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Input needed on AOS publications, including potential name changes for journals

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The ad hoc AOS Publications Futures Committee, chaired by Steve Beissinger, has spent the past six months reviewing potential strategies for how AOS’s publications program can best respond to the revolutionary changes underway in scientific publishing. Now they are requesting input from the ornithological community on the recommendations they’ve developed, especially regarding the names of AOS journals. Please take a few minutes to read Dr. Beissinger’s blog post about the committee’s work, their newly released report, and the pros and cons of changing the journals’ names, then take the short fifteen-question survey linked in the blog post. The survey will be open until February 15.

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(The comments box on this survey can take a lot. Here are my thoughts.)

Thoughts on changing the name of the Auk and Condor (Kevin Winker).

I am glad to have the opportunity to submit some comments on the AOS Publications Futures Committee’s interim report. Having been on the publications committee and on Council in the past, I know the hard work and passion that members put into this on a volunteer basis. I appreciate those  efforts. This is why the Auk and Condor are leading journals in our field. However, you can count me among those AOS member who would feel alienated from the society by changing the journal names. I think it needlessly distances ourselves from our longstanding successes and our strong history, and it does not offer clear, concrete gains. Below are some of the details behind my thinking.

In reading the interim report I felt that some key aspects of journal impact factors (IFs) were missing. Several important things stick out:

1) There is an IF ceiling for taxon-specific journals. Although it is a flexible ceiling, it is not greatly expandable. Changing the name of the Auk or Condor can’t change this phenomenon. Only breaking out of being a taxon-specific journal could potentially do this, and in a highly competitive interdisciplinary environment that would not be a good move, particularly given the mission of the society. Because we are already a sector leader, there is very little upward mobility possible.

2) The well-understood phenomenon of IF inflation is not mentioned. But it is likely that both the Auk and Condor have experienced this along with other science journals (see data in the report and Larivière and Sugimoto 2018). The goal of a modest increase to 3.0 will likely be accomplished simply by staying the course (though I support several of the recommendations; more below).

3) Authors using IF to decide where to submit their papers are rolling the dice against heavy odds. Larivière and Sugimoto (2018) showed that for four journals in the biological sciences less than 30% of individual authors obtain a citation rate equal to or higher than the journal IF. Their summary is that “Given that less than a third of articles are likely to achieve the citation value of the JIF, the indicator is misleading for application at the individual level.” My own analysis (Winker 2011) showed no correlation between journal IF and numbers of citations, suggesting that other factors are far more important. The social factor of IFs—the journal marquee or venue, if you will—remain important, but in my analysis I recommended using IFs only on an order-of-magnitude scale (Winker 2011). In this respect, from the journal perspective maintaining our position among the top few journals in our discipline is our maximum achievable goal. Being there already indicates that tweaks, rather than full makeovers, are what is needed. From the author’s persepctive, journal IF is a decidedly poor metric for individuals, and authors are beginning to recognize this.

4) The citation counts that are so critical to IF values are highly skewed, hugely affected by a small number of high-impact papers. If we try to treat this as a normally distributed problem we will fail. Trying to change Impact Factor (IF) through mass psychology effort (e.g., journal name changes) is not likely to be very fruitful unless you are a lower-tier journal. There are easier and more incisive methods (e.g., Chawla 2018, Larivière and Sugimoto 2018). Recommendations 1.1 to 1.3 in the report (getting higher-impact papers) are sufficient and will work.

5) Comparison of IFs between disciplines is not considered best practice. Thus, Table 4 is problematic (Table 1 is not; those are our real competitors). The journals in Table 4 are not competitor journals in the sense presented: their missions are each different than ours and their audience and potential author pools are much broader. Yes, they might compete with us for some of our authors’ papers, but that is true of all better-ranked journals outside of our core discipline, and these will always exist, leaving us to chase these other entities forever and never catch them. Focusing on these is a fool’s errand. What it takes to be the top in our discipline is well in hand with Recommendations 1.1 through 1.3 (getting higher-impact papers).

Finally, on IFs, its two-year basis is a shortcoming for journals like ours with very long half-lives. While I am glad to see consideration of the 5-yr IF in the report, for an author’s career and h-index the half-life might have greater relevance and be a stronger selling point. Generating more citations over a longer period than you can get with a journal with a short half life should be attractive in our discipline.

Some additional thoughts on other arguments or issues presented in the report:

The name change over 25 years ago for Ornis Scandinavica is not comparable and is thus almost irrelevant. That change moved the journal both clearly to English (for authors not members of the society) and to an international constituency, both of which the Auk and Condor already have. I would point to this case as an example of how a lower-tier journal can successfully do a makeover but then hit the same disciplinary ceiling that the Auk and Condor are alreay so close to. I can guarantee you we will not experience a similar boost; in fact, any boost would probably not be detectable from expected ongoing IF inflation.

The argument that evaluation committees don’t know the stature of the journal might have been somewhat relevant two and three decades ago—although my discussions then with folks being evaluated e.g., for tenure, suggested to me that this was not a predominant experience. However, the lingua franca of IFs has rendered this largely immaterial. In my experience, evaluating committees routinely consider IF values today in their assessments, a necessary tool in an era of seemingly rapid increases in number of journal titles and our need to evaluate diverse faculty and applicants for positions and promotions (together with other data, of course). Ornithologists who perceive this as a potential problem have only to provide journal IF values in their CVs and cover material. And in this era of an explosion of new titles across biology, this is a useful move no matter what a journal’s name.

Journal title is not correlated with impact. Read the current list of predatory online journals (https://predatoryjournals.com/journals/). This also means that a name is not likely to hugely affect submissions. If it was, The Lancet would be a dead end for human health research (spoiler alert—it’s not).

Recommendation 1.4 on changing the journals’ names: While the present confusion is mentioned, it is not stated that this confusion is a self-inflicted wound that we caused ourselves by monkeying with the names before. That confusion will go even higher with new names, especially among the non-North American audience of readers and authors that we are supposedly targeting for increase participation.

I would support open peer review, but not the revealing of reviewers’ identities if they wished to remain anonymous. There have been some intense discussions of this on social media, and it is clear the members of underrepresented groups and junior professionals are often very uncomfortable with this—to the point of not participating if they have to be identified. To provide them cover to be honest in their evalutations and to increase their participation, I think that option is critical to maintain.

Finally, I suggest that we should publish monographs again but make them special articles in the journals.

In sum, I ask why give up brand leadership and leadership in our taxon sector by name changes to try to eke out a few tenths of IF value? We are already a strong leader in our discipline, and everyone in our discipline knows this. A title change squanders that leadership for just a tiny potential gain.

Literature Cited

Chawla, D. S. 2018. What’s wrong with the journal impact factor in 5 graphs. Nature Index https://www.natureindex.com/news-blog/whats-wrong-with-the-jif-in-five-graphs

Larivière, V., and C.R. Sugimoto. 2018. The Journal Impact Factor: A brief history, critique, and discussion of adverse effects. arXiv https://arxiv.org/abs/1801.08992

Winker, K. 2011. In scientific publishing at the article level, effort matters more than journal impact factors: hard work and coauthors overshadow journal venue in acquiring citations. BioEssays 33:400-402.

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