We are having an ongoing discussion at the University of Canberra Institute for Applied Ecology about the need to obtain a measure of our strength in research. We have entered the age of quantification of all things even those that cannot be quantified, and so each of us must get our ranking from our citation rates or h-scores, or journal impact factors. And institutes rise and fall along with our research grants on the basis of these numbers. All of this seems to be necessary but is quite silly for two reasons. First, the importance of any particular paper or idea can only be judged in the long term, so trying to decide if you should have a job because of your citation rate is a cop out. Second, this quantification undermines the importance of judgment of scientists and administrators as adjudicators of the relative merits of specific research and specific scientists. The problem is that as a young scientist in particular you are caught in a web of nonsense and you have to play the game.
The name of the game is to get a paper in SCIENCE or NATURE. To do this you must shorten the presentation so much that it is nearly unintelligible and violates the staid assumption that a scientific paper must have enough detail in it that someone else can repeat the study and test its conclusions. These details are typically left to be put in the supplementary materials that one can download separately from the published paper. So these papers become like headlines in a newspaper, giving a grand conclusion with little of the details of how it was reached. But this publication is the hallmark of success so one must try. The only rule I can suggest is to have a Plan B for publication since about 99% of papers are rejected from SCIENCE AND NATURE.
There is a demography at work here that we must keep in mind. If scientific output is doubling every 7 years approximately, then getting a paper into SCIENCE or NATURE now is twice as hard as it was 7 years ago, on a totally random model of acceptance. So when your supervisor tells you that he or she got a paper in SCIENCE xx years ago, and so should you now, you might point out the demographic momentum of science.
Editors of any journal especially SCIENCE and NATURE are under great pressure, and if anyone thinks that their decisions are completely unbiased, they probably think that the earth is flat. All of us think some parts of our science are more important than others, and editorial decisions are far from perfect. The important message for young scientists is not to get discouraged when rejection slips appear. Any senior scientist could paper the hallways with letters of rejection from various journals. The important thing is to do good research, test hypotheses, make interesting speculations that can be tested, and move on, with or without a paper in SCIENCE or NATURE.
Finally, if someone wants an interesting project, you might trace the history of papers that have appeared in SCIENCE and NATURE over the last 50 years and see how many of them have been significant contributions to the ecological science we recognize now. Perhaps someone has done this already and it has been rejected by SCIENCE and is sitting in a filing cabinet somewhere…….