By Nate Hough-Snee
As ecologists, we study the world around us in myriad ways: how organisms interact with one another and their environments, how populations of species change over time, how global change alters our planet’s ability to confer ecosystem services. There are seemingly endless, novel, valid ways to perform ecological research as humanity grinds through the Anthropocene. Ecology is so rightfully diverse, that sometimes, the single common thread between several very different ecologists is what they do: dream, scheme and publish research. Because research for research’s sake is neither a desirable or self-sustaining objective, all of this research has to be communicated in numerous ways.
This scientific communication takes place through various media, from blogs like this one, to newspapers and broadcast media outlets like TV and radio. In theory though, it all has to end up in the larger body of scientific literature, which means that it must be submitted to the rigors of peer-review. This is the grown-up ecologist’s equivalent of handing your elementary school spelling test to the kid sitting next to you. Our work must be checked for valid methods, our ideas and their importance considered, our analyses scrutinized and the conclusions deliberated. We have to make sure an editor or two agree that we’re writing for the proper audience, and that this provides value to the journal considering publishing the piece.
Folders down. Please pass your test to the end of the row.
This is an essential part of the scientific endeavor, and how that process goes is often a result of which journal an author has selected to submit his or her hard work.
As cliché as it may now be, “publish or perish” is the rule of the day for many researchers and usually that means, “publish more and in better (higher impact) journals” to receive funding, earn accolades from within one’s institution, be granted tenure (academia) or permanent status (government service), or to oddly enough, just earn the respect of colleagues. Accordingly, there has been a large push to publish research in name brand journals that confer some level of prestige, accomplishment and visibility. There are longstanding journals where one can submit his or her “tenure paper,” the eye-catching paper that will receive heavy citation and certainly be noticed by a tenure committee or NSF panel. It may or may not change the larger scientific dialogue, but when published it will look good for both the authors and the sponsoring institution, and it will run in journals with titles like Science, Nature, Ecology Letters, Ecology, or Proceedings of the National Academy.
While publish or perish might succinctly convey some folks’ reality, there are lots of other interpretations, all within a standard deviation of the mean. For most early career scientists, the choice of where to publish one’s work is personal, often done with collaborators, and very rarely done without considering the work at hand and the trajectory that it will hopefully set the individual on.
In my case, I have had the good fortune of working with some exceptionally easy-going individuals in academia and government. These individuals were applied scientists whose science fed back on ecosystem management very, very quickly. The academics in this circle were tenured, and they were in a broadly interdisciplinary school, that (seemingly) praised both the basic and the applied. In this environment, the slogan that I developed was always “audience first, impact factor second.” More loquaciously: pick the venue that will be receptive to the work, where people will actually read it and worry about the citation metrics of the publishing journal on another day. As an applied ecologist working on ecological restoration and ecosystem management first and basic ecology second, not to mention working largely with tenured faculty, this idea stuck. I sent manuscripts where I thought associate editors would welcome them, not really the most rigorous places I could have sent them. I got my wish and my science entered the information highway rapidly, hopefully helping people as they think about designing and restoring ecosystems.
Now, as I work on bigger, long-term data with more complex questions, I’m consistently thinking, “Am I short-changing this work by sending it to the first place that I think a practitioner would read it?” I still very much want my work to provide value to the applied community, that’s a certainty. But as the academic hustle goes, there will come a time to consider more than the questions and the intended audience. Each paper will become a reflection on an ecologist’s research program – my collaborators’ and my research programs – past, present and future. There are now more things to consider when selecting a journal in which to publish, not the least of which is, “how good is the science, and will it be reflected by where this manuscript ends up?”
Hopefully, over the next few days some of the rest of the Early Career Ecologists will chime in with anecdotes on their choices of where to publish based on their past, present and intended future trajectories as ecologists. This will be the start of what we’ve dubbed roundtables, posts where we throw an idea out and discuss it over the course of a month or so. Please feel free to enter the conversation in the comments – why do you publish where you publish? Has it changed? Will it?