Society has been educating a huge amount of PhD’s and postdocs. All these scientists have project-based positions and after a two, three years they are on the job market again. That has not always been a problem. Two decades ago you could relatively easily move on to more permanent position, such as lecturer, staff scientist, or group leader. Not any more so. The growth in numbers of permanent positions did not keep track with that of PhD’s and postdocs (see this figure). Not at all.
Few permanent positions and many eligible candidates implies increased competition. For a single position there are quickly 100+ candidates. How then do the scientific staff of an institute select their future colleagues? Unfortunately, at many institutes it matters a lot in which journal you have published your work. The creation of a short-list of candidates is often simply based on the number of papers in Nature, Science, Cell, and perhaps a few other journals with a high impact factor. The impact factor is taken as a proxy for the relevance and conceptual advance of a study.
That seems fair. If my paper was published last month, it is hard to measure how relevant it will be in the future. The impact factor of the journal should indicate the paper’s level. However, an important question to ponder is who decides if a paper gets into a journal. Is it the editor? Is the reviewers? In the top journals, the majority of submitted manuscripts will be editorially rejected . This means that the professional editors of these journals determine what will be published. Thus all the biases, personal preferences, (lack of) research experience, and perceived scientific fashions of editors will be reflected in the journal’s table of contents. In the end the journal does not reflect the advances in research. It reflects what editors think will attract most readers.
(This is an inherent problem of publishing articles in journals. If the journal has professional editors, they are usually relatively inexperienced and not “in” the field any more. Hence for them to recognise major conceptual and methodological advances may be difficult. Scientists that are editors of journals may have the experience, yet they are also more prone to political decisions and could easily block rivals.)
In any case, I’m coming to the conclusion that jobs and funding are currently strongly influenced by the editors of top journals. We seem to be content with the future of our research being determined by people who are on the sidelines…
PS A related short article was brought to my attention recently: A Glaring Paradox