"Wow, an article in Big-Time Science Magazine! Congratulations! You're sure to get tenure now!" So you say to your buddy with the curly red hair as you walk down the hall. During this walk/conversation, the two of you may question why you made this statement, what the real differences are between journals, and why some are considered to be more prestigious than others. This article will discuss these issues and shed some light on the process of the peer review publication process.

To begin to look at the reasons behind that statement, it is important to consider the functions of different journals. Although all journals strive to publish the best science, the areas that they cover differ. Some are broad in their coverage of scientific disciplines, whereas others deal with a discrete area of science. Still other journals publish work from the members of their scientific society, such as the American Society for Microbiology's Journal of Bacteriology or the American Association of Immunologists' Journal of Immunology. Additionally, by publishing articles discussing the political and sociological aspects of science, some journals, such as Science and Nature, serve as information resources on the pulse of all science.

Types of Journals

Journals can be divided into four general classes: broad top-of-the-heap, near-the-top, society-level, and specialty or subspecialty journals. The broad top-of-the-heap journals have very low acceptance rates and attempt to publish articles that make conclusions that shift the current paradigm in a field. Articles in these journals tend to be highly focused and may not provide in-depth coverage of the area. Like the authors contributing the articles, these journals are also concerned with being the first to publish information that may be of interest to their broad audiences. Thus, there is some competition between these journals. It is also true that manuscripts may get rejected from broad top-of-the-heap journals not because the science isn't spectacular but because the area is no longer "hot."

The near-the-top journals typically represent specific fields or general areas of science (e.g., immunology, neurobiology, developmental biology, structural biology, cell biology, or molecular biology). Over the last few years, some of the top-of-the-heap journals have created high-profile spinoff journals that specialize in a particular area. These are, typically, near-the-top journals. These journals attempt to publish cutting-edge manuscripts that tell complete and in-depth stories. They, too, have low acceptance rates.

Society-level journals publish the bulk of the work coming out of most laboratories and are therefore the workhorses of the scientific publishing industry. These journals have moderate acceptance rates and--surprisingly--may have more citations per year than do the top and near-top journals discussed above. This last fact indicates that these are important journals and that the work published in them is of high quality.

Specialty and subspecialty journals publish work in a restricted area. Although this work may be of high quality, too, the readership may be limited to only those in the field.

The Review Process

It is important to appreciate how manuscripts are processed, and how and when peer review plays a role. Several different systems are used, and each journal has its own system in place. One thing that's important for you, the author, is the quality of the review and the length of time it takes for your work to get reviewed and, once accepted, into print.

The most basic distinction between journal review processes is whether manuscripts are triaged. Triaging processes are used by editors who attempt to prescreen manuscripts so that they send out for review only those that have a chance of being selected for publication. Many of the broad top-of-the-heap and near-the-top journals employ triage systems. An advantage to you as a manuscript submitter is that the triage review may take only a few days, so you really don't waste a lot of time waiting to find out if the manuscript has a chance of being published. Of course, the disadvantage is that the editor may not appreciate the significance of your title and abstract, and your paper will be returned without the input of an expert in your field.

Journals that review every paper before a publication decision is made run their editorial processes in different ways as well. In a single-step, hierarchical organization, an editor-in-chief is responsible for each decision and relies on an editorial board and a host of reviewers to help make accept/modify/reject recommendations. The editor-in-chief's office finds the reviewers and solicits reviews before making a decision.

Other journals use a multiple-level editorial board to spread out the work of handling the large number of manuscripts received each year. In a two-step system, the journal office receives the manuscript and assigns it to a member of the editorial board, who, in turn, either solicits reviews or reviews the manuscript personally. These editorial board members make recommendations directly to the editor-in-chief.

If the journal receives thousands of manuscripts a year, a system such as this one will require a huge editorial board. For this reason, many large journals use a multistep system, with three (or more) levels of editors. One of these editors will solicit reviews and make a recommendation to the editor at the next level up in the chain. This system works best for journals that receive a lot of manuscripts and maintains its efficiency and quality by having a small number of people making the final decisions on the manuscripts.

Although the editorial decision-making processes are different for different journals, perhaps the most critical question from the author's point of view is Do reviewers rate a paper differently if it is sent to the top-of-the-heap as opposed to lower- ranked journals? In general, the answer is yes! The biggest difference, though, is not one of absolute quality, as you might expect. A good experiment is a good experiment, regardless of where it is published. All journals expect this. The difference lies in the reviewer's perception of the novelty and importance of the work for the broad field to which it relates. Thus, similar comments about experimental design and interpretation are often seen in manuscript reviews from different journals, and the same reviewer may accept the work for the society-level journal but not for the top-of-the-heap journal if he or she feels that the work is not novel enough.

Journal Rankings

Going back to the hallway discussion, that comment you made about your buddy being assured of getting tenure was based on your perception that the journal Big-Time Science is better than other journals. Your perception may be due to the journal's low acceptance rate and/or the large number of people who would read the article. Together, these reasons might begin to describe your view of the likely scientific impact of your buddy's manuscript. Your view, though, might not be correct.

The impact of an article or journal can be measured directly by the number of times the average article is cited in other articles. This number--the Impact Factor--is a real measurement often used by chairpersons (or tenure dossier reviewers) to measure the prowess of a faculty member coming up for promotion. The assumption here is that articles published in journals with high impact factors count more than do articles published in journals with lower impact factors.

What exactly is an Impact Factor? The Institute for Scientific Information's Web of Knowledge ( www.isinet.com) provides such comparisons between journals, and it can tell you how many times a particular article has been cited. For a journal, the Impact Factor is defined as the number of citations a journal receives in a given year for articles it published over the previous 2-year period, divided by the number of articles it published in that period. Although this math may seem fuzzy, the bottom line is that the higher the number, the higher the journal's ranking. See the table in this article for a comparison of journals in the field of immunology.

Journal Citations and Impact Factors for 2002*

Journal**

2002 Total Citations

Impact Factor

Articles

Reviews

 

 

 

ANNUAL REVIEWS OF IMMUNOLOGY

13,709

54.5

26

TRENDS IN IMMUNOLOGY

1,331

15.5

64

IMMUNOLOGY TODAY

11,363

12.9

0

CURRENT OPINION IN IMMUNOLOGY

7,895

12.9

96

ADVANCES IN IMMUNOLOGY

3,199

10.5

6

Articles

 

 

 

NATURE

326,546

30.4

889

NATURE IMMUNOLOGY

6,297

27.9

134

CELL

139,765

27.3

350

SCIENCE

296,080

26.7

987

GENES & DEVELOPMENT

45,227

18.8

268

IMMUNITY (Cell Press)

19,541

17.5

149

J. EXPERIMENTAL MEDICINE

65,261

15.8

310

PROCEEDINGS NATIONAL ACADEMY SCIENCES

315,820

10.7

2911

MOLECULAR AND CELLULAR BIOLOGY

66,521

8.8

774

J. IMMUNOLOGY

104,794

7.0

1666

J. ALLERGY & CLINICAL IMMUNOLOGY

18,947

6.3

294

EUROPEAN J. IMMUNOLOGY

21,579

4.8

406

INFECTION & IMMUNITY

39,706

4.0

925

AIDS

14,183

6.0

334

IMMUNOLOGY

8,448

2.7

179

CELLULAR IMMUNOLOGY

4,634

2.0

61

 

* Data derived from ISI Web of Knowledge

** Ranked by Impact Factor

For the sake of comparison, some top-of-the-heap and near-the-top journals are included. Notice in this example that the society-level Journal of Immunology has an impact factor of 7, whereas the near-the-top immunology journal Immunity has an impact factor of 17.5. However, the Journal of Immunology publishes 11.2 times more papers and has nearly 5.3 times the number of total citations as Immunity. Thus, it is likely that some papers in the Journal of Immunology have more citations than those in Immunity do. Also note that Science, Nature, and Cell have the highest impact factors in this list, suggesting that these journals are, as you would expect, the top of the heap.

If you continue your search on the Web of Knowledge site, you will find that review journals and review-and-methods articles have the highest impact factor. Surprised? Consider that when you're writing a paper, it's easier to reference a whole field of work with a single citation than it is to cite all the relevant primary papers. Review articles, therefore, are usually cited more than primary work is. Although this kind of objective quantification is something that we, as scientists, like, the high ratings of review articles show that these measures can be biased. Importantly, such quantitative measurements do not evaluate the science itself, which, of course, ought to be the most important measurement.

Publishing in High-Quality Journals

Do the journals I publish in really matter when it comes to my tenure decision? Your tenure decision will be based on an evaluation of your scholarship, teaching, and service to your institution. Depending on where you work, scholarship may be the predominant (or even the only) area considered. If this is the case, you will be judged on the impact your publications have on your field and the promise that you show for future productivity. Thus, you will need to publish your work in strong, highly visible journals that are read by members of your broad field of interest. Remember that in making your promotion/tenure decision, your department will seek the advice of leaders in your field and the broader area of your research. These outside reviewers will--let's hope--have seen your papers as they came out, and they will have followed your career through the literature. Your publications are more likely to be noticed if they are published in quality journals, so publishing in society-level, near-the-top, and broad top-of-the-heap journals will help your cause.

This doesn't mean that publishing your work in specialty or subspecialty journals is bad. It's a very rare lab that produces only science of high potential impact and broad relevance; even if you're focused on important problems, you're bound to produce some science that's just as good but of significance to a narrower audience. Although publishing in specialty or subspecialty journals may not aid your case as much as papers that are published in higher impact journals will, it does help in terms of promotion, as long as the sum total of your published work influences your field.

The Bottom Line

Almost 20 years ago, an adviser commented to a group of us discussing where to send our papers that it doesn't really matter what journal your work is published in, because if the science is good enough people will find it, read it, and cite it. This statement is even truer today, thanks to the ease with which the literature can be searched and articles can be downloaded, which saves scientists the effort of trudging over to the library stacks.

Some may believe that publication in Big-Time Science is equivalent to two or three society-level articles, but the most important thing is to get your work out there where people can see it by publishing regularly in journals that are widely respected, read, and cited by your peers. Make sure your most important work is published at least at the level of your scientific society journals. If your work has more heat and is closer to the cutting edge, you should definitely send it to the journals closer to the top of the heap; after all, you can't publish there if you never send your papers to them in the first place. Good luck!

Jeremy M. Boss is Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, at the Emory University School of Medicine. Susan H. Eckert is Associate Dean for Administration, at Emory University School of Nursing. They are authors of Academic Scientists at Work: Navigating the Biomedical Research Career.