Yes, it is getting harder to publish in prestigious journals if you haven’t already

Can you publish in Nature if you haven’t already published in Nature? It may sound like a riddle—but according to a new study, it is in fact getting harder to publish in prestigious multidisciplinary journals such as Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences if you haven’t previously done so. So-called “chaperoned” researchers who first publish in these journals as nonsenior authors have a leg up when it comes to publishing in these journals as principal investigators (PIs), the study found—and the trend has gotten stronger in recent years. In Nature, for example, the share of papers authored by chaperoned senior authors grew from 16% to 22% between 1990 and 2012, while new senior authors dropped from 39% to 31%. 

“The take-home point really is that it's getting harder to break into one of these journals if you haven't been chaperoned into it,” says study co-author Roberta Sinatra, a network scientist at Central European University in Budapest. And although the benefit of being chaperoned is strongest in prestigious multidisciplinary journals and in the life sciences, “it is an effect that you can see for almost any journal,” says study co-author Sune Lehmann, a mathematician and computer scientist at the Technical University of Denmark in Kongens Lyngby.

There are a number of possible underlying reasons, including mentoring, better skill development, and factors related to building reputation and connections. Regardless, early-career researchers may want to keep the results in mind when choosing which labs to join and otherwise strategizing for their careers. “Having the opportunity to be an understudy on a paper as you are developing your own individual skills and your own reputation as a scientist produces a big return when you become senior author,” says Brian Uzzi, a network scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who was not involved in the study.

The researchers generated a “chaperone index” for 386 scientific journals across all disciplines by comparing the number of senior authors—defined as the last author—who had first published in the journal as nonsenior author with the number who hadn’t. The analysis was based on the author lists of 6.1 million papers published between 1960 and 2012, using modeling to account for variability in ordering conventions and author number. The extent that researchers benefit from being chaperoned tracks with the so-called purity of the field: The effect is strongest in multidisciplinary journals, then—in decreasing order—biology, medicine, chemistry, physics, and mathematics, with significant variation among individual journals.

One possible explanation for the overall effect, Sinatra says, is that “chaperoned” scientists learn to frame their results in a way that is attractive to high-impact journals, to navigate the review process, and to work with the editor to give them the paper they are looking for.

Other explanations, however, include various ways that reputation and elitism manifest in academia. For example, says Daniel Larremore, a computer scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder who was not involved in the study, a chaperoned scientist could become a “known quantity” to the editor, which could make the editor more likely to look favorably upon future submissions. “It could be due to that person’s skills or it could be due to the fact that they’re already in the editor’s Rolodex,” says Larremore, who has studied the role of prestige in faculty hiring decisions. More broadly, it could also come down to visibility, both to editors and to the scientific community as a whole, Larremore says.

Yet another element is the cumulative advantage that a young scientist gains from having a Science or Nature paper on their CV. The researchers who have high-profile publications will get consideration for jobs at the most prestigious places and have access to more resources—funding, good grad students, smart colleagues—when they become PIs. “But it is different from learning the skills of how to do high-impact work and instead more about resources,” Larremore says.

To dig into the differences between papers by chaperoned and nonchaperoned authors, the researchers also looked at relative impact factors and citations for work published in the prestigious multidisciplinary journals. Sinatra and Lehmann expected that papers from authors who were not chaperoned had to be truly exceptional to be accepted without the advantages that come with prior experience. Instead, they found that papers by authors who have been chaperoned or who have repeatedly published in these journals have, on average, higher impact factors and more citations than those by authors who were not chaperoned. “It was quite shocking to see that,” Lehmann said.

But this could have more to do with visibility than quality, Larremore says. If someone has already written one or two Nature papers, they are already highly visible, so their next paper makes a bigger splash than it would if they were a first-time author.

As Uzzi puts it, scientists are a bit like politicians: They develop a base, a group of other scientists that follow their work. When a junior author publishes in these prestigious journals, they probably expand their base. “If you then publish as a senior author, you’ve got a great base already in place,” he says.