The tricky world of publishing

In August a new publication came out, on which I’m a co-author. Great news! Great for distribution of scientific knowledge, great for society, great for my CV. But it’s not always plain sailing…

The article I’m talking about, entitled “Hybrid glasses from strong and fragile metal-organic framework liquids” by Tom Bennett et al., is available here and from my publications page. It’s OPEN ACCESS, so anyone can read it, and it’s worth a look if you’re interested in MOFs, glasses, melting, kinetics and other stuff like that.

This whole work has taken a long time to come to fruition – over 2 years – and it was first submitted to a journal more than 1 year ago. It’s been quite a time-consuming process, not to mention the ups and downs of getting rejected by journals, receiving unfairly critical referees’ comments and so on. But it’s in a so-called “Top-Tier” journal, Nature Communications, which has an impact factor of 11.5, so it must be worth it, right?

In current times, right now, it’s good for the careers of all my co-authors: in Japan and many other places, publishing your work in a Nature Publishing Group journal almost guarantees you’ll get a permanent job at a decent university or institute. I was even told by one very, very esteemed professor here that it’s his one and only criteria for hiring assistant professors. To me, this kind-of explains why so many students and postdocs slave away so hard, behave badly and even falsify results, and have a generally terrible time on top of it. Because if they get that one “high-impact” publication, no matter at what cost, they get a job and the security that goes with it. And if not, they continue slaving away on yearly contracts until they give up and leave science…

In contrast, many researchers I know do very good work and are very happy to publish in normal, reputable journals with lower “impact”. And as long as those journals can be accessed, that work can be read by those who might be interested. That’s why we publish. But nowadays politicians, people holding the purse-strings and the people in charge of hiring want more. They want to be able to say that the science they fund has the most impact – on science, on society, on the reputation of a country on the international stage. And they need to be able to measure that impact in a nice simple, immediate number, so they use, amongst other metrics, the Impact Factor, or IF.

And that’s a big problem. The real impact of a person is neither immediate, nor quantifiable in a single number. Nobel Prize-winning papers have often been written in “lesser” journals and their significance only realised decades down the line. IF, on the other hand, is a measure of how much a particular journal is noticed. It’s not about individual papers, let alone individual people. It’s an average of hundreds of articles over the course of 2 or more years. More people have written about it here and here, in a debate that started almost as soon as IF’s came into popular usage in the 70’s. And the evidence clearly suggests that IF is a poor measure of a person’s impact. Except, perhaps, their impact on a potential employer or funder…

Not that I’m complaining about having published that Nature Communications article. I like it and I’m pleased it’s out there for all to see, and if it helps me get a job that’s great too. It just got me thinking, “was it worth all that effort?”

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