Yesterday Chris Chambers was outraged to receive marketing spam from Journal of Neuroscience, boasting that articles published in their journal received many more citations than those published in their competitors.
There are many reasons for taking a dim view of using citation counts as a measure of journal prestige. Citations are very dependent on the field of study, and their distribution is highly skewed. It could be argued that Journal of Neuroscience was avoiding these problems: it compared itself with other journals that covered similar subject areas, and it presented total counts, rather than means.
Except…… It did not make any adjustment for the fact that Journal of Neuroscience publishes many more papers than the other journals it compares itself to. I looked at Scopus statistics for articles and reviews published in four journals for the period 2010 to 2013. Journal of Neuroscience published 7004 papers, Neuroimage published 4258, Neuron published 1348 and Nature Neuroscience published 962. So saying that Journal of Neuroscience had more citations is a bit like claiming that India is a wealthier country than Luxembourg.
I started to wonder how Journal of Neuroscience compared with these other journals when number of papers was taken into account. The answer is shown below:
So the question we are left with is whether those promoting the Journal of Neuroscience are being devious, and think their readers are too stupid to notice this very basic error, or whether they themselves are too stupid to notice it.
P.S. 20 Feb 2016
I’m adding here an analysis I didn’t have time to do earlier, which simply looks at what the probability is that a paper published in each of these four journals gets cited a given number of times. The results are very similar to those obtained when looking at means: Journal of Neuroscience and Neuroimage are at level pegging, whereas Nature Neuroscience and Neuron are associated with much higher citation rates.
So does this mean, as implied by the Journal of Neuroscience marketing, that authors should preferentially send their papers to Neuron or Nature Neuroscience, because this will lead to them being more highly cited? The answer is almost certainly no. I took at quick look at the most highly cited papers in these four journals, and some common themes occurred. If you want to be highly cited, you should write a paper that is either (a) a review of the field or (b) reports a methodological advance. And the reviews, which I suspect are mostly commissioned, are by famous people. Furthermore, my impression was that empirical papers on molecular neuroscience were more highly cited than those on cognitive neuroscience – I leave that for someone even more nerdy than me to confirm.
My advice to any academic who wants people to notice their work is to do sound, reproducible science on an important topic and publish it promptly, rather than wasting months or years trying to get it into high impact journals. The prestige of the journal you publish in may impress some people, but it won’t magically transform a poor study into a good one. And if your work is good enough, people who care about the subject matter will read, and cite, it, regardless of where it is published.