Last week, I went to the Penn MSTP retreat (for MD/PhD and VMD/PhD students), which was really cool. It truly is The Best MSTP Program in the Galaxy™, with tons of very talented students, including, I'm proud to say, four in our lab! There was lots of interesting and inspiring science in talks and posters throughout the day, and I also got to meet with a couple of cool incoming students, which is always a pleasure.
One thing I noticed several times, however, was the pernicious habit of mentioning of what journals folks in the program were publishing in or somehow associated with, emphasizing, of course, the fancy ones like Nature, etc. I noticed this in particular in the introduction of the keynote speaker, Chris Vakoc (Penn alum from Gerd Blobel's lab), because the introduction only mentioned where his work was published and didn't say anything about what science he actually did! I feel it bears mentioning that Chris gave a magnificent talk about his work on chromatin and cancer, including finding an inhibitor that actually seems to have cured a patient of leukemia. That's real impact.
I've seen these "impact-factor introductions" outside of the MSTP retreat a few times as well, and it really rubs me the wrong way. Frankly, being praised for the journals you've published in is just about the worst praise one could hope for. In a way, it's like saying "I don't even care enough to learn about what you do, but it seems like some other people think it's good". Remember, "where" we publish is just something we invent to separate out the mostly uninteresting science from the perhaps-marginally-less-likely-to-be-uninteresting-but-still-mostly-uninteresting science. If you actually are lucky enough to do something really important, it won't really matter where it's published.
What was even more worrisome was that the introduction for the speaker came from a (very well-intentioned) trainee. I absolutely do not want to single out this trainee, and I am certain the trainee knows about Chris's work and holds it in high regard. Rather, I think the whole thing highlights a culture we have fostered in which trainees have come to value perceived "impact" more than science itself. As another example, I remember bumping into a (non-MSTP) student recently and mentioning that we had recently published a paper, and rather than first asking what it was about, they only asked about where it was published! I think that's frightening, and shows that our trainees are picking up the worst form of scientific careerism from us. Not that I'm some sort of saint, either. I found it surprising to read BioRxiv recently and feel a bit disoriented without a journal name on the paper to help me know whether a paper was worth reading. Hmm. I'm clearly still in recovery.
Now, I'm not an idealist, nor particularly brave. I still want to publish papers in glossy journals for all the same reasons everyone else does, mostly because it will help ensure someone actually reads our work, and because (whether I like it or not) it's important for trainees and also for keeping the lab running. I also personally think that this journal hierarchy system has arisen for reasons that are not easy to fix, some of which are obvious and some less so. More ideas on that hopefully soon. But in the meantime, can we all at least agree not to introduce speakers by where they publish?
Incidentally, the best introduction I've ever gotten was when I gave a talk relatively recently and the introducer said something like "... and so I'm excited to hear Dr. Raj talk about his offbeat brand of science." Now that's an introduction I can live up to!