I was recently on a shortlisting panel for the three year postdoctoral fellowships offered by my university. Each of the five faculties had produced their own priority list from which the panel was to choose a subset to be interviewed.
Two of the other academics on the panel (medicine, science) were very focused on the status of the journals in which people had published. Having a paper published in Nature was held up as a marker of the quality of the applicant.
By contrast, arts, humanities and social science were much more impressed by scholarly monographs; the interest in journals was not whether they were the highest ranked, but rather that they were not obscure and marginal – a decent enough mid-range journal was perfectly acceptable. However, quantity of output counted as well as a reasonable quality – the more the better in reality.
I know that this would not necessarily be the same for the arts, humanities and social sciences in other countries and maybe even other institutions within the UK. However this was how it was in this instance.
I tell this story to illustrate two things – firstly, it supports what we all know, that where and what you write does count. But secondly, it suggests that different disciplines and different institutions in different countries regard these things differently. These variations are why it is difficult to suggest that it is always a good thing to try to publish in the ‘best journals’. It’s not the same everywhere.
Because of the diversity of ‘rules’ it is therefore pretty important for early career researchers to understand the kinds of expectations that are held within different disciplines and to try to get some insider information about what counts in the particular institutions where they are applying. If applying to another country, it’s equally important to get the drum on what matters about publications there, as opposed to where you are.
Are these kinds of expectation fair? Well not really IMHO.
It is obviously going to be pretty difficult to get into the high status journals because of their high rejection rates. It is equally hard to produce a significant number of decent articles for decent journals in a short space of time, during and post PhD. In both instances, the time taken for review and resubmissions and the backlog of articles of many popular journals work against time-pressed early career researchers (see comment from Mark Galeotti to last post).
And, given that many early career researchers are also juggling trying to publish with holding down a full time job doing someone else’s research, or doing a lot of teaching, it also becomes a matter of time/space to do the actual thinking/writing work required.
But there’s another reason why the emphasis on the journal worries me too. It seems to me that the focus on the journal and its status – or on the number of articles produced – significantly detracts from the point of scholarly writing. We write so that we can contribute to conversations about a particular area of knowledge production. We write to stake our claim in the field and to engage others in our work and to engage with theirs.
We need to be able to ask, in the first instance – not how good is this journal but – Who is interested in my work? Who would want to read it? Who needs to read it? What journals serve this community of scholars? What publics are also interested in this work? What do they read?
Performative regimes diminish scholarly work and obscure the reasons why we publish. Making publications a key to employment is on the one hand a reasonable expectation – institutions need to make sure that they employ people who will sustain a career of active and productive scholarship. On the other hand these kinds of expectations also work as a disciplinary mechanism to ensure that early career researchers enter the academy already well-schooled in the churn of production, and with due regard for the current significance attached to particular audit-driven, status seeking regimes ( e.g. REF in the UK).
And all this of course doesn’t even deal with whether citation indices actually do the work that they say they do!