Journals Want Meat, Scientists Have Bones

alpha_monkeyScientific journals only want to be fed with new physical insights. But how many of those may scientists have in their careers? It’s getting hard to feed those beasts.

Peer-reviewed papers are the main measure of a scientist productivity. Scientists have to publish lots of them to survive the eternal struggle for resources.

In this ecosystem, scientific journals have been evolving to attract those papers and be their publication medium. These journals not only have their niches, but they also obey a curious dominance hierarchy.

Few—Nature, Science, and alike—feed from the highest-prized sexy research, which will make the general news. They are the alpha journals eating the juiciest meat.

Other journals talk to a more specific public of specialists, but still attempt at publishing some noble meat. In my field, JACS or Angewandte Chemie are among the beta journals competing for such boneless meal.

Then, there is a respectable population of gamma journals fighting for the hard technical and specialized research despised by alpha and beta journals. Still in my field, journals like PCCP or the Journal of Chemical Physics will feed from there.

And then, there are the others: a swarm of hundreds, thousands of pay-to-publish omega journals feeding from remains.

Scientists dream at publishing in alpha journals; they open a champagne whenever they succeed in doing it in a beta; they run from omega. However, the most important thing is that a scientist survival depends on a steady stream of publications in gamma journals.

In fact, for a specialist, it will be in the gamma journals that they will find the most interesting research. Serious, technical, and well documented. I tell for myself, I care much more about what’s happening within PCCP pages than in those of Nature.

But here there is a catch: gamma journals aren’t really happy with their rank. They want more. They aim at a beta position; and their struggle to climb in the journal hierarchy is creating a serious problem for scientists.

Look at the chart below (“What journals do ask for”). I collected scope and guideline information from some of the most relevant gamma journals in my field.

All these gamma journals fancy a beta-quality diet: they demand significant physical insights, great importance, general interest. They are snob enough to reject straightforward applications. More—check the chart again—they really seem to take “routine work” as toxic food.

And here is the problem: scientists need to keep regularly publishing in gamma journals, but these journals require more and more meat. How many “significant physical insights” do you think a scientist will give birth during their career? How many did Einstein do? Five, six?

I do serious, technical, and honest research. But most of it is admittedly routine work. I can’t even image how I could reach any new physical insights without doing a lot of routine and straightforward applications before.

The reason we scientists aren’t just pushed towards and devoured by omega journals is that there is a play of appearance going on.

If gamma journals really closed their mouths to routine work, they would all starve. They know there’s not enough meat for everyone. And of course they also know that when scientists have real meat, they will feed a beta, not a gamma journal.

Granting mutual survival, scientists and gamma journals have been developing a curious symbiosis: scientists spend a lot of time seasoning their papers with juicy introductions and tasty conclusions; gamma journals feed from these papers pretending they’re meat.

It isn’t wonderful how nature (the world, not the journal) always reaches equilibrium?


What journals do ask for:

  • Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation (American Chemical Society)
    (…) The Journal does not consider papers that are straightforward applications of known methods including DFT and molecular dynamics. (…)
  • Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics (Royal Society of Chemistry)
    To be suitable for publication in PCCP, articles must include significant new physical insights; this is the prime criterion that referees and the Editors will judge against when evaluating submissions.
  • ChemPhysChem (Wiley)
    Communications and Articles present results of general interest or great importance to the development of a specific area of research.
  • The Journal of Chemical Physics (American Institute of Physics)
    Manuscripts submitted to The Journal of Chemical Physics need to meet at least one of the following criteria: novel research that makes a significant advance in improving scientific understanding in a modern area of chemical physics; (…)
  • Journal of Physical Chemistry (American Chemical Society)
    An essential criterion for acceptance of research articles in the journal is that they provide new physical insight. Manuscripts that are essentially reporting data or applications of data are, in general, not suitable for publication in JPC A/B/C.
  • Theoretical Chemistry Accounts (Springer)
    Regular articles should report work of particular interest to specialists in the theoretical and computational chemistry fields. (…) TCA is especially interested in such papers that impact upon multiple chemical disciplines.
  • Chemical Physics (Elsevier)
    Manuscripts describing routine use or minor extensions or modifications of established and/or published experimental and theoretical methodologies are not appropriate for the journal. (….)
  • International Journal of Quantum Chemistry (Wiley)
    (…) Articles that report on routine applications of standard computational approaches to systems of interest to only specialized communities or incrementally expand findings that were previously published will be, unless significant new advances or conceptual breakthroughs are announced, declined. (….)


Photo Credit: SWNS.

Categories: Science Policy

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4 replies

  1. Nice written. I for one have given up on the “play of appearance”. Here’s how I preface the my publication list on my CV:

    My publication policy since 2012: If a paper has a shot at high impact journals such as JACS or PNAS then I will submit there. However, the majority of my papers are method development papers, which will be submitted to open access journals such as PLoS ONE or PeerJ as I fail to see a difference in impact between these journals and journals such as Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation and Journal of Computational Chemistry where I used to publish before.

    Publishing in impact-neutral journals has changed my research for the better. I can take more chances and thus attack tougher problems, without worrying about whether I can get it published.

  2. Your comment makes sense, Jan. Maybe the problem of many scientists (myself included) is to accept to be trapped in the traditional publication logic, feeding journals hyerarchy.

  3. Well, why not try it with one paper and see what happens? I recommend PeerJ if it’s even remotely bio-related.

    Here’s my first time:

  4. Well !, I agree with all your points. However, the actual situation is going out of hand in this “market”. Even for a theoretical chemist, it matters a lot about the number of publications and where it get published. Then only one can survive in this “sector”, starting from getting a phd/postdoc position, fellowship(s), fund(s) to finally a tenure-track position. It becomes highly competitive.

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