Why do Scientists want to Publish in Nature or Science?

dream of nature

Academics have one primary currency, papers. Just like real currencies, the value of every paper is different, with a well-established high value placed on Nature, Science and similar high-impact journals. In this article I wanted to explore why publishing in these journals is so desirable to academics. More importantly, to ask the important question of whether these purposes can be solved in ways that are less expensive.

First of all, let’s establish the costs associated with publishing in Nature or Science:

  • Time to do research:The burden is on the researcher to present a full and compelling story, this often implies that an enormous body of work is presented as a ‘single finding’ in one paper. If you read one of these articles however, it is clear that the authors are showing several independently important results, just presented as one to improve ‘impact.’ This is self-evident in the absurdly long supplemental information sections of a Nature or Science paper.
  • Time in review:The average time a paper spends in review at a high impact journal is much longer than other journals, largely because reviewers are exceptionally critical and feel obliged to send a long list of comments, simply because the author submitted to a high impact journal. Also, higher impact journals will solicit more reviewers than medium impact journals, eg. Nature sends it to 2-4 as opposed to average of 2. Further, there are usually multiple rounds of review at these journals (again, much of which is inflated simply because of ‘journal ego’).
  • Reviewer conflict of interest:Reviewers of high impact papers are always in a conflict of interest. The acceptance of a colleague’s paper in a high impact journal means that colleague is creating ‘high impact’ and ‘novel’ work in your field. This is a terrible conflict of interest where a researcher has to accept that someone else is producing ‘important’ work in their field, even if they are not. This is often a major indirect cost in these journals as it makes reviews highly biased and stretches ethics or academic integrity.
  • Monetary cost:High impact journals, by virtue of being desirable also charge the most for publishing in their journals. This cost is borne directly by the authors despite the work not being made open access in general.

These are some pretty high costs! The time aspect is certainly the biggest cost. I have known several researchers for whom first submission to final publication takes over 3 years (though Nature will never let these figures be known). So, let’s now explore why researchers bear these costs and maintain such a desire to publish in these journals:

  1. Prestige / Perceived value: The sheer ability to publish work in one of these journals carries with it a perceived value by the scientific community that the research is ‘important’ and ‘good’ enough to get through the obscenely long and often unnecessary peer review process. However, this aspect of the benefit has to ‘real’ value. Meaning that the article does not ever have to help anyone or provide substantive value (eg. via citations) to have the researcher gain this perception benefit.
  1. Citation value: A major marketing benefit of a ‘high impact’ journal is that they carry a high Impact Factor. This simply means that the average number of citations per year for an article in that journal is high. However it does not mean that your article will be cited. In fact, journals have a very high skew, with few articles getting cited a lot and most articles getting cited very little. In Nature for example, the average number of citations for an article is 121 (over its life, till date).  However, the median is 24 citations and over 40% of articles are cited less than 10 times! So if you submit to Nature, and you produce an ‘average’ Nature article, it will be cited 24 times-total!*
  1. Publicity value: The second major marketing advantage is that traditional and other mass media look to Science and Nature to publish flashy articles about cool new science. Given that Nature and Science are meant to be broad interest journals, this makes it very easy to get mass media to write about discoveries published in these journals. Further, the ‘news and views’ section in Nature journals makes it even more media friendly by getting top scientists to write their opinions of an article in that same issue – in lay words.
  1. Readership value: Building slightly on a point made in the previous section, these journals are broad. This means that scientists that have nothing to do with your field will still at least see your article (even if they don’t read it). This exposure benefit implies that there is a higher chance that your work will influence someone in some way that you didn’t expect, i.e. increase your real impact.

So how can scientists reap the benefits without the costs of a high impact journal?

OK, so now that we have a pretty strong understanding of the various benefits a researcher obtains through publication in a high impact journal, we can elicit an important insight, that all of the benefits a high impact journal provides is on the marketing side of the paper.

Given that they are providing marketing value, the one advantage that is hard to reproduce or replace, is brand value. Our marketing friends at any major company will tell you that brand is hard to replace. However, it is certainly not impossible, especially given how easy it is to establish personal brands on the internet these days. In fact, several faculty have started doing this (check out this list!), using the internet to make themselves more discoverable, and have their personal brand push them forward rather than rely on Nature to do it for them.

The other benefits outlined above all boil down to a single insight, that high impact journals push articles to more eyes. It is pretty clear given the citation analysis above that your article must provide some substantive value for people to cite it, i.e. there are ‘duds’ even in Nature. So, to increase your citation count you simply need to get your article read by others. This implies 2 very simple actionable insights:

  1. You should write a lay version of your article, i.e. your own ‘news and views’ so that it is accessible to mass media and other fields
  2. You should promote your own content: either via 3rd party media outlets or direct

Thankfully, these are very easy to do. The internet has made accessible the ability to push or pull content to anyone in the world extremely easily. In fact, several faculty already do this in some form. I recently got forwarded an e-mail that was written by the author of a new paper directly to my Professor to advertise the paper (the paper was attached so we could read it too)! The list of actions one can take is quite large, but to get you started here are some:

  1. Direct e-mail to people you know are in your field: this is easy to find, just look at your citations to start!
  2. Writing a guest blog in a science blog: Check out scienceblogs.com
  3. Pushing your new article on social media: If professors don’t use social media, it doesn’t matter, grad students certainly do!
  4. Getting an article written by your university newspaper: I know MIT is really good about putting their research news on the front page of their website. Other universities do also get their faculties’ work pushed into the media!

The list of ways to get your article discovered is quite long, I haven’t even addressed SEO ideas for example. Regardless, there are plenty of other resources that you can find on getting content discovered.

So let’s return to the original question: ‘Why do Scientists want to Publish in Nature or Science?’ It looks to me like the value these journals provide can be replaced with lower cost alternatives. In fact, not only can scientists avoid the pain of trying to publish in these journals, they can do better by influencing directly the visibility and access to their work. The cherry that tops it off is that all of the content and marketing work they put in is owned by them and remains an asset of the scientist as opposed to that of Nature or Science. I am excited to see more and more scientists take ownership of their work, and build a stronger scientific ecosystem!

As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. Specifically, if you have successfully marketed your work on your own, leave those ideas here for others to benefit from your insight!

*These statistics were calculated using the citation report generate by Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

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5 thoughts on “Why do Scientists want to Publish in Nature or Science?

  1. Elisabet April 16, 2015 / 6:02 am

    I am totally agree with you. I don’t like this kind of slavery system to publish scientific work. But there are other key reasons for publishing in Nature and Science: 1) getting grants to keep on doing research if you’re head of laboratory, 2) getting grants for the first or second post doc if you’re PhD. It is difficult to break this vicious circle. 😦

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    • rishabhmjain April 16, 2015 / 4:18 pm

      Elisabet, thanks for the comment. Yes, it is true that reviewers look positively on having high impact publications. However, it is certianly not necessary. The large majority of researchers never publish in these journals and lead very successful careers. There are several other places to display your ability to be a great researcher! Nevertheless, we as researchers do need to rely less on journals to do the ‘marketing’ of our work for us.

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  2. Trevor A. Branch May 12, 2015 / 11:22 pm

    Interesting points, though some are not borne out by my own experience. I’ve tried there a number of times and the average rejection takes 1-3 weeks total vs. probably 6 months with other journals. Time from submission to final publication is also *much* faster than average: 3 months and a week for one paper and 3 mo 3 weeks for another. In contrast the average for submission to publication elsewhere for my papers is probably 12-18 months, and not uncommonly over two years. So my experience has been that Science and Nature are 4-6 times faster than elsewhere.

    Second, about the citations. If you go to Web of Science, you are getting citations for all the news and views articles, not just the research articles. I struggle to think of a paper with under 100 citations in my field in Science or Nature, whereas only maybe 1 in 100 papers in other journals make it over that bar.

    I certainly do agree about the advertising component, but it’s difficult to spend so much time on outreach and even then it is unlikely you would ever get the same exposure or citations.

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    • rishabhmjain May 13, 2015 / 12:04 am

      Thanks for the comments Trevor!

      I should probably make the language in the article clearer when talking about ‘time in review.’ This is not meant to be the time it takes to get the review back to the author, it is meant to be a discussion about how the reviews from these journals tend to be extremely demanding, and hence the total time spent in the review process can be long. My experience with an article that eventually got published in Science was that it took several months to appropriately respond to all of the comments (as several additional experiments were required). I have seen similar with peers submissions to these articles. You bring up an excellent point that this is different than the actual ‘review time!’ I will edit the post soon to clarify this point!

      Yes you are right, I sorted the results to give only articles, and exclude news and views and other similar results. Unfortunately, there is a major skew, Nature Materials did an analysis of themselves here: http://www.nature.com/nmat/journal/v10/n9/full/nmat3114.html
      They openly claim that 30% of their articles contribute to 2/3 of the impact factor.

      To your last point, I sincerely hope we can find a way around the difficulty of advertising an article. Though I completely agree that it is nontrivial. I hope that more discussion on this yields some interesting ideas!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. chrisewolf January 3, 2016 / 6:07 am

    Great writing and clear thoughts on the topic. In my own (limited) experience nothing helps getting your paper through science (can’t speaknfor nature) than having a previously published author somewhere along the list.

    The article in question was immediately rejected after editor screening at nature, another (famous) professor was added on the author list, his experiment squeezed into the (already ridiculously long) supporting information and science was happy to publish it.

    Without “double blind” reviews this will never be solved I guess but I expected more from the “flagship” journals.

    Liked by 1 person

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