Telling a good story
Editors use a set of strategies to increase the impact and visibility of their publications
What strategies are available to an editor of a scientific journal to increase the relevance of his publication? In an environment where journals increasingly compete to publish important articles and increase their impact factors, the example of Physical Review B (PRB), the largest and most traditional condensed matter physics journal, indicates that a safe path includes investing in high quality papers and /or those on the cutting edge of knowledge, those able to mobilize the interest of its scientific community. “It is not enough for an article to be correct to be published. It needs to tell a good story, be readable and interesting, and contain innovative discussions and findings,” says Dutch physicist Laurens W. Molenkamp, editor of the PRB, who visited Brazil in October to participate in the third Meet the Editors – Scientific Writing Workshop at the University of São Paulo, São Carlos Institute of Physics (IFSC-USP). “We receive a lot of articles and hope they have an impact and a certain sense of novelty. We want quality,” he told Pesquisa FAPESP. A professor at the University of Würzburg, Germany, Molenkamp won this year’s Buckley Prize, an important scientific honor in condensed matter physics created 60 years ago. He was honored for the experimental observation of a physical phenomenon known as the quantum spin Hall effect in topological insulators, materials whose surfaces have properties that may result in new spintronic devices.
Some data provided by Molenkamp at the workshop is raising concern among Brazilian condensed matter physicists. In general, the number of papers by Latin American authors accepted for publication in PRB declined over the past decade. They represented 2% of the total published in 2011, compared to 4% in 2000. This despite the fact that the number of articles submitted has remained stable: they represented 4% of total submissions in 2000, compared to 3% in 2011.
And the trend, said the physicist, is for the PRB to become even more critical when evaluating articles. He showed that, if the magazine had not published a series of articles that received no citations at all in 2011, its impact factor, which today is 3.6, would be greater than 5. The impact factor is defined as the average number of citations of articles in a given journal over a specific period. It is a sign of its influence. “We’re not obsessed with impact factors, but we want PRB articles to be read, useful and cited by our community,” said Molenkamp. “We will no longer publish articles that do not seek to go beyond the state of the art.” Avoiding publication of papers that have limited relevance is a goal of the journal under Molenkamp’s command. The changes have already begun. He abolished, for example, the Brief Reports section of the journal because it traditionally contained articles that did not have enough new material to warrant a complete article. Another successful strategy was to create a list of suggested reading, containing the most relevant articles published by the magazine. This is a sample of 400 articles, about 7% of the 6000 published each year, selected by editors and peer reviewers for their interest, importance and clarity. These articles, listed on the magazine’s website, are cited on average 2.5 times more than average PRB papers, according to Molenkamp.
“There was a clear drop in the acceptance of Brazilian articles, which may have been caused by several factors,” says José Carlos Egues, an IFSC-USP professor and member of the PRB’s editorial board. One explanation, according to Egues, is that most physicists in the Brazilian condensed matter community are not familiar with new developments. “I see few Brazilian groups working on issues that have been gaining importance in recent years,” says Egues, referring, for example, to the topological insulators studied by Molenkamp and, more recently, what is known as Majorana fermions, a type of particle that is its own antiparticle, proposed in 1937 by the Italian Ettore Majorana— evidence of their existence has only recently been found in condensed matter. “Articles on these topics are especially valued because, in addition to containing a vast array of interesting physical phenomena, they are potentially relevant for technological applications, as well as new computer architectures and electronics,” he says. “This, in a way, is a problem in this area in Brazil. There doesn’t seem to be the same level of competitiveness here that we see in other countries, and the constant search for new, challenging problems relevant to the international community,” says Egues. He says that another factor is the difficulty many Brazilian researchers have in producing high quality articles, either because they lack experience in scientific writing in English, or due to the need to publish large quantities of articles, which ends up breaking up an important finding into several articles with partial results. “Articles on condensed matter physics written by Brazilians lack interesting scientific writing that has a sophisticated style and that doesn’t resort to the hackneyed phrases, almost jargon, that researchers always end up using,” says Egues. “But this situation is changing as some research-sponsoring agencies have begun to look at the impact of the work, not only at the quantity,” he says. This problem was the theme of the Meet the Editors workshop at IFSC, which focused on scientific writing and included, in addition to Molenkamp, Jessica Thomas, editor of Physics, and Karie Friedman, who worked for 20 years as editor of Reviews of Modern Physics.
The number of citations has become a universal—but not sufficient—parameter for assessing the quality of scientific output. “On the one hand, it works like a virtuous cycle: the greater the number of citations of a journal, the greater the number of articles that journal will receive for evaluation and the more selective it can be,” says Abel Packer, coordinator of the electronic library SciELO Brasil. “On the other hand, it works like a vicious cycle for journals that have a low impact factor, which tend to receive fewer quality manuscripts.” The adoption of this parameter also produces unwanted side effects, Packer claims. “It is possible that the desire for greater numbers of citations make publishers prefer articles with greater citation potential, such as those with several authors, international collaboration, or innovative or controversial issues, to the detriment of well written articles that do not fit into the mold of those with high citation numbers,” he says. For articles by Brazilian authors submitted to international publications, the SciELO coordinator sees an additional problem. “In general, articles authored only by Brazilians systematically receive 24% to 40% fewer citations than those published as part of international collaborations. It could be that articles by Brazilians are not rejected because of poor quality, but because journals expect them to generate a smaller number of citations,” he says.
The recipe for increasing impact, according to Packer, requires resources, professionalism and internationalization, and includes various strategies. One is to attract high-level scientists from various countries to participate both as editors and as reviewers. Another is to make the publication active in events in the specialty area or as a source of information and services to researchers. These examples help journals become recognized by researchers and encourages them to submit articles. “We must invest in quality and hope to reap the rewards. There is no magic formula to ensure a good level of citations, contrary to what some think,” Packer says, referring to the tricks used to inflate impact factors, such as abuse of self-citation and cross citation.
Increasing the impact of a publication is not simple, but some journals have succeeded. One example is PLoS One, which has a consistent network of peer reviewers, publishes over a thousand articles per month and obtained an impact factor of 4 in 2011. Another example is Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, begun in 2002, which in 2011 obtained an impact factor of 9.11. “It is a journal published by the Ecological Society of America, which has been able to increase its impact factor through a well-defined editorial policy, with scientific marketing and the support of the research community,” he says.
Only two Brazilian scientific publications have obtained an impact factor above 2: the journal Clinics, linked to the USP School of Medicine and the 100 year-old Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz. While Clinics underwent a strong professionalization process, Memórias is a traditional journal on tropical diseases, a research area in which Brazil stands out. “Brazil has no publication with an impact factor in the first quartile in its thematic area in the Journal Citation Reports, and it would need to have several to make its mark in scientific communication,” says Abel Packer, whose work on the SciELO collection seeks to increase the professionalism of journals and make them more relevant. “Most of our journals have already reached the maximum in terms of potential citations here in Brazil. They need to become more international to attract additional citations from abroad,” he states.