The Opposing Thumb

An opinionated digit leafs through the biological literature
Media Roundup

Rendering unto Caesar

Mark Johnston has launched an intense discussion in science social media and blogs with an editorial in Genetics entitled “A Glaring Paradox”.  The crux of the argument is this: the highest impact journals (i.e. Science, Nature, Cell, etc) employ professional editors, who are no longer working in research; many lower impact journals are edited by active scientists, often leaders in their field. As Bristol University’s David Stephens put it on Twitter: “As (an) author, I at least appreciate that first cut (is) being made by (an) active scientist struggling with similar issues for publishing. Grants. Careers etc”(@David_S_Bristol). Just to be clear, what is being discussed here is the role of the editor(s), not the peer review system. The editor or editorial board makes the key decision of whether or not a manuscript goes out for review or receives the quickest (and usually least appealable) of death sentences, the editorial rejection. It is not uncommon for 80% or more of submissions to be rejected at this level.

Given this power over what represents 2, 3 or more years of hard work, it is intuitively appealing that the editorial decision be made by someone who shares the trials and tribulations of the author. But there are other considerations. Most importantly for practical reasons, the volume of submissions at some journals is not compatible with performing other professional activities. An editor at many journals will have to examine half a dozen or more manuscripts a day. One could argue that a 5 minute glance per submission by a leading specialist beats one hour close scrutiny by a professional editor who left the bench six years ago- but I would still seriously doubt that most working scientists could find those 30 minutes every day. A separate problem is that having an editor with skin in the game means that, well, the editor has skin in the game. For the platonic ideal of a scientist, this should not matter. But many of the most glaringly unfair problems I’ve seen in manuscript reviewing involved working scientists who reject manuscripts that contradict their own models. Finally, I’m not so sure that what makes a great scientist is necessarily what makes a great editor. This is similar to the relationship between artist and art critic. In some ways, and it can be very productive, as long as the critic (or editor) never loses sight of the fact that what matters is the art (or the science).

My own opinion is that much of this discussion is aiming at the wrong target. The problem is not the editorial decision at any individual journal. I firmly believe there is room for a plurality of models- even the older Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) system of assigning publication slots to academicians was fine by me. It was the Academy’s journal, and the person who made the decision was clearly named, in print, on page one of each article. Some very good journals are run by societies or universities. Others are professional operations. The real problem, and the source of all the real anger in this debate, are the institutional decisions taken by both funders and employers in science that shortcut evaluation processes by simply counting publications in a small number of high impact journals. Science and Nature editors are currently not just making decisions on what gets published in their magazines. They are effectively the grant referees for the Fredonian Institutes of Health or the faculty search committee for Tattooine University. This is just wrong. Whatever else it may mean, as Dennis Eckmeier tweets, “Journal Impact Factor is for journals. Its value for single article evaluation is already flawed. For evaluation of a single author, useless.” (@DennisEckmeier).

If you are taking decisions about the professional future of a scientist using metrics, then we have no use for you. We can invest all your salary in a better Excel package. The right way to evaluate faculty candidates is to get to know their work. There is no shortcut. It is hard work. As EMBO Director Maria Leptin recently said, “It is the most important job you have as Director”- and that sentiment should hold all the way down the line, for anyone involved in faculty selection process. Glamour mag editors have much to atone for, but the blame for the highjacking of scientific evaluation processes by impact factor accounting does not lie with them (even if they have gleefully embraced it).

Incidentally, in my view, Science and Nature in particular should have professional editors. Because if they return to what should be their core mission, that is of publishing research that is interesting across many fields, then the editor should not be a specialist- for the  research article itself, and for the assignment (and editing, lest we forget that editors also edit) to a physicist capable of writing two pages on advances in cosmology that I, a mere biologist, can understand. Cell is a bit trickier, as it began as a specialist journal for the budding field of molecular biology. That molecular biology then did a reverse-Saturn and devoured its parent disciplines of biochemistry, genetics and cell biology effectively turned Cell into a semi-generalist journal. The ample space allowed per article in Cell, compared to the increasingly Dadaist reductionism of Nature & Science is probably also in large part responsible for the journal’s ever growing popularity.

The most worrisome segment in Johnston’s op-ed is the proposal to substitute Journal Impact Factor (JIF) with Journal Authority Factor (JAF). To be fair, it is almost certainly tongue-in-cheek. Even so, it adds to one bad problem, the innappropriate use of metrics, another, which is an implicit endorsement of arguments from authority, which are, of course, anathema in science. There is room for both professional and working-scientist (and thus, part time) editors. Each journal should decide, according to its own goals. Journal policy in this respect (as in others) should be as clear as possible, and authors can then choose the best place to submit their work. Funding agencies and hiring committees should do their own damn jobs, so that editors, professional or academic, can do theirs.

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