I’ve seen half a dozen posts and essays arguing that we should stop publicizing, listing, or paying attention to the names of the journals our papers are published in. The argument goes along these lines*. First, we should judge the worth of papers based on their content, not based on where they were published. Second, when filtering papers – deciding which ones to read – we should filter them based on what they’re about (as communicated by their titles and abstracts), not by the journal they’re in.
This argument is, I think, a logical extension of arguments against the impact factor. I think those arguments are overdone, and I think this one is too. When I look at paper lists on CVs, web pages, online alerts, and the like, I look for journal names and pay attention to them. I think it’s entirely reasonable for others to do the same, so on my own web site, I still use a conventional bibliographic format that includes the journal name for each paper.
I actually agree with the first half of the argument; it’s the second half I don’t buy. Yes, when reading papers (to cite them, in a tenure assessment, or whatever), we should judge them by their content and nothing more. But when deciding which papers to read, we need help. The deluge of published papers grows every year; not only can I not read all the papers relevant to my field, I can’t even read all the abstracts relevant to my field. I’m not sure I can even read all the titles relevant to my field – at least, not without becoming more of a narrow specialist than I’m comfortable with. If I pay more attention to the title of a paper in the American Naturalist than I do to one in Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata**, it’s not (I claim) because I’m a journal snob – it’s because I know that journals have scopes and personalities, and some are more likely than others to print papers that I’ll find interesting and important.
Imagine, for example, that I see a paper titled “Long-term trends in population dynamics of the vermilion leafhopper under biological control”. That might interest me – I don’t work on the vermilion leafhopper***, but I’m generally interested in insect population dynamics. But the set of papers that might interest me is huge. Can I get a little more information that might predict the paper’s “character”? Sure.
- If it appeared in Nature, it’s probably flashy but unimportant. (This may not be true in all fields, but in ecology and evolution Nature seems to have more to do with biggest, first, longest, or just plain coolest than with most important. And I swear, this is not (just) sour grapes for never having gotten a paper through review there…
- If it appeared in the American Naturalist, it probably makes some kind of conceptual or synthetic advance that means it will have implications for population dynamics more generally.
- If it appeared in Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata, it’s probably a narrower paper that will matter to leafhopper biologists and biocontrol practitioners, but not as much to me.
This kind of pre-assessment won’t work all the time, and it’s about character, not quality. If I could read every paper, or even every paper’s abstract, would I make better decisions? Sure – but I can’t.
Furthermore, even if I can’t judge an individual paper by the journal it’s in, I can get a good idea of a researcher’s approach and interests from the list of journals their overall oeuvre is in. If I’m advising an undergrad looking for grad programs (let’s say), and I don’t know the proposed supervisor’s work, I think I can make useful deductions from the array of journal names – deductions that take me beyond those I can make from the paper titles alone. Is every paper in Nature? Some eye-rolling may be appropriate. Is every paper in EEA? There’s a hard-core entomologist, the right supervisor for someone who adores insects above all else. A mix of Am Nat and EEA (etc.)? That’s likely a research program with more breadth, good for someone who sees insects as model systems for more general ecoevolutionary questions. I’m sure you could make similar deductions yourself, especially in your own subfield, and I’m not sure what you’d gain from closing your eyes to them.
I understand the desire to ignore journal names. It feels enticingly egalitarian, with the admirable ideal of letting scientific quality speak for itself. But in practice, I don’t think it’s likely to work. I’m happy to let our peer review and publication system do one of the things it does quite well: sort papers into bins that signal (even if imperfectly) to readers whether they might be interested in a paper, and why.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) August 29, 2016
Thanks to Timothée Poisot for spurring this post with one of his own , which provides an excellent counterargument to mine. You should read both posts before deciding whether you agree with me.
**^EEA is a perfectly good journal, and I’ve published in it several times. But even I would argue that my EEA papers are less important overall, and likely to interest many fewer readers, than my Am Nat ones.
***^Which is a good thing, because I made it up.