A Theoretical Aside
This post is in reference to a large number of conversations that I have been following on twitter over a recent weekend. The conversations have been on the role of the so-called glamour journals in science (i.e., AAAS journals, Nature publishing journals, and Cell press journals or “SNC” journals). The role for these SNC journals is them contrasted with emerging open access or OA options and the traditional journals that just happen to have lower impact factors.
My assertion is not that the SNC journal are evil; I honestly believe they serve a legitimate purpose. I believe that the sin, if there is one, of the quest for glamour publications is that we forget to respect the contributions in what I call the workhorse journals, often with lower impact than the SNC journals.
Now as to my perspective, I am not against trying to aim for a wide dissemination of my research in the SNC journals. I have put probably 20 papers through the editor’s hands in my time. As I sarcastically note, the editors at these journals have me on “desk rejection speed dial”-with most rejections coming in 1 hour or less after an editor is assigned. Do I blame them, no. I would like to be angry because I think my research is paradigm shifting, highly creative, and worthy of publication in Nature. Is it, probably not. See, the problem is that I am a behavioral neuroscientist who works either on ablative lesion models in rats or in transgenic mouse models for human disease. I am not using any avant garde techniques or developing the type of genetic models that get people excited. I do this research because it is what interests me. I love developing mouse and rat behavioral tasks that are legitimately homologous to the paradigms used in human populations (Link), and even better if I can provide the clinicians and psychiatrists insight they can use to develop better treatment options (see earlier post). But, I have to accept that the general scientific population does not find my work nearly as exciting and thrilling as I do.
Because I choose to work at the grunt / workhorse level of behavioral neuroscience, I tend to publish in journals that celebrate the behavioral tasks rather than try to sell a scientifically sexy, novel concept. I also tend to publish in journals that I know will send my work out for review to researchers that will demand a lot out of me and my work. In other words, I actually choose to submit to journals based on the perceived quality/strength of the editorial staff more than any other factor. And I honestly believe my manuscripts have been vastly improved by every single Reviewer 3 experience I ever had (and believe me, there have been many). Reviewers in my experience have been equally likely to call me on my BS and demanded I fix it as they are to tell me to go further in the discussion since I was not taking my interpretations far enough. It has not been unreasonable to go through 3-5 rounds of reviews with the same 2-4 reviewers – especially in “lower tier” journals.
Okay, now to the point. In my not so humble opinion, I think as a scientific community, we need to stop talking about journals in terms of tiers. Top tier or glamour journals (SNC and PNAS in my branch of neuroscience), second tier journals (Journal of Neuroscience, Biological Psychiatry, and the rest of the large society journals), and third+ tier (where I tend to publish). As a very methods-heavy and theory-focused behavioral neuroscientist, I spend
>95% of my time reading the following journals: Behavioral Neuroscience, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavioral Processes, Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, and Behavioural Brain Research. As a researcher into hippocampus function I also spend a lot of time reading Hippocampus and Learning and Memory. You will notice if you look at my publications, those are also the primary avenues where I publish. These journals are also where I do most of my reviewing, along with a growing list of OA journals that have asked me to either review or join community editorial or scientific advisory boards (Examples).
My sole issue with the glamour publications is that the methods are relegated to the supplemental methods. That in itself would be fine (albeit highly annoying and often irritating), but even in supplemental materials they these methods are not thorough/complete enough to be explicitly replicated. This is infuriating to me since I want to know how to interpret the behavioral outcomes based on the methods but I cannot. There tends to be insufficient description of the apparatus, room, and experimental conditions that I work hard to control in my behavioral experiments. Ditto this argument for histology and immunohistological studies with lack of critical information required to replicate findings. In my experience, the glamour journals are about exposure and readership more than the hard core science. In other words, the greatest behavioral study ever performed in the history of the world will have a harder time getting into an SNC journal than a paradigm shift like grid cells, optogenetics, CLARITY, or “false memory implanting” study, due solely to the broader appear of the general scientific community toward interesting reports like these, not “importance” per se.
In these “lower impact” journals, however, the behavioral paradigms and behavioral performance of the animals are often described with a near anal-retentive zeal that makes replication a snap. As such, I usually read a Nature or Science paper by looking to the references to find where the behavioral task was published more clearly, and use those methods to evaluate the SNC paper (a good example is the Tonegawa lab use of fear conditioning for a pattern separation paradigm (Link). Unless the reader goes to a Behavioral Neuroscience paper wherein they describe the paradigm (Link), the SNC papers seem illogical and almost silly since the behavioral descriptions are insufficient to recreate, or even understand, the experiment.
The same logic applies for the CLARITY technique. Fortunately, the Diesseroth lab has created a lab wiki page for CLARITY. As such, the manuscript is actually superfluous, as the lab wiki gives more images, more data, and a more rigorous description of the methods and equipment needed. I salute this effort, as well as their openness in trying to disseminate optogenetic methods (just ask and they will give you all the info that is needed). Notwithstanding, all of this info should have been in the original manuscripts and not in the Supplements
p>TL;DR Let the SNC journals do their thing. Cite the papers if that was where you heard about the experiment. Just also look back and cite the papers they based the SNC work on. Wider dissemination of these “lower impact” papers would, in my opinion, raise their impact and increase citations/IF and normalize impact across the field. Such a change could potentially result in the SNC journals serving as a more widely distributed forum. The other journals would necessarily be more specialized and thus a resource for those desiring to replicate experimental findings.