Could aiming for a glam pub make me a better scientist?

May 26 2016 Published by under academia, early career scientist, publishing, research

I’m usually not very judgmental but I’ll admit that I have disdain for scientists or labs who almost exclusively aim for glamor publications in journals like Nature, Science, or Cell, and sometimes even say they don’t value research from low-impact factor journals. Debates about glam pubs usually focus on the fact that such journals don’t correspond with quality of science, or the apparent need to publish in high-impact factor journals to advance one’s career (get a tenure-track position or get tenure) and  and the idea of boycotting or subverting such journals and going open-access.

This is a little different at smaller institutions like I’ve been at in the past, but even at major research institutions I’ve never been in a lab that really aimed for glam pubs. Between my four past and present mentors, they may have had two such publications, and the fact that I don’t even know the number shows you how little I notice/care about that. I never thought it was important to me to publish in a glam journal, and was perfectly happy to publish in what I considered the most appropriate journals for my work and subfield*. I like to do whatever are the best experiments for my line of research and then publish when I have a complete story**, and figure out where that story fits best.

Lately I’ve been exposed more to labs that primarily publish in high impact journals and I found myself thinking about it a little more. I wondered what it would be like if I was aiming for a manuscript I could submit to a high-impact journal. What would I need to add to my story? What would it take to get there? If I couldn’t do the experiments myself due to resources or expertise, who could?

This made me think about a lot of advantages. Of course the obvious advantage is that by getting that publication I may get a better chance at that tenure track position, etc. But perhaps more importantly, it really would push my work somewhere I wouldn’t otherwise take it. Maybe it would be good for me to think beyond my comfort zone, to actually consider those experiments that I would have written off in the past as ‘beyond the scope of this study’. In addition, it would push me to develop collaborations with others and/or expand my own expertise. This would be good for my current work, for my later independent work (i.e. fundability), and probably for increasing my job opportunities as well.

I find that I can be the most productive and even creative if I’m given a little framework for a goal. Maybe aiming for a glam pub is just the kind of structure I need to motivate me, and push me outside of my comfort zone to become a better scientist.

*Which is not to say I haven’t submitted manuscripts to the glam journals, because I have.

**My use of this term is quite different from what might be considered a complete story for a glam pub.

5 responses so far

  • Anonymous says:

    "I find that I can be the most productive and even creative if I’m given a little framework for a goal."

    Me too! And I think you might be right. I'll have to give this more thought....

  • Morgan Price says:

    I'm all for aiming to do something great. In my field, most of the time, this does not mean something a glam journal would publish...but sometimes it does.

  • Mikka says:

    I'm with Morgan Price. With a few exceptions where serendipity showed something field-changing while doing what would seem like incremental work, big papers usually start with really big questions. The thing with big questions is that they are on everyone's mind, so competition is fierce because they are also, not coincidentally, very difficult to answer.

    But as MP also pointed out, even a big question answered in a big way doesn't always make it into a glam pub. In order to get past the editor and the reviewers, all semblance of "derivative" or "too specialized" must be stripped off the story. This may be good: a glam paper has to drive home a single very important point very convincingly, and the audience is scientists of all walks of life that can't parse much of the jargon. But it may also be bad, because, for it to have any hope of going to review, it can't contain a lot of detail that would make the editor think "uh oh, this would be better in a specialized journal".

    While most of this can be dealt with in supplemental data, many people consider this a problem, and sometimes it is, because caveats and nuances are minimized. From Drugmonkey I've learned that glam pubs used to be little more than a glorified abstract announcing a discovery, after which everyone would wait for the "real paper" to come out on a more specialized journal with all its specialized detail. Now the glam pubs can have it all, by dumping everything that can't fit in the extremely condensed "letter" format (by far the more numerous of glam pubs) into supplemental material.

    The problem is not the science that comes out in glam pubs; by and large it is good science. The problem is how the overblown importance glam pubs have in evaluating contributions (our fault) have warped our perceptions, and even the science we publish.

    (source: by looking at my pubs you would conclude that I'm a certified glam humper, but I swear it was unintentional- right field, right time, etc)

  • Dave says:

    I think it is hard to 'shoot' for a glam pub, and doing so is probably very risky for an average non-pedigreed junior faculty with a track record of CNS publishing. There are just too many pieces that need to fall into place for one to plan for it, and much of it has nothing to do with the science per se.

    Working in an important, 'hot' area at the right time is the most important thing, but the disadvantage with that is the level of competition that one has to deal with. Again as a junior investigator, there is a lot of risk associated with this.

    The most important factor is probably pedigree tbh.

  • sweetscience says:

    Fascinated by the comments so far which seem to be nicely saying "not gonna happen!" Please don't take the 'aiming for a glam pub' angle too literally - I'm basically trying to say that using this framework as a goal I can push myself to do bigger and better science that might boost my skills, connections and career regardless of where it's published.

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