Fear and the impact factor

Mark Johnston, editor-in-chief of the journal, Genetics, recently published an editorial decrying scientists’ reliance on “impact factor” of journals to make decisions about grants, tenure, and awards Johnston:enemy:2013. The article is available under an open access license: “We Have Met the Enemy, and It Is Us”.

There is much of value in the article, which calls for senior scientists to reject the “impact factor” as a way to judge people. But he has little hope for senior scientists and pins his hope instead on the next generation.

Why do the high impact factor journals command so much influence? It's simply because they are the most selective. If an article gets published in one of those journals, we think it must be important and significant. After all, it was one of very few chosen for publication. The articles were stringently vetted and came out on top of a very big heap. And everybody wins because the members of the hiring and promotion and grant evaluation committees don't necessarily have to invest the considerable time it would take to read (and understand) the candidates work. Whats the problem?
The problem is: who did the vetting? Yes, the articles underwent peer review, so it's likely that knowledgeable, well-regarded, practicing scientists who are experts in the field judged the work. But who decided that the article was worthy of being peer-reviewed in the first place (a benefit enjoyed by only a few of the manuscripts submitted to the high impact factor journals)? Who ensured that the peer reviewers are knowledgeable, well-regarded scientists with relevant expertise? And who synthesized the comments of the peer reviewers into a decision on the significance, impact, and value of the work that resulted in its selection for publication in a high impact factor journal? In many cases, it was someone with little experience as a practicing scientist (and often with no experience as an independent investigator).

I have less hope for the next generation in human genetics.

I have seen so many young, promising tenure-track scientists who cower in fear at the thought that senior scientists will spike their careers for expressing an opinion about science. It’s like pledging a fraternity, where all the young people are undergoing extreme hazing, and they are replicating that hazing with even greater (and more ludicrous) intensity on younger emerging scientists.

Avoiding department politics is one thing, but if you aren’t developing a strong professional identity, you’re spiking yourself. What matters is who is reading your work, because your tenure case and grants turn on letters and reviews, not impact factor. Speaking as someone who writes tenure letters, I cannot respect people who hide their scientific opinions out of fear of career repercussions.

Rise up! You have nothing to lose but your chains!