Nature's Editors on Paper Selection

For many researchers, perhaps especially for those in graduate school, the successful publishing of a paper in a journal such as Nature or Science is the pinacle of professional success. General wisdom, backed by hard numbers, shows how difficult it is to publish a paper in such high impact journals. But is that difficulty solely do to the immense competition for limited space? Or are researchers also battling a specific editorial agenda that seeks to pick papers for publication based upon a set of limited criteria. According to the editors of Nature, the answer to those questions is no.

Today in Nature, an editorial discusses the journal's paper selection process. The editorial seeks to address several "myths" about the selection process at Nature, including that "Nature's editors seek to inflate the journal's impact factor by sifting through submitted papers (some 16,000 last year) in search of those that promise a high citation rate", or that the editors "allow one negative referee to determine the rejection of a paper".

The editors seek to dispel these myths using specific examples and descriptions of their role during the paper submission/ peer review process. In the end, the editors claim, the choice to publish a paper in Nature is not based on the authors identities, the potential impact factor, or the opinion of any particular referee. Instead, they "make the final call on the basis of criteria such as the paper's depth of mechanistic insight, or its value as a data resource or in enabling applications of an innovative technique."

While their statements are interesting, I find it highly doubtful that any single editorial will dispel the pervasive and proliferative myths that will inevitably surround the process of entry into the upper echelon of published authorship. What is interesting to me are the potential motivations behind the publishing of the editorial. What stressor triggered Nature's editors to publicly refute these (rather specific) myths? The first paragraph of the editorial states that "as the current headlines make all too clear, controversies over scientific conclusions in fields such as climate change can have the effect — deliberate or otherwise — of undermining the public's faith in science." Are the editors of Nature reacting to events such as the high-profile retraction by Lancet of the Autism/MMR Wakefield study? Do they believe their reputation is at risk due to "number of false impressions that [they] have become aware of in and beyond the research community"? How specific are the reputations of scientific journals such as Nature outside the research community? Can we expect the general public to differentiate specific scientific journals, or is it more realistic to expect a more generalized view of the publication process?

What are your thoughts? For those researchers out there, thinking back to the days before you made your living doing research, do you remember paying attention/having a decided opinion about one scientific journal over another (or any scientific journal for that matter). Does anyone have friends/relatives/spouses/acquaintances who are both members of the general public and followers of the publications in Nature/Science/scientific journal X?

Nature's Choices. Editorial. Nature. 63, 850 (18 February 2010) | doi:10.1038/463850a


Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog