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The Black Hole

Forget about impact factors – the revolution is upon us!


Publication in high impact journals often drives both the experiments and the career trajectory of early career researchers. Hardly a day goes by in the lab without somebody lamenting the peer review system or the latest rejection (or acceptance!) in Cell, Science or Nature. It is the source of much consternation and last week the University of Cambridge’s Graduate Student and Postdoc Forum (GRASP) hosted an evening discussion to try and identify a way forward for young researchers to help change the system.

The evening started with Ms. Jennifer McLennan, head of marketing and communications at eLife Sciences, who spoke about how eLife is trying to revolutionize the publishing process. The eLife Sciences journal is a not-for-profit open-access journal funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Wellcome Trust, and Max Planck Society. It aims to dramatically restructure the way science is published. The eLife journal represents an unprecedented collaboration of funders hoping to inspire change throughout the publishing industry by providing a new model of publishing, that makes it more efficient, incorporates digital media, and provides open access to the top, most outstanding research. Essentially, their aim is to be the Science or Nature of open-access publishing.

The evening continued with enthusiastic, often highly critical, commentary from Professor Steve Russell and Professor Alfonso Martinez-Arias, both from the department of genetics at the University of Cambridge. Both professors brought years of experience to the table and demonstrated a clear concern for the next generation of scientists. Whilst it was quite evident from the discussion that eLife is an improvement over traditional for-profit journals, it was also clear that it represents a band-aid, not a long-term solution.

A peer review system to emulate

Perhaps eLife’s single biggest contribution, is its streamlined submission and review process, which saves enormous amounts of time that could be better spent on research. They also use an ingenious model of peer-review that encourages dialogue between reviewers and provides the author with a unified response, avoiding contradictions and confusion. As Professor Alfonso Martinez-Arias said “the eLife reviewing process is something every journal should adopt.”

However, the big question is whether or not eLife is really offering a new paradigm of publishing as they claim. Currently, they have a 75 percent rejection rate, not dissimilar to Nature and Science. Whilst they aim to publish only the most important research advances, it remains elusive as to what constitutes “quality” or “outstanding” research. As Professor Russell repeatedly insisted, it is an absolute travesty to have such a small fraction of people decide what gets published. It means “careers are being decided by a tiny tiny tiny fraction of the scientific community.” He continued, “these decisions should not be made by journal editors, they should be decided by the larger scientific community.”

Is where you publish as big a deal as we think?

The surprising twist that came out of the evening discussion was that, according to Professor Martinez-Arias, early career researchers may be fooling themselves into thinking publishing in top journals is required for a successful career in academia. The obsession with publishing in journals with the highest impact factor clouds the importance of other factors which Professor Martinez-Arias stressed are strongly considered by tenure review panels and hiring panels. He asked the room of PhD students and postdocs, “What gets you a postdoc or a job in academia?” Although publications were the first to be mentioned, the overwhelming majority acknowledged that actually it was your references, where you studied, and who you worked with, which had an even greater influence on your job prospects. Professor Martinez-Arias continued, “You are fooling yourself if you think publishing in top journals will get you the job”.

It’s up to young scientists to change the system

The final big take home message was that it is up to young scientists to change the way science is communicated. Professor Martinez-Arias repeated this refrain, telling young researchers “You are the future. It is up to you to shape this.” Many people feel that it is too risky for young scholars to speak up and try to change the rules of publishing, and that we should expect the senior scientists who have already established successful careers to initiate changes, but perhaps that isn’t necessary. Young scientists should focus on doing the best quality research they can, foster positive relationships with supervisors and mentors, publish in journals with policies that are trying to move the publishing system forward, start using online archives (such as  bioRxiv), and not be afraid to speak up about archaic policies that are impeding scientific progress.

Brianne Kent
Brianne Kent is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia. Her research examines the changes in sleep and circadian rhythms associated with Alzheimer's disease. Follow her on Twitter: @Brianne_Kent.
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  1. BP / June 14, 2014 at 05:40

    In response to Alphonzo’s comments: Wow, I am dumbfounded when I hear academics give their mentees pep talks/career advice. Here in Canada we have a saying, way to pass the puck! It is absolutely ridiculous to put the burden of shaping how the scientific community functions on the weight of young scientists who have little influence. It has to be collaborative. It cannot succeed without the involvement of key influencers and stake holders, who unfortunately are senior academics.

  2. BS / June 16, 2014 at 20:48

    Exactly BP. My PI is the dean of research at a prominent Canadian institution and its clear he knows the system is broken, but its also clear he’s not willing to stick his neck out to initiate change. How about we put the responsibility to change the system on the people with the least experience and most easily intimidated. Maybe in 20 years when they are in those positions we can expect something. Something tells me it may be too late by then.

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