Deep Impact


There are two things scientists hold dear:

1. Our credibility/ethics

2. Our impact on our field of interest and society as a whole

I think credibility is pretty much everything (in any field really), but especially in science because one misstep could be career suicide. One falsified piece of data…one retracted paper…even one allegation of misrepresentation could end decades of good work.

Which is why I think that the current measure of a scientist’s impact needs to be reevaluated. As a graduate student, one of the criteria for graduation, is to “make a significant contribution to science”..whatever that means. Essentially, I think it means publishing your work in a creditable journal. Seems “easy” enough right?..You do the work, you write a manuscript, you submit to a journal..and wait and see if your work is good enough to be published. Fair enough.

In comes Journal Impact Factors (IFs)….which rank journals based on “the frequency with which the “average article” in a journal has been cited in a given period of time”. The ranking system in and of itself is not the issue. In my humble opinion, I think it’s the power this impact factor is being given that messes things up for everyone. As a researcher, everything hinges on publishing in journals with high IFs..whether you get the competitive grant you’ve worked your whole life for, whether you get that postdoctoral position, whether you get the assistant professorship and even whether or not you get that industry job.

What you end up with are advisors who may sometimes push their lab members to the brink or delay graduate students and post-docs from moving on all in the name publishing in high impact journals like Cell, Nature and Science..aka CNS. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for competition, I think it drives good science and produces breakthroughs and results. However, I also think that “less important” fields get ignored and abandoned by researchers because they are not interesting enough to the reviewers and editors and may never get published….Even Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science magazine agrees with me. His editorial on Impact Factor Distortions, references the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assesment (DORA). DORA was initiated by the American Society for Cell Biology in conjunction with editors and publishers of scholarly journals. The document highlights the issues with IFs and suggests ways to improve upon current practices by funding agencies, institutions and publishers.

I think the ideas are brilliant, and if you do should sign the declaration (DORA link above). I don’t necessarily think IFs should be completely eliminated, but they should not play a major role in the decision making process. Personally, I think it discourages research and leads to disillusionment among up and coming researchers.

I can say with utmost certainty that none of us got into scientific research for money or fame (to a great extent).

{side story:…I remember seeing Carol Grieder on the subway in Maryland, after her Nobel prize. I had a mini-fangirl moment, but what struck me that day was that no one else knew who she was..or at least no one else was having a hyperventilating moment. I realized that if that had been Kanye West or Beyonce, they quite possibly would’ve shut down the entire train station…but there she was…walking up the escalator like the rest of us}.

So yeah, not for the fame or fortune. We do it because we are curious and we want to make a difference..and I think it’s a sad day for the scientific community and the world at large when we as scientists are judged not based on the content of our work but by someone else’s perception of the importance of our work.

What do you think?

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