Exceptional papers do not need exceptional journals

Everyday, I receive invitations to submit research papers to journals that claim to be exceptional in some way; they claim to publish the very best research, to publish the most significant research and so on and so forth. Different journals have different definitions of exceptional, important, impactful, newsworthy, and outstanding. Some journals publish mostly well-substantiated results, some journals specialize in fashionable results, some journals are exceptional in their advertisement and marketing, and some journals are exceptional in their pursuit of profits.

No journal publishes a large fraction of papers that open up new scientific fields or genuinely alter our conceptual understanding. Not a single journal. None. Rather, one is likely to find exceptional papers — papers that opened up new fields and made conceptual breakthroughs — in the pile of rejected one. This list of papers suggests that some papers can make exceptional contributions without the associated claims of “prestigious” journals.

Remarkably, the best controlled experiment that I know of on the consistency of peer-review has found that one of the most prestigious and double–blind publication venues is more likely to disagree than to agree on whether a paper should be accepted if the same paper is evaluated by two independent committees of the peer-review process. So what is this telling us? My conclusion is that no journal or conference publishes genuinely exceptional papers in terms of their scientific importance. Many journals are exceptional in some way as listed above but none is exceptional in terms of consistently selecting and publishing genuinely transformative papers. Such papers are very rare, exceedingly rare. At least some of these genuinely transformative papers succeed in transforming science even when published in journals without exceptional claims. Exceptional papers do not need exceptional journals ! It is the incremental papers that need the support of advertisement and journal prestige.

6 thoughts on “Exceptional papers do not need exceptional journals

  1. This analysis is right on. As time goes on, I realize that if I did something really important, it really wouldn’t matter where I published it. Of course, this is an if, not when. The problem for all of us in the meantime is that we have to somehow sustain our career with incremental stuff while we wait… 🙂

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    • Arjun, I agree completely with you. We can aim and hope to do research that makes exceptionally important contributions but cannot be sure that we will ever succeed; very few researchers do. We can also stop — and I think we should stop — pretending that incremental fashionable research is exceptionally important. This type of confusion might help build scientific careers but it does not help further scientific progress.

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      • I think you are completely right. The overhyping of what is fashionable is particularly acute in molecular biology, where an entire generation of young scientists is seemingly getting very little training in how to actually think about science and what really matters, and is instead focused very heavily on fashionable areas that will cool off considerably in a few years. I feel like it has taken me a long time to gain that perspective, much of it over the last few years, and I hope that I can instill some of what I have learned in my trainees.

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  2. EVERY JOURNAL I submitted my first five articles to stole the contents and published the main points–in the same point ordering–under the joint names of the reviewer and one or more of his/her grad students. The journal world is absolutely filled with crooks. FORTUNATELY web search now means I get cited 8 to 10 new citation per day from professors around the world without any articles in any journals in recent years. Just write review articles that review MORE and more DIVERSELY and in more DETAIL and more GLOBALLY than all other review articles and the world will cite YOU because it save pawing through 100 other articles to get to the same main points.

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  3. Pingback: Strikingly important it is not | Forest Vista

  4. Pingback: My experience with elite journals | Forest Vista

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