Cell / Nature / Science – as a grad student, am I really missing out when publishing?

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s supervisor, employer, organisation, committee or any other group or individual.

By The Grey Wolf

“Work with someone who has published in Cell, Nature or Science, and you’ll be one of those Cell / Nature / Science scientists” they say. True enough, this appears all over the internet and in many conversations. What makes a Nature paper? How does one publish in Cell? Is it important to publish in these top journals? Questions with answers you find all over the internet again. These journals have some of the highest impact factors for us life scientists, some even calling them “luxury” scientific magazines. Understand that a high impact factor publication is not the same as a first-class publication.

With only 8 months left in my Ph.D., it means I have 8 months left to give my thoughts as naïve grad student. So, here’s the thing, what’s my take? Is worth it? Am I missing out? I have published a number of papers in my Ph.D., and I’ve come to terms with not feeling bad about missing out on Cell / Nature / Science, because in real life, I’ve already been missing out on luxuries.
The way I see Cell / Nature / Science is pretty much summed up below in a collage of journal article covers and series of YouTube thumbnails from BuzzFeed and other channels.



Consider growing up with an average-income environment, you wouldn’t settle for the more expensive options. All you need is a car that drives you around, a phone that lets you dial and make calls, T-shirts that lasts long, meals that keep you alive. Do you live to eat, or eat to live? Do you seriously need that $150 white T-shirt when the same look costs less than $15 in some shops? I faced decisions like this for most of my life, and coming to Sydney with its insane living expenses made me skimp a lot more.

Okay, back to science. So, all I want, is a good home for what I believe is good science so that my hard work pays off. I don’t need my work to be branded. Unfortunately, we’re all busy people, and scientists tend to see impact factors as the wow factor as a measure of how impressive your publication record looks. No one has the time to dive into your list of publications, figuring out if your science was decent.

I’m not saying the principle of settling for the next best thing and choosing the cheap option is entirely applicable in academia. Daily, I have a chronic issue with walking, so I’d invest in good quality sneakers, rather than pay super cheap sneakers or designer brand shoes. In other words, I won’t waste my hard work to publish in some predatory journal or journals known to lack proper peer review. Quality control matters. So, I’d invest in my future by submitting my papers to a trustworthy journal and a decent editorial board instead of designer journals measured by the differences in their impact factor. The scientific content, the quality control and scientific conducts in scientific publication matters.

However, the inherent problem is that your ownership of a high impact factor publication is like a “currency of fame” as some would put it, giving you more invited talks, more public funding, more talented recruits in academia. Though in industry, the currency is pretty much not as valuable. As a child, I used to grow envious of that other kid with the bigger house, that other kid with the better and latest phone, or that other kid who gets to dine in every single day at different fancy places. When I said I published in JBC, if someone were to joke “Oh, JCB? WOW!” I would immediately feel disturbed, because my internal instinct reacted as them being impressed by the JCB impact factor. Should the impact factor determine my success? Is the popular kid born with a silver spoon guaranteed a future? Nah! Your supervisor relationship so he (OR she) gives you a decent referee, your social outreach during your scientific career, your skills as a presenter, your commitment to science, these are what matters more.

Impact factors from these top-tier journals allow quick judgement, I admit that much. Sometimes Simon buzzes too early in Britain’s Got Talent and the nation misses out. Other proxies like the h-index and citations can be misleading too. I am just as guilty at staring at my stagnant h-index and citations too every now and then. So, if I never get to publish in Cell / Nature / Science, am I missing out? That crazy rich Asian probably didn’t have to spend 5 years to buy that house, whereas a Cell / Nature / Science comes with perhaps 5 years of patience, hard work and sanity. If it was easy, everyone would have done it. But hey, if I ever get the chance to publish in 3 years, have a work-life balance, have an understanding supervisor, why not?!

While we’re on this topic, check out some pretty interesting read on publishing in these top tier journals below:

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-02404-4

https://smartsciencecareer.com/do-i-need-nature-papers/

http://ronininstitute.org/science-nature-and-cell-arent-the-problem-exactly/749/

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