Monday, June 3, 2013

Yes, you ought to publish your natural history research

Alex is an ecologist (he's not just a hypothetical guy - he's a post-doc at the University of Saskatchewan and has published some bird egg work in our journal). Alex likes natural history and appreciates its importance as the foundation for biology. But, he notes, natural history research is not as valued as it ought to be by many hiring committees. Alex wants a job. Given how many tasks academic biologists have on their "to-do" list (has anyone ever actually finished their to-do list?), biologists have to triage and invest their time in tasks that will have the greatest likelihood of achieving their main goals (getting a job, saving the world, etc.). Because natural history articles are often not highly valued by academic employers, writing natural history articles gets pushed down biologists' to-do lists, and valuable natural history research sits in computer file folders rather than being published.

Alex notes on his blog that while many biological journals no longer regularly publish natural history research, there are several natural history journals that publish nothing but the stuff. He singles out The Canadian Field-Naturalist with praise for our recent rejuvenation including catching up on our publication lag (it's not fully caught up yet, but that should happen this summer), our journal website, and our well-received Twitter stream. Thanks for the praise (your cheque is in the mail!*)

*by cheque I mean lint, and my mail I mean your pocket. Sorry for any misunderstanding.

Alex has decided to devote every Friday afternoon to producing natural history products, including manuscripts, to get his accumulated research out there and used by fellow biologists and naturalists.  Good idea!  One of the keys to write a lot of research articles, according to a book on the subject by psychologist Dr. Paul Silva, is to devote timeslots to writing. Make those timeslots as non-negotiable as timeslots in which you're teaching or booked for meetings. Devoting a chunk of time, even a very small chunk, can do wonders for productivity. I anticipate a productive year for Alex's natural history research!

I would add two points to Alex's about the benefits of writing natural history research, with the benefit of seeing things from the journal's perspective.

1. Not only do natural history journals exist, but we are actively looking for submissions.  In contrast to many of the bigshot journals published by mega-profit corporations, we don't inflate our Impact Factor by rejecting solid articles just because they're not on a sufficiently sexy topic. Those journals have a "problem" of too many submissions. We sometimes don't have enough submissions (especially when we're publishing issues rapid-fire as we catch up our publication schedule). If you have solid natural history research (good data, well-written, etc.), and the topic is a species whose range includes Canada, CFN will publish it regardless of whether it is sexy or not ... or even downright parthenogenic! Our editors go beyond simple accept/reject decisions to actually work with authors to get their manuscripts to publishable quality, so long as the core of the manuscript (i.e., the data / observations) are valuable. This cooperative approach to working with authors also works well for graduate students new to publishing, to help them learn the ropes and be encouraged rather than having their confidence torn to shreds like editors at some other journals can do.
Take-home message for authors: we have a high acceptance rate because we don't care about sexiness (except in its most literal sense - we publish research on sexual ornamentation!), editors who are there to help you, and work hard to maximize the dissemination and impact of your published articles.

2. Changes in publication metrics will result in higher valuation of natural history articles.  Like Wile E. Coyote finding himself standing on nothing, the mighty Impact Factor is falling.
Long known to be biased and easily gamed by journals, it was still used as a proxy for article quality because it was about the only metric available. Now there are myriad metrics available to evaluate the impact of articles. Not just citations by other academic journals, but also web links, Twitter popularity, pdf downloads, and more. Such changes will benefit natural history journals because natural history articles are relevant (and cited) far longer than those in trendy journals. The Impact Factor only considers citations to articles over the past two years of issues in a journal, thus incetivizing research on sexy topics. An analysis of articles in fellow natural history journal The American Midland Naturalist revealed that most of their articles are barely cited in their first two years after publication, but relatively highly cited 6-38 years after publication (McIntosh 2009). Similarly, Krell (2002) argued that impact factors don't work for taxonomy articles (related to natural history) for several reasons, including how little of taxonomy papers' long citation window is encapsulated by the impact factor's two year snapshot. The impact factor biases against journals that publish research with staying power, such as our own journal. As we previously wrote in Nature, we won't reject valid research just to increase a silly impact factor rating (Fitzsimmons & Skevington 2010). Better metrics will reveal the true impact of natural history articles.

So write those natural history manuscripts, know that there are good homes for them (yes please!), and know that hiring committees will value them more and more as metrics improve.

Fitzsimmons, J. M. and J. H. Skevington. 2010. Metrics: don't dismiss journals with a low impact factor. Nature 466:179.
Krell, F.-T. 2002. Why impact factors don't work for taxonomy. Nature 415:957.
McIntosh, R. P. 2009. The American Midland Naturalist: the life history of a journal. American Midland Naturalist 161:13-44.

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