So it is now for real. After 9 years as Editor-in-Chief of Development, I am stepping down with mixed feelings. I am delighted that we managed to find an outstanding successor, James Briscoe, with whom I share many views and interests. I believe this will be an easy transition and I am really pleased to leave Development in such good hands. I am also happy to regain more time to focus on my science, being now in a very stimulating environment at Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women's Hospital with a team of superb scientists in my lab. On the other hand, I am truly sad to leave the Development team. It has been a real pleasure to work with them over all these years and I really enjoyed my regular visits to London and Cambridge for board meetings, strategy discussions and Editors’ meetings. They are an amazing group of people and are mostly responsible for the success of the journal.
As Development's Editor-in-Chief, I handled papers (triaged initial submissions, coordinated peer review and made decisions on whether to publish) like the other scientific editors, but I was also in charge of defining scientific and editorial priorities for the journal. This latter aspect of the job is what I found most appealing when I accepted the invitation to join the team in 2010. When I started, I was worried by the secession of the stem cell field from its developmental biology roots. Thus, I thought that making stem cell and regenerative biology a priority of the journal was essential for Development to remain associated with this rapidly growing field. A little later, a window into human development opened thanks to new stem cell-based technologies such as organoids, and I felt that our journal was an ideal home for such research. These strategic priorities have led to several initiatives, such as new journal sections, meetings, special issues and the recruitment of new editors. In making these changes, I was often faced with critiques worrying that this would jeopardize the publication of more traditional developmental biology research. I don't think this has been the case, and we have continued to publish a large number of excellent papers covering these areas – as well as other newer avenues in our discipline. One can now begin to reasonably evaluate the impact of these policies, and my impression is that it has largely been positive. More importantly, surveys we have conducted and informal discussions we have had suggest that the changes we have made have been well received by most of our community.
While I was hoping that such overtures toward the fields of stem cell and human biology would help raise our impact factor (IF), this has not been the case. As an original signatory to and now funder of the DORA project (sfdora.org), we at The Company of Biologists strongly believe that no single metric – and particularly not the IF – should be used to evaluate either journals or individual researchers. Despite this, we have to recognize that, for many people, the choice of where to submit a paper is still influenced by the journal's IF, and we want to ensure that Development remains an attractive option. Although somewhat disappointing, the change in Development's IF is mirrored by similar trends in other journals in our field (and in related basic life science fields). Many people have written about the flaws in the IF as a tool for evaluation, but it's perhaps less well recognized that the IF biases particularly against smaller disciplines such as developmental biology. The IF of a journal is calculated based on the total number of citations to a journal within a particular year divided by the number of published papers in that journal over the previous 2 years. In our domain, the total number of scientists, and hence publications, is considerably smaller than in larger fields, such as cancer or stem cell biology. As a result, papers in larger (and especially more translational) fields will naturally gather more citations, and their journals tend to have higher IFs. Moreover, the short-term nature of the IF biases against fields and papers that take time to start being cited, as is the case for many of Development's papers (looking at research papers published during my time as Editor-in-Chief, of the 50 that gathered the most citations in 2017, only one was published in the years that contributed to the 2017 IF). Until we find ways of mitigating against these biases, the IF as a measure will remain completely flawed.
During my tenure, we have also seen a proliferation of new journals, resulting in an increase in possible forums in which to publish important developmental biology papers. While obviously we welcome author choice, the expansion in particular of ‘trickle-down’ journals at the large for-profit publishers has led to challenging times for journals like Development in terms of maintaining a good level of high-quality submissions and publications. We hope and believe that we are meeting this challenge well, but we rely on the continued support of the community to do so.
The good news is that with the exponential rise of preprint publications, I personally think that the IF will soon become obsolete as a tool to evaluate the quality of published work. I have been a strong supporter of preprints since the launch of bioRxiv, and have been active in promoting preprint-friendly policies at The Company of Biologists – culminating in the recent launch of preLights. The increasing use of preprint servers is having a major impact for the biomedical scientific community, as the most recent research is often now immediately accessible online. Funders are beginning to seriously question whether paying for access to research is the best way to spend their resources – particularly when the research results may already be available for free via the preprint system. Thus, scientific publication is entering an era of uncertainty where current publishing business models may have to be largely reinvented. A first significant step in this direction can be found in the recently announced ‘Plan S’, which requires that all publications from scientists supported by a number of major European funders are published in Open Access journals from 2020. It's important to recognize that publishers such as The Company of Biologists add significant value to papers (through not only rigorous peer review but also, for example, careful copy-editing and ethics checking), and provide content, such as reviews, that is less easy to finance in an all-Open Access world. These costs need to be taken into account when considering how to fund scientific publication. Still, I believe that such initiatives might drive a complete reorganization of the current scientific publishing landscape – with less emphasis on IF and less profit going into the hands of the large commercial publishers.
Development is a bit of an exception in the publishing world, being run by a not-for-profit charity, The Company of Biologists. Currently, the earnings made by the journal are used to fund a variety of resources serving the scientific community, such as Travelling Fellowships, Meeting Grants and supporting developmental biology societies. The current changes in the scientific publishing world are also likely to impact our journal in the future and it's important we protect it. Development is a community-oriented journal and I strongly encourage developmental biologists to help us elaborate future models that will serve their needs best – hopefully maintaining Development at the heart of the community! This will be an exciting challenge for my successor and I wish him all the best for this new adventure.