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For academics, what matters more: journal prestige or readership?

With more than 30,000 academic journals now in circulation, academics can have a hard time figuring out where to submit their work for publication. The decision is made all the more difficult by the sky-high pressure of today’s academic environment—including working toward tenure and trying to secure funding, which can depend on a researcher’s publication record. So, what does a researcher prioritize?

According to a new study posted on the bioRxiv preprint server, faculty members say they care most about whether the journal is read by the people they most want to reach—but they think their colleagues care most about journal prestige. Perhaps unsurprisingly, prestige also held more sway for untenured faculty members than for their tenured colleagues.

“I think that it is about the security that comes with being later in your career,” says study co-author Juan Pablo Alperin, an assistant professor in the publishing program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. “It means you can stop worrying so much about the specifics of what is being valued; there’s a lot less at stake.”

According to a different preprint that Alperin and his colleagues posted on PeerJ in April, 40% of research-intensive universities in the United States and Canada explicitly mention that journal impact factors can be considered in promotion and tenure decisions. More likely do so unofficially, with faculty members using journal names on a CV as a kind of shorthand for how “good” a candidate’s publication record is. “You can’t ignore the fact that journal impact factor is a reality that gets looked at,” Alperin says. But some argue that journal prestige and impact factor are overemphasized and harm science, and that academics should focus on the quality of individual work rather than journal-wide metrics. 

In the new study, only 31% of the 338 faculty members who were surveyed—all from U.S. and Canadian institutions and from a variety of disciplines, including 38% in the life and physical sciences and math—said that journal prestige was “very important” to them when deciding where to submit a manuscript. The highest priority was journal readership, which half said was very important. Fewer respondents felt that publication costs (24%) and open access (10%) deserved the highest importance rating.

But, when those same faculty members were asked to assess how their colleagues make the same decision, journal prestige shot to the top of the list, with 43% of faculty members saying that it was very important to their peers when deciding where to submit a manuscript. Only 30% of faculty members thought the same thing about journal readership—a drop of 20 percentage points compared with how faculty members assessed their own motivations.

It’s hard to untangle readership and journal prestige, notes Björn Brembs, a professor of neurogenetics at the University of Regensburg in Germany, who has done work showing that papers published in high-impact journals are more likely to be retracted. Readership, in his view, essentially means, “Are my buddies reading this? Are my social circles talking about the articles in these journals?” The answers to those questions often boil down to whether the journal has a good reputation, he says.

But, when people tell themselves that their motivation for submitting to a journal stems from a desire to reach the right people rather than the pursuit of a publication with a high impact factor, they can “sort of wiggle out” of the notion that they’re really seeking prestige, he says. The study confirms his own anecdotal experiences speaking with colleagues, who sometimes say things along the lines of, “Oh, no, I’m not so superficial in looking at journal rank, but everybody else is.”

Still, Alperin hopes that early-career researchers can find hope in seeing that their colleagues value other aspects of publishing beyond journal impact factors. “People go into these careers because they want to have a positive impact on the world,” he says. Doing the research and disseminating it to an appropriate audience are both fundamental to academics’ work, Alperin continues. He thinks that researchers should prioritize those objectives and try to resist the pressure and tendency to think about prestige alone. “Doing open access or doing public scholarship, or community engaged scholarship, are not things that are at odds with having a successful academic career,” he says.

Susan Gardner, a professor of higher education at the University of Maine in Orono, agrees that researchers should stay true to their own values as much as possible. But she cautions that pretenure faculty members need to think strategically about what’s required of them at their particular institution when they go up for tenure. The reality is that “prestige and ranking matter a lot,” she says, especially at research-intensive universities. “Once [faculty members] have tenure … they can have a voice in deciding what is going to be counted or what is going to be rewarded,” Gardner says. “Unfortunately, until they have that rank, I don’t know how much they can really move the needle.”

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