ISI-journal myths and phobias

by Raul Suarez
Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology
University of California, Santa Barbara


Some recent messages may appear to sanctify ISI-indexed journals as well as to demonize local journals and everything published in them. A consequence of “rule of thumb” generalizations might be a lack of awareness and understanding of issues and realities concerning journals and publishing. Myths and phobias concerning these often come up when I visit the Philippines and talk to scientists. I have written this with graduate students and beginning researchers in mind. It supplements an earlier article (http://www.philsciletters.org/pdf/20103.pdf).

Since I went to graduate school in Canada in 1976 and up to the present, I have never heard anyone in North America or Europe make a big deal of ISI-indexing or use it as a criterion for anything. ISI-indexing is a non-issue because among the thousands of journals in the list (and that is really all it is), there are many that publish junk. As one colleague put it, the fact that a journal is ISI-indexed simply means “It exists”.

The “push” for publication in ISI-indexed journals is a relatively recent phenomenon in the Philippines. As many are aware, the UP now gives its faculty a cash incentive for each ISI-journal article published and such publications are now required for tenure and promotion. In certain graduate programs, the publication of at least one paper in an ISI-indexed journal is a requirement for graduation with a Ph.D. degree. These are positive developments. In the context of Philippine science, ISI-indexing serves as a convenient (although imperfect) way for university administrators, granting agencies and various scientific bodies to determine what counts and what doesn’t. Even the Editors of Philippine Science Letters (who have authored many papers published in ISI-indexed journals themselves) have stated that Filipinos should publish in ISI-indexed journals and that they hope PSL itself will be ISI-indexed in the future.

There many reasons, accepted world-wide, for publishing papers in international, peer reviewed journals (Suarez & Lacanilao, Reforming Philippine Science, SEAFDEC Aquaculture department Press, 2010). However, the arguments are even stronger when considered in the Philippine context. Many local journals continue to sprout, only to fall victim to the chronic lack of quality submissions experienced by their dead or dying predecessors. Angel Alcala conducted a survey concerning biodiversity-related research which revealed that of 131 projects completed during a 5-year period, only 7% generated journal submissions. One UP science journal is still soliciting submissions for its 2009 issue. Many local journals do not implement a rigorous process of expert peer review. After reading one of my articles, a person with a masters degree and no publications wrote to say that he had founded his own scientific journal. A UP journal claiming to subject manuscripts to peer review published a paper that says kaingin is good for biodiversity. This finding was publicized in the Agriculture column of the Philippine Star. The editor of one journal contacted me, asking if I would review a manuscript on a subject I knew nothing about. When I provided the name of a qualified foreign reviewer, the editor told me that they preferred Filipino reviewers. So was the idea to consult an incompetent referee to ensure publication while being able to maintain some semblance of “peer review”? When journals are starved of papers to publish, “beggars can’t be choosers” becomes editorial policy.

Implementing a review process that uses ethnicity as the overriding criterion is highly problematic. Imagine what happens when a manuscript is submitted in a field wherein there are no Filipino experts, or when there are only two or three experts who end up constantly reviewing each others’ work. “Knowing something” about a subject does not make a person a qualified reviewer. It is doubtful whether a person who has a Ph.D. in a particular field but does not have a significant record of peer-reviewed publications in that field can be considered a qualified reviewer. Reviewers are expected not just to look for flaws in a submission; they are supposed to comment on its quality – how it contributes to the advancement of science in a particular field. Editors, on the other hand, must be able to determine when manuscripts are inadequately or incompetently reviewed by those they consult.

Despite these issues, there are those who use nationalism as a cover when attempting to explain their ISI-journal phobia. If their research is of such poor quality that they fear submitting manuscripts to ISI-indexed journals, should such research receive government support and should the individuals who perform such research be awarded Ph.D. degrees or be tenured and promoted as professors? Should they be allowed to mentor graduate students, the country’s future scientists? That the standards of thousands of journals are all too high for Filipino scientists is a notion that would make Rizal turn in his grave.

What would have impressed anyone who attended the June 2011 PAASE conference at UP Diliman was the consistently high quality of the graduate student posters. Clearly, the well mentored graduate student presenters from La Salle, San Carlos, and UP Diliman give the country much reason for pride and optimism. Their work seems likely to be publishable in highly-regarded international journals in their disciplines. Imagine, however, what future lies ahead where young people are mentored by those who do not publish, or whose work is accepted only by journals that consult incompetent, unpublished reviewers or by journals that do not implement a review process at all.

When the moderator of the poster competition announced that Reforming Philippine Science was to be given to the first place winner, he added that “Based on what we have seen today, there is no need to reform Philippine science”. Alas, most departments in universities throughout the country and even in other UP campuses are not like the best among the science institutes at UP Diliman. Philippine science is a heterogeneous landscape. Serious damage has been done by decades of low salaries, high teaching loads, excessive red tape, misplaced government priorities and the brain drain. In certain institutions, the culture of going to seminars has either been lost or has not emerged at all. Seminars high in entertainment value but low in scientific content tend to be more popular and better appreciated than those wherein the testing of hypotheses (actual science) is discussed. And just a few weeks ago, some faculty and graduate students asked me “How can we be expected to publish in ISI-indexed journals when we don’t have access to ISI-indexed journals and cannot even read them?” It is a national problem when graduate programs operate in an environment in which faculty and graduate students do not have access to the literature in their field. Scientists cannot be expected to appreciate quality science, let alone do it, when they are forced operate in an intellectual darkness.

While everyone, as a rule of thumb, should publish in international, peer-reviewed scientific journals, it is important to recognize that the wide range of quality among ISI-indexed journals means that ISI-indexing is not a quality-control stamp of approval. Many ISI-indexed journals publish junk. Some publish more junk than others. The uncritical worship of and fear of submission to ISI-indexed journals is often accompanied by the equally uncritical, quasi-religious demonization of all local journals, simply because they are “local” and not ISI-indexed. There is a huge difference between asserting that “most local journals publish junk” and asserting that “all papers published in local journals are junk” or that “all local journals are forever doomed to publish only junk”. For example, PSL, a relatively new journal, has enlisted an editorial board that includes local and expatriate Filipino scientists. Its website states that articles are peer reviewed; some even show the names of reviewers. Whether PSL shall have a positive, long-term impact on Philippine science will depend on the quality of the papers it publishes. If the bar for publication is low, then it risks becoming yet another repository for junk, irrespective of whether it is ISI-indexed or not. Rules of thumb can be useful, but we should try not to think with our thumbs.

Filipino scientists, like those in the rest of the world, must learn to judge quality. ISI-indexing hardly qualifies as a criterion for this assessment. Part of the learning process must involve the development of a culture of journal reading and critical discussion. The other part involves closing the gap between what people read about and what they actually do (and publish) as scientists. It is through the critical reading and doing of science that people in all countries learn that bird papers in Behavioral Ecology have to go through more stringent reviews than those in the Auk, and that the Journal of Biological Chemistry has higher expectations than the Canadian Journal of Biochemistry. The bar for the acceptance of fish physiology papers is higher in the Journal of Experimental Biology and Physiological and Biochemical Zoology than in the Journal of Fish Biology or the Environmental Biology of Fishes. Aquaculture is known for its low bar for acceptance, despite being ISI-indexed. There are many analogous examples in other disciplines.

Simply discriminating between ISI-indexed vs. non-ISI indexed journals, while burying more complex realities such as these, leads to uninformed and uncritical discussion concerning journals and publishing. Scientists, of all people, should realize that whether a journal publishes junk or not is an empirical question, not something that is determined a priori by a list.