Don't Fight to be Cited

Forget and - submit your papers to the journals read by your grant reviewers.

Steven Wiley
Dec 31, 2008

An essential part of our job is to publish our work. Unfortunately, it seems like not just any scientific journal will suffice. Both grant review panels and promotion committees appear to be most impressed by papers that have made their way past the editorial gatekeepers and persnickety reviewers of top-tier journals. Of course, our own egos usually feel the same way. We all like to think of our work as both exciting and cutting-edge and acceptance in a prestigious journal is one way to get validation. Unfortunately, editors and reviewers are frequently uncooperative.

When I was a young scientist, I also thought that top journals were the best places to publish. Unfortunately, I found that trying to publish in popular journals required an enormous amount of time and effort, from ultra-succinct writing of the manuscript to answering absurd requests by reviewers. I fought not only because of youthful moral righteousness, but also because I felt that publication in highly visible journals was necessary for my papers to get cited. Without highly cited papers, I thought, I would never be able to advance in my career.

What I did not appreciate sufficiently when I was young was that high citation numbers couldn't be achieved simply by targeting specific journals. Conversely, I found that the total number of citations garnered by an article is rarely an indication of its importance—review articles in popular fields are well-known citation magnets, and my most highly cited article (>360 citations to date ) is a techniques paper published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Playing the citation game would be of purely academic interest if the stakes were not so high. Our citation rankings do affect our careers, no matter how much we might protest the fact. Communicating the results of our research is one of our primary responsibilities as scientists, and our set of publications is evidence of our commitment to this idea. It is important, however, not to place too much emphasis on where your papers are published. Spending a year to get your work published in a journal such as Cell, instead of a couple of papers in less prestigious journals, could negatively impact your overall research productivity, and perhaps even your citation count. (Of course, sometimes where you publish does make a difference to citations. I still kick myself for succumbing to the entreaties of several new journals by submitting a new and interesting paper to them, only to see it disappear from the face of the scientific earth.)

The best publication advice I ever received was from my postdoctoral advisor who suggested that I choose target journals based on which scientists would evaluate my grants and write letters of recommendation. What journals did they cite? Where did they publish? Presumably they published in journals that they respected, so if I published in those journals, they would see my work and could comment on my science and its impact. My peers are actually more likely to see my papers in good quality specialty journals than in Science or Nature or Cell, which they often don't browse. But since everyone knows how hard it is to get accepted in top-tier journals, it looks great on your CV.

Indeed, although the promotion committees I have served on consider the number and quality of the candidate's publications, they are usually most impressed by glowing letters of recommendation from prominent scientists in the candidate's field. This almost always requires publishing in the appropriate specialty journals and talking to those scientists at meetings. If you are serious about a field, your publication efforts should be specifically targeted to where the field publishes.

For the most part, I took my advisor's advice and only rarely tried to publish in the trendy journals. And I have found that many of my papers that I published in places like the Journal of Biological Chemistry or Molecular Biology of the Cell have been cited more than those I managed to get in Science or Cell. By primarily targeting specialty journals, I have managed to publish more than 100 papers that have been cited more than 6,000 times. Knowing your target audience is a lot easier way to get more citations than fighting with journal editors and reviewers.

Steven Wiley is a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Fellow and director of PNNL's Biomolecular Systems Initiative.