

  1. Competition
  2. Unregulated desire we all have to want to see more, more, more data if we find the topic of interest.

From the side of the journal itself, there is only one perspective and that is competitive advantage in the marketplace. The degree to which the editorial staff fall strictly on the side of the journal, strictly on the side of the peer scientists or some uncomfortable balance in between varies.

But as I’ve said before, I have had occasion to see academic editors in action and they all, at some point, get pressure to improve their impact factor. Often this is from the publisher. Sometimes, it is from the associated academic society which is grumpy about “their” journal slowly losing the cachet it used to have (real or imagined).

So, do standards having to do with the nitty-gritty of demands for more data that might be relevant to the Time of Corona slow/shut downs actually affect Impact? Is there a reason that a given journal should try to just hold on to business as usual? Or is there an argument that topicality is key, papers get cited for reasons not having to do with the extra conceits about “complete story” or “shows mechanism” and it would be better just to accept the papers if they seem to be of current interest in the field?

I’ve written at least one post in the past with the intent to:

encourage you to take a similar quantitative look at your own work if you should happen to be feeling down in the dumps after another insult directed at you by the system. This is not for external bragging, nobody gives a crap about the behind-the-curtain reality of JIF, h-index and the like. You aren’t going to convince anyone that your work is better just because it outpoints the JIF of a journal it didn’t get published in. …It’s not about that…This is about your internal dialogue and your Imposter Syndrome. If this helps, use it.

There is one thing I didn’t really explore in whingy section of that post, where I was arguing that the citations of several of my papers published elsewhere showed how stupid it was for the editors of the original venue to reject them. And it is relevant to the Time of Corona discussions.

I think a lot of my papers garner citations based on timing and topicality more than much else. For various reasons I tend to work in thinly populated sub-sub-areas where you would expect the relatively specific citations to arise. Another way to say this is that my papers are “not of general interest”, which is a subtext, or explicit reason, for many a rejection in the past. So the question is always: Will it take off?

That is, this thing that I’ve decided is of interest to me may be of interest to others in the near or distant future. If it’s in the distant future, you get to say you were ahead of the game. (This may not be all that comforting if disinterest in the now has prevented you from getting or sustaining your career. Remember that guy who was Nobel adjacent but had been driving a shuttle bus for years?) If it’s in the near future, you get to claim leadership or argue that the work you published showed others that they should get on this too. I still believe that the sort of short timeline that gets you within the JIF calculation window may be more a factor of happening to be slightly ahead of the others, rather than your papers stimulating them de novo, but you get to claim it anyway.

For any of these things does it matter that you showed mechanism or provided a complete story? Usually not. Usually it is the timing. You happened to publish first and the other authors coming along several months in your wake are forced to cite you. In the more distant, medium term then maybe do you start seeing citations of your paper from work that was truly motivated by it and depends on it. I’d say a 2+ year runway on that.

This citations, unfortunately, will come in just past the JIT window and don’t contribute to the journal’s desire to raise its impact.

I have a particular journal which I love to throw shade at because they reject my papers at a high rate and then those papers very frequently go on to beat their JIF. I.e., if they had accepted my work it would have been a net boost to their JIF….assuming the lower performing manuscripts that they did accept were rejected in favor of mine. But of course, the reason that their JIF continues to languish behind where the society and the publisher thinks it “should” be is that they are not good at predicting what will improve their JIF and what will not.

In short, their prediction of impact sucks.

Today’s musing were brought around by something slightly different which is that I happened to be reviewing a few papers that this journal did publish, in a topic domain reasonably close to mine, not particularly more “complete story” but, and I will full admit this, they do seem a little more “shows mechanism” sciency in a limited way in which my work could, I just find that particular approach to be pedantic and ultimately of lesser importance than broader strokes.

These papers are not outpointing mine. They are not being cited at rates that are significantly inflating the JIF of this journal. They are doing okay, I rush to admit. They are about the middle of the distribution for the journal and pacing some of my more middle ground offering in my whinge category. Nothing appears to be matching my handful of better ones though.

Why?

Well, one can speculate that we were on the earlier side of things. And the initial basic description (gasp) of certain facts was a higher demand item than would be a more quantitative (or otherwise sciencey-er) offering published much, much later.

One can also speculate that for imprecise reasons our work was of broader interest in the sense that we covered a few distinct sub-sub-sub field approaches (models, techniques, that sort of thing) instead of one, thereby broadening the reach of the single paper.

I think this is relevant to the Time of Corona and the slackening of demands for more data upon initial peer review. I just don’t think in the balance, it is a good idea for journals to hold the line. Far better to get topical stuff out there sooner rather than later. To try to ride the coming wave instead of playing catchup with “higher quality” work. Because for the level of journal I am talking about, they do not see the truly breathtakingly novel stuff. They just don’t. They see workmanlike good science. And if they don’t accept the paper, another journal will quite quickly.

And then the fish that got away will be racking up JIF points for that other journal.

This also applies to authors, btw. I mean sure, we are often subject to evaluation based on the journal identity and JIF rather than the actual citations to our papers. Why do you think I waste my time submitting work to this one? But there is another game at foot as well and that game does depend on individual paper citations. Which are benefited by getting that paper published and in front of people as quickly as possible. It’s not an easy calculation. But I think that in the Time of Corona you should probably shift your needle slightly in the “publish it now” direction.