This morning I was multitasking during a seminar and came across some tweets from my esteemed colleague Dr. Isis with the hashtag #Impactfactorwarz, and I started reading the associated conversation that revolved around use of impact factor in important decisions like promotion. The conversation could apply equally, however, to academic hiring, and other important career makers or breakers like grant review.
Let’s just focus for a minute on the following bit of Isis fact:
It means when my promotion committee looks at IF>5 papers, that’s where I have to publish.
Indeed, but this is a dirty little fact that we all know is true. Go ahead- wave your hands and protest that it is all about the scienz- but know that you are
living in an alternate reality lying to yourself when you do that. Search committees, promotion & tenure committees, and review panels DO care about impact factor, and whether or not you publish in the ‘single word journals’ as another esteemed colleague of mine (Dr. Casadevall, I do adore you) is fond of calling them. But here is the deal- these committees and review panels are made up of individual scientists, living, breathing, flawed, busy, lazy, worried, idealistic, distracted, competitive scientists. So while we can point fingers and vilify this committee and that committee- remember also that it is us as working academic scientists that are perpetuating this culture. Uh huh, that’s right- its YOUR fault. That’s the second dirty little fact we don’t want to admit to ourselves.
And these #Impactfactorwarz are killing science. OH- I hear you cry, that’s bold DrdrA. Really, why? Let’s just agree that you
don’t are so much less likely pass the search committee, the P&T committee or receive a score on your grant without the ‘single word journal’ pub. You don’t get an interview in this tight academic market without such a pub. No interview = No job. Our work takes longer and longer to get into press as you attempt to jump the moving target that is the high bar at the ‘single word journal’. This lost time is just unnecessary, it slows the pace of progress, and costs junior people precious time producing the reims of data in the revision requested by the reviewers… for that sparkly glamormagz pub that you are going to get a rejection notice from anyway. And we have become afraid to show our data to each other.
You know what else- that ‘single word journal’ publication has become so overwhelmingly important- that people cheat their way into it. Yes, CHEAT. I know that sounds kind of dirty and we cringe a little inside when we read those words. But remember that scientists are not, as a rule, operating on some higher moral plane than the rest of society- even though we like to imagine that to be true. We know from some fine recent work- that misconduct is to blame for the majority of paper retractions, and that the number of retractions due to fraud has risen dramatically in recent years. We also know, from the same work, that the higher the impact factor the greater the incidence of a retraction due to fraud.… and if you don’t believe me, have a look at the data in Figure 3.
Now comes the hard part though. Let’s recognize that we, as working academic scientists, have created and perpetuate this system Every.Single.Day. We’ve leaned on impact factor as a proxy for quality and for influence in a given field, and we use that honestly just out of laziness for the most part. Ask yourself, each of you- what can we do to change this system before it chokes us off- and before we end up with only a few funded scientists who have cheated their way to the grant money.