My experience with elite journals

Over the last 15 years, my opinion about the significance of publishing in elite journals has evolved considerably. Below are some of main phases and the factors that have shaped my opinion:

  • As a beginning PhD student, I took several classes based on discussing primary research papers. Many of these papers, especially in my biochemistry course, reported milestone results and were published in elite journals. This created the impression that a disproportionate number of influential papers are published in elite journals and elite journals are the place where one finds such papers.
  • Later in my PhD, I became an expert in a small field. The two best known papers in that field were published in Science, and I was as confident as I could be that these papers are deeply problematic and with incorrect interpretations. (I still believe that, and I think that Science is a good journal) Being well known and influential, these papers stymied further developments in the field. It did not help that the senior author of these papers extended a death threat to me.
  • Simultaneously, my PhD mentor (David Botstein) expressed strong misgivings towards elite journals and even declined being a senior author for one of my papers if we submit it to Nature or Science. I have always had deep respect for David (he is a brilliant scientist), and his opinion was very influential for me. Given that he was very accomplished and successful based on any metric of merit, I became convinced that one does not need to publish in elite journals to be successful in academic research. (David has published many influential milestone papers but only a small fraction of them are published in Nature or Science.)

During my postdoctoral and PI years, my opinion about elite journals grew increasingly complex and nuanced. Here is what I think now:

  • Elite journals can significantly promote papers in the short term and make a big difference for papers that do not stand out on their own.
  • The establishment generally resists innovation. For various reasons (mostly not related to the editors), papers reporting very original results seem to encounter much more resistance for the limited space in elite journals. This may be frustrating for their authors, but it is much less frustrating once we realize that these are the papers that need advertisement the least.
  • Ultimately, I aim to publish our papers in good journals that are read by colleagues interested in our results and have broad visibility. Yet, my opinion continues to evolve: I see that our results are read, cited, and reproduced even when shared via preprints, and the importance of the publication venue is declining in my opinion.

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