|The Rat, 2013|
This post is about high impact factor journals, i.e., those publications where you have to convince an entity called “editor” that your article is “cool” and will “appeal to a wide audience” before having a chance to get it reviewed by someone who's not an ignorant. Most of you won’t pass this first filter. That is, unless an individual whom I've never seen in any nonlocality workshop claims in Nature News that your result is “the most important general theorem relating to the foundations of quantum mechanics since Bell’s theorem”.
Hence I will focus my rant on this aspect, the editor stage, because I find astounding that editors of professional scientific journals regularly reject submissions on completely unscientific grounds. Whenever I get a good original result and am able to summarize it in four pages, I know that I will probably get it published in PRL. I wished I could say that whenever I get an exceptional result it will most likely be published in Science, Nature or Nature Physics. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this post.
What’s wrong with high impact factor journals? Is it true that under their human masks Nature editors are a reptilian species sent to destroy Earthen civilization by featuring articles like this? Desperate for answers, I went to the Bristol University Mensa and asked researchers on this matter. I found that their opinions fall into three categories:
a) The Conformist: “Yes, sure, the system is far from perfect, but that’s all there is. So stop whining and send those families to the reeducation cam- sorry, wrong forum.”
b) The Outraged Conformist: “Those journals are a shame and we should boycott them all. But first let me submit my new paper “If quantum mechanics were more nonlocal, an avian compass would violate the second law of thermodynamics in the Canary Islands””.
c) The Understanding: “You have to put yourself in their shoes… these editors receive a lot of papers every week, they have to come up with a system to release that load. And the simplest way is to reject all papers written by junior scientists. Now I have to leave you, that man with the scars over there says that he wants my “fucking” shirt. Poor soul, he must have suffered so much. I will offer him my money, my house and my first-born baby”.
Between the lines, one can read some skepticism about the transparency of editorial decisions in high impact factor journals. Let us dig into this:
In his book “Reason strangled”, chemist and journalist Carlos Elías argues that Nature’s top-one priority is to maintain its impact factor; that allows the journal to set the prize of the publication. Problem is, Nature’s impact factor is already so high that a lot of effort must go just into not letting it drop. Hence Nature editors have to make sure that each article will be highly cited. Articles signed by famous scientists are read more, and, consequently, have more citations. Likewise with prestigious affiliations, fancy titles, articles already mentioned in the press. Elías writes about Nature, but I guess that his conclusions apply to other high impact factor journals as well.
It follows that the paper “Full algorithmic characterization of LOCC quantum operations”, by John Unknown, from Mac&Cheese Community College, will have a cold reception. On the other hand, the article “Quantum mechanics is extra-spicy”, signed by Stephen Hawking, Edward Witten and David Bowie, and featured on TV by Beakman and the Myth Busters, will make the same Nature editors twist and shout. Don’t forget that we’re speaking of a journal that in 1996 published an article about the analgesic effects of myrrh. Because it was a relevant result in the field? No! Because it was Christmas time!
The need to increase the journal’s impact factor explains many things, but does not answer all my questions. How come that exactly the same document is called “Supplementary Material” in Science, “Supplementary Information” in Nature, “Supplemental Information” in PNAS and “Supplemental Material” in PRL*? Do they want to drive us crazy? Why can’t PNAS editors read a reference where the author’s initials are - sacrilege! - before the family name? Are they aware of the amount of time that it takes to submit a paper to this journal, only to see it rejected the next week? If I conduct the research, write a referee list and prepare the paper in their damned unique format, what do the so-called editors do? I mean, besides checking my affiliation and h-index and replying “we receive more papers than we can publish, so we have to select those that will be of the greatest interest to a wide audience”. Do they understand how that sentence feels like when the next day they publish whatever crap with the words “spooky” and “quantum” in the abstract? Come to think of it, why do high impact factor journals have an impact factor at all? Shouldn’t they be in the same lot as other popular science magazines, like Scientific American, New Scientist and Physical Review A**?
*I know, PRL is not a high impact factor journal. But it’s where most good Physics papers end up after being rejected by the first three, they should make the transition easier!
**OK, here I went too far.
**OK, here I went too far.
When I was a young postdoc, within two months, two different groups proposed two physical principles to limit quantum nonlocality. One group included important figures in QI who had previously published in Nature. Even unpublished, their work was soon echoed in the press (what? You never heard of information causality? How long did you say you stayed in that coma?). The other group was composed by a relatively unknown postdoc (me) and a second-year PhD student.
My collaborator and I knew that nothing short of building a time machine would have allowed us to pass the editors of a high impact factor journal. However, when we heard that the first group had managed to get their paper accepted in Nature, we thought: “now we have them by the balls”.
On one hand, Nature editors could not claim that our work wasn’t of general interest, because the same considerations would apply to information causality. On the other hand, they couldn’t argue that our work didn’t represent a significant advance, because it advanced the field as much as information causality did. In sum, the two main arguments for rejection in Nature didn’t apply. Cowabunga!
Of course, we were assuming that Nature editors can feel human emotions, like shame. Our article never went to referees. Guess why? Because “it was not of general interest and did not represent a significant advance”. A prior submission to Nature Physics had had exactly the same response.
Outraged, I wrote to Nature’s Editor-in-Chief, explaining my case*. My letter ended with some recommendations for the journal:
I therefore suggest you to change the contents of the Nature webpage concerning how to get published. It will not be so glamorous, but at least it will be honest. It could start by:
1. It is completely admissible to exaggerate one’s work to the point that no future research can compete with your so-claimed results.
2. If you are not a key figure in your field, stop reading. We are currently working on a webpage that can only be accessed by scientific celebrities, but, meanwhile, we would appreciate your cooperation if… wait a moment! Why am I wasting time talking to a Nobody? Leave! Now!
3. Oh, it’s you again! Didn’t I tell you to come back when you are famous? Go away, your anonymity smell is making me dizzy… what? How can you become famous? Err… I don’t know… By publishing in Nature?
4. Even if your work is not good enough for Nature, you can still try with Nature Physics. There, an editor with a PhD in experimental ultraviolet LEDs will review your theoretical paper on Foundational Physics and copy-paste his opinion about it. In order to guarantee a polite response, we have removed the exclamation sign from his keyboard.
And so on. That way, people will not get the wrong impression that Nature is a scientific journal, but the nerdy version of “Hello!”.
I think I have already written enough, and I do not want to waste more of your precious time; you must be very busy eating young researchers. But do not worry, this is not a “see you soon”, it is more a “see you never”.
A rat had been born.