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.

Promoting (your) research

“I am a scientist focused on conducting research, not on promoting it.” This thinking strongly resonated with me when I was a PhD student. If it resonates with you, read on to learn why and how you should promote (your) research.

Common approaches to promoting your research include aiming to publish your papers in elite journals (they invest in advertising and some have dedicated professionals focusing on advertising) and attending conferences. I will not focus on these approaches because they are commonly known and often used more than I think is useful. Rather, I prefer more thoughtful and organic approaches outlined below.

The first (and my favorite) approach is clear and compelling communication. If you make important discoveries but fail to communicate them clearly and compellingly, you may be the only one (or one of the few people) knowing they are important. Such results are unlikely to drive scientific progress. Clear communication, means clear logic without hype, vague phrases and unnecessary adjectives. It means good framing with the relevant background needed to understand the questions and approaches without extraneous clutter or meanderings into tangential but not essential discussions.

The second and related approach is to communicate your results to the communities interested in them, which includes presenting in relevant conferences. It also includes scientific social networks. Since the most prominent of those is twitter, I will make a few suggestions with twitter in mind:

  • When I tweet about a paper of a colleague, I think of the tweet as a mini (and thus very limited) peer review that highlights substantive findings or element of a paper. The format does not allow rigorously scholarly treatment, but it does allow pointing to something specific that you genuinely think is exciting. If you tell me you are excited about sharing your paper or publishing it in a particular journal, I do not learn new scientific information. Make your tweet as informative about the science as you can.
  • Promote all good work that you come across. This includes your work, but also the work of your colleagues more broadly. I think of it as a good service to the scientific community.
  • I particularly like highlighting research that otherwise may not get noticed. Papers that are promoted by a sophisticated advertisement system don’t need my help as much.

As you can tell from these brief remarks, my definition of promoting research is enhancing its communication, both the formal and rigorous description of the research itself and in providing thoughtful and informative comments that will attract the attention to the formal description. I think such communication is an important component of the scientific ecosystem, and I strongly encourage all students to participate in it. It helps you, and it helps your scientific community.

Update: For colleagues who are active on Twitter, it is a major means for disseminating research articles.

The bigger picture

It is tempting to think of scientific progress in discrete units: papers. Indeed, graduate students often devote many years on a single paper, and it looms large. Its significance then may be codified by neat numeric metrics. Yet, this view is rather myopic. Revising it not only changes the way we feel about our work (principles) but also the way we chose to communicate research (practice).

Some papers stand out as exceptionally important, but even such exceptional papers depend critically on a body of related research. Take for example Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity. As brilliant as they might be, they will mean very little without the follow up experimental papers that confirmed the theoretical predictions. More generally, a single paper can never establish a big discovery. A paper can report a big discovery, but the discovery will not be established until independently reproduced and cross validated in sequel studies.

What about the more typical paper? It’s a part of a continuous body of research that is reported in discrete units mostly because of old customs. The discrete units are intertwined to shape a bigger picture, and thus the significance of a single unit intimately depends on its role in the bigger picture. This thinking shifts the focus from the success of a particular paper to the success of the overall research agenda: If the overall body of work is visible and important, so are its components, even if some of them are published in relatively obscure journals. Thus, if your research is important and at least some parts of it are visible, publishing a particular part of it in a top journal in unlikely to be essential for it to be recognized and become influential.

Evaluating preprints

I am hugely enthusiastic for communicating research by preprints. So naturally, I am happy to see when the president and strategic advisers of one of the most elite funding institutes embraces preprints:

For centuries, publishing a scientific article was just about sharing the results. More recently, publishing research articles in a journal has served two distinct functions: (i) Public disclosure and (ii) Partial validation by peer-review (Vale & Hyman, 2016). The partial validation is sometimes followed up by strong validation: (iii) Independent reproduction and building upon the published work.

Preprints clearly can serve the first function, public disclosure. It has been less clear to me how to validate and curate the highly heterogeneous research that is published as preprints. I think this question remains open, though I have seen signs that some preprints are strongly validated (independently reproduced & built upon) even before the more conventional partial validation by peer-review.

For example, the methods and ideas underlying Single Cell ProtEomics by Mass Spectrometry (SCoPE-MS) were independently validated by multiple laboratories. Some presented their results at conferences before our preprint was peer-reviewed:

Several groups published their results after our preprint was published in a peer-reviewed journal, crediting the preprint for the ideas:

More (that I know of) are underway. All inspired by a preprint.  I see this as a datapoint that preprints can get strong validation even outside of the boundaries of the peer-review system that has dominated our field for the last few decades.  It’s not a complete solution for evaluating all preprints, but I think it’s very encouraging evidence that preprints can be strongly validated even before the weak validation of peer-review!