Currently there is a lot of discussion surrounding high impact journals and how they are ruining science and are the actual carrier of the Zika virus and that no one should publish there (even though everyone still does). These normally centre on: why impact factor isn’t a good measure, how the review process is stupendously long, and have even had some high profile people speaking up etc. but today we tackle whether they have an influence on the science that is actually done. Like most of my articles I’ll have a semi-opinion that they don’t apart from when they do.
Why they don’t
C’mon, do they actually? Have you ever thought, ‘the reason that I am doing this specific project is because Nature wants me to’ (other high impact journals are available). I’d argue that for the most part the emphasis is on thorough, well-controlled, novel science. A lot of people just follow what interests them.
Don’t just hop on the bandwagon publishing tiny advances in something that is already pretty spectacular
Why they do
Seeing as publishing in a high impact journal is somewhat of a prerequisite to a long-term career in science there is some kind of selection for that kind of science. This affects science in two ways: 1) A high impact paper receives more attention (I don’t have evidence to back this up, it is more of a feeling) and people are more likely to develop projects building on current knowledge. 2) If you publish in a high impact journal you are more likely to be able to start your own lab and therefore when you employ new postdocs more people are now working on this topic, leading to growth in that area.
Perhaps high impact factor journals do have too much power but I think that regardless of journal, high impact science itself has an influence on what science is carried out. When something particularly cutting edge is published everyone jumps on board (think of the CRISPR/Cas9 system in Biology). Whilst I’d agree that further work on a particularly exciting area is necessary, more novel discoveries like these are needed; so work on finding those instead. I once heard a talk from the Nobel Laureate Eric Betzig and he said something to the effect that, when more people join a field the signal doesn’t really increase but the noise does. Nice imaging analogy there. My interpretation of this is that people should seek new ideas. Don’t just hop on the bandwagon publishing tiny advances in something that is already pretty spectacular. Funding bodies should take note of this and not fund something because a Nature paper was published on it and it apparently has disease relevance. I guess I should save that latter point for another post.