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February 3, 2023

Dangers of prestigious scientific journals

By DUY PHAN | September 22, 2016

These days, however, it is not enough to just publish. There is now more and more pressure for scientists to publish in the “prestigious” scientific journals, namely Cell, Nature and Science (“CNS journals” for short). Among many large research universities, it is now almost a requirement to have a publication in CNS in order to be considered for faculty position. At other research institutions, the lack of CNS papers will get a PI fired. A publication (or lack of) in a CNS journal has now become a matter of life or death in the life of an academic scientist.

This obsession with flashy journals is dangerous for the future of academia.

What exactly does it mean to be a “prestigious” scientific journal, such as CNS? In general, the perceived prestige of a journal is determined by its impact factor. Impact factor is a numerical value that is calculated from how many times papers published in a specific journal are cited by other papers. The belief is that the higher the number of citations, the more “impact” the paper has had on the field and therefore the journal gets a higher impact factor.

A journal with an impact factor greater than five is considered to be solid. CNS journals, however, have some of the highest impact factor of all journals: 30+. The philosophy is that CNS journals select for work with the highest scientific reach and quality (usually the acceptance rate is less than five percent), and this scientific importance is reflected by the overall impact factor of the journal.

The problem with the impact factor is that it is a poor representation of actual impact on the scientific community. Papers are cited not necessarily because they are of high-quality; Sometimes they are cited many times because they are just plain wrong.

In fact, just because a work is published in CNS journals does not mean that it is good scientific work, despite the journals’ aim to publish work with the highest quality. Take a look at the Stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) stem cell controversy for example, in which a scientist published fabricated data in two Nature publications. Although these two papers have since then been retracted, I wonder how many more erroneous articles currently are still published in Nature that we do not know about?

You might wonder: If CNS journals try to publish high-quality science, why is there bad science published in these prestigious journals?

The above question gets to the core of why relying on CNS journals as a marker of scientific success is dangerous. While the intentions of the CNS journals (selecting for the best science) may be noble, what happens in reality is that flashy science rather than rigorous science ends up being selected for publication. Therefore, our reliance on where the work is published, rather than the quality of the work itself, espouses a culture of science that is flashy rather than meticulous. Scientists now need to have marketing and advertising skills — whether a paper gets published in CNS or not may boil down to simply how well the scientist “sold” their work to the editor.

Our dependence on CNS journals has a wide-reaching domino effect on the rest of science. PIs now begin to pursue work that they think will get published in CNS, rather than pursuing work that they find intellectually stimulating. All creativity and innovation is replaced by a mindless pursuit for that paper in CNS. I have seen many young PIs who were destroyed mentally (and physically) by their chase for a CNS paper. Many promising young minds have been wasted by this externally constructed journal prestige. The system has to change. Otherwise, I fear for the future of academic science.


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