Opening Day. I'm sitting in the stands on a beautiful, if trifle chilly, April evening. The first ball of the season has been lopsidedly hurled to the plate by some government official or other, and the umpire has trumpeted, “Play ball!” We've got our beer and peanuts and are settling in. All of which makes me think, suddenly, of high-impact journals.
Only some of you, reading this, have any idea of where I am. This is baseball, that peculiar North American game that revels in philosophies like “It ain't over till it's over.” For those of you who have no interest in baseball for the simple reason that you're not American, give me a break – I had to sit through “The Queen” and did so with no complaints! For those of you who are American but find baseball, like dentistry, somewhat arcane and at best, unpleasant, fear not. There will be no discussions of earned run averages, the suicide squeeze or designated hitters. What reminds me of high-impact journals is the baseball business not the game.
In 1994, the players went on strike, refusing to play. As a result, there was no World Series that year, something that two world wars, earthquakes, and the influenza epidemic of 1918 had failed to do. The strike was called because it had been proposed that all the teams share the revenues accrued by broadcasting, which would have allowed all of the teams to potentially pay higher salaries, rather than just a couple of teams paying super-high salaries (those teams with very large broadcasting audiences). Completely unacceptable, somehow, to the very folks who would have been paid more.
Okay, it wasn't quite that simple, but I do think that there is a psychology in evidence here. The players wanted there to be teams capable of paying ridiculously high salaries, because, that way, they could aspire to being drafted to those teams and getting those mega-salaries. The fact that most of them would never achieve this didn't really matter. A similar psychology seems to be at work these days in the mega-salaries going to corporate CEOs – apparently board members, business types, etc. want it this way, so that they can dream of getting one of these jobs. And we lowly scientists, what do our dreams entail? Articles, on glossy paper, or nice soft pages, and the jealousy of all our friends.
Scientists, for the most part, misunderstand journals. We know that an essential part of science is the communication of our findings, and we correctly assume that journals exist, in part, to serve this function. So we go on to incorrectly assume that, just because we have made some discoveries, journals should publish them. Journals have to be able to sort the good stuff from the bad, and that's what peer review is for.
Coordinating this enterprise, which the journals also do, is not trivial. It's an important part of what journals do, but it isn't their reason for being.
The major function of a journal is to make money. Fortunately for us, they do so, in part, by publishing what we find. Journals, however, are businesses, and a business that doesn't make any money doesn't stay a business for long. And journals make money from subscriptions. These depend on the papers they publish and how important they tend to be to those of us who buy them (or pester our institutions to do so).
For most journals (including the one you're probably looking at) the “making money” part is a direct consequence of soliciting good papers, carefully reviewing them, and publishing them in a timely manner. Because of this, and because the costs can be kept down, the money just manages to keep the journal coming out, and we really can't complain too much. Sure, our submissions may get creamed in the review process, but this is done by reviewers who work for free and are, generally, trying to help (who they are trying to help is sometimes open to question). But if the work is reasonably novel, and done carefully, and makes a contribution, it will see print – unless, of course, we're shooting for the high-impact journals, unless we're swinging for the fences.
The high-impact journal is different. Here, professional editors survey an array of disciplines, choosing only those papers they think are likely to rock a field that is attracting a lot of attention. The review process is geared to this as well, to ensure that if, in fact, the paper runs the gauntlet and comes out in black and white, it will be read all over. The goal is to make the journal essential reading. Like Bill Murray's TV executive in Scrooged, the high-impact journals need to ensure that the audience are terrified that they'll miss what is shown.
If the journal succeeds, it sells a lot of copy, and we make a point of reading these papers, whether or not they are essential reading. The impact factors soar. But there is the down side. Every week, outstanding work is tossed aside, rejected and ejected because some part of the work has appeared elsewhere, scooped by another group. The quality of the work didn't change, but it was no longer deemed essential reading, not hot enough, and hot is what we've gotta got.
Perhaps worse, in the quest for red-hot novelty, many of the big mistakes (or just big embarrassments) appear in these journals, often because the editors have trumped the concerns of reviewers who warned that the work seemed a bit funky. But selling copy takes precedence, and while the journal nevertheless flourishes, countless grad students initiate catastrophic projects based on mistaken information published in such journals.
But, it seems, we don't really care. We like this system, where a few journals represent a pinnacle of achievement, because that's where we hope to publish. Many never will, but that doesn't matter; they will strive. Yes, some will opt for the sour grape approach of disdaining these journals for all of the above reasons, but they won't have any champagne when their outstanding work is published in Tropical Fish Feeding Reports. It was that great philosopher, Yogi Berra, I think, who said it like this: “If you don't know where you're going, you'll wind up somewhere else.”
Okay, it's time for the seventh-inning stretch. Our team is losing, but who cares; I just submitted a really nice paper, and I can dream until the reviews come back. “It's one, two, three strikes you're out! At the old, ball game...”