The academic publishing environment is being undermined by a bunch of extrinsic and intrinsic forces.
One such force is the genre of academic glamour magazines. They have massive impact factors that allow you to make a big splash when you land a spot inside one of them. Sometimes genuinely huge discoveries and advances end up in Science, Nature, Ecology Letters, or Cell. But most of what appears in these venues is a big sexy idea that doesn’t have any real lasting value. If science were nutrition, then this is junk food. It’s yummy, and it is dressed up with everything to make it exciting and yummy, but rarely is there substance.
For those running labs in research institutions, the perceived wisdom is that you should be publishing in a glamour magazine once in a while.
For those of us at teaching campuses, the perceived wisdom is that you should be publishing once in a while.
There are increased calls for principled stands against glamour mags. For those who stand too firm on principle and avoid any whiff of careerism when choosing a journal, Physioprof pointed out last year out that you’re probably in a position of privilege if you’re saying that. I like Drugmonkey’s attitude, to subvert the system by being entirely reasonable. Among these reasonable ideas: don’t cite glamour mags unnecessarily; don’t not publish a result because you can’t get it into one of them; as a reviewer, keep the standard crap out of them and support excellent work by your colleagues when you get it for review.
At teaching institutions, we approach this issue from an entirely different perspective. We rarely review for those venues, and typically don’t submit to them either. (I’ve submitted to Science/Nature a few times and reviewed a few times.) This suits institutional expectations. Landing a paper in a Science or Nature would be an immense coup. Few, if any, on campus would ever think of this as a gimmicky paper, though the rarity of it wouldn’t be fully appreciated. (The only person that I’ve ever worked with at a teaching campus who had one of these papers during my time actually has an overall below-par publishing record.)
These are glamour magazines because they are a flashy thing that impresses, because of the rarity itself. Gold and diamonds are valuable because there isn’t that much of them, or because they are difficult to access. Likewise, it’s hard to get into glamour mags, so that’s what makes them flashy. These papers themselves don’t communicate the value or prestige of a research program, they’re just the flashy pieces of ornamentation that are necessary.
What, then, is truly glamorous on a teaching campus? The answer is publications. Lots of ’em. The reason that this is glamorous is also because of its rarity. While many people publish on teaching campuses, status and glamour comes from doing it in high volume, because so few are able to do this. This is true even if the venues are not highly regarded, and even if the papers don’t end up being cited. If you want to show off your bling on a teaching campus, five papers in obscure regional or highly specialized journals actually seem more impressive than one paper in a top-notch journal. The people who are arbiters of your reputation on campus might not be able to assess publication quality, but they sure can assess publication frequency.
I make a point to publish in which I consider to be venues appropriate for my work. I avoid merely descriptive or confirmatory work without introducing substantial new ideas, so I try to avoid journals that mostly include this kind of work. I could change my focus and crank out many more papers than I do, in lower-impact journals, but that would harm my credibility in among my scientific peers even as it would increase my profile on campus. Some other scientists manage that tradeoff in different ways, of course. I’m not overly concerned as long as people work on their passion, and make sure that it gets shared with the world.
What is the distinction between publishing for glamour and publishing for genuine impact? It’s probably the same distinction between measured “impact factor” and and long-term citation rates.