In Praise of ‘B’ Journals
order and less about pursuing knowledge, argues Andrew J. Hoffman.
university has a list of A journals, those it considers to be the most
prestigious in its field. Even the journals that rank institutions have
such lists, and many universities use them to measure their impact. As a
result, academics establish their credentials by publishing in these
journals, and universities grant tenure and promotion for the same.
Various institutions even pay their professors a bonus (what some people
would call a bribe) for publishing in such select journals.
This is warping the scientific process by narrowing the scope of
impact to one type of journal, which reaches one type of audience using
one type of content and style. The situation became so bad that Randy Schekman,
a Nobel laureate in cell physiology, announced in 2013 that his lab
would no longer send research papers to what he calls the “luxury”
journals of his field -- Nature, Cell and Science
-- because of their distortive encouragement of research that pursues
trendy and mainstream lines of inquiry instead of more self-directed and
I have seen that firsthand, working with junior faculty who say they
cannot publish in a particular journal because it is not on their
institution’s A list and therefore will “not count” toward their
accomplishments. This is anti-intellectual. As Russell Jacoby warned in
his book The Last Intellectuals,
it “registers not the needs of truth but academic empire building.”
Academic publishing is becoming more about establishing a pecking order
and less about pursuing knowledge. And that has several unintended
A limited audience. It is time to recalibrate our
research norms over who we are trying to reach with our work, to
re-examine our notions of impact through outlet and audience. A good
research portfolio has a mix of A and B journals, each used for its own
purpose. The target of A journals is typically a narrow audience of
other disciplinary academics. But that misses entire swaths of
audiences. Many B journals reach a broader set of academics, many with a
more empirical focus. And some journals reach beyond the walls of
academe to speak to policy makers, nongovernmental organizations,
businesses or the general public. Further, they are not all traditional
outlets. Blogs and other forms of social media are now becoming part of
the academic portfolio.
Does our work actually result in real-world change? In the A
journals, that is a question that is rarely, if ever, asked. Many
academics, in fact, would argue that the question is irrelevant to their
pursuit of knowledge. But certainly our work is meant for more. In a
recent decision to include social media and digital activities in its
criteria matrix for academic advancement, the Mayo Clinic's
Academic Appointments and Promotions Committee announced, "The moral
and societal duty of an academic health-care provider is to advance
science, improve the care of his/her patients and share knowledge. A
very important part of this role requires physicians to participate in
public debate, responsibly influence opinion and help our patients
navigate the complexities of health care." This is a compelling
challenge to move away from a narrow focus on A journals.
Less creative and diverse research. Beyond audience,
publishing only in A journals can limit creativity and diversity, as
they are one type of channel with one set of criteria for what
constitutes “good” research. But is that the only criterion?
In some fields (such as mine, management), the A journals are
generally theory driven, whereas the B journals are generally phenomena
driven. That has led Donald C. Hambrick
to offer the critique that the former have a “theory fetish,” where
practical relevance takes a backseat to theoretical rigor, and empirical
evidence is used to inform theory, rather than the other way around. As
papers go through the review process, he warned, “The straightforward
beauty of the original research idea will probably be largely lost. In
its place will be what we too often see in our journals and what
undoubtedly puts nonscholars off: a contorted, misshapen, inelegant
product, in which an inherently interesting phenomenon has been
subjugated to an ill-fitting theoretical framework.”
Hambrick continues, “In academic management we have allowed obsession
with theory to compromise the larger goal of understanding. Most
important, perhaps, it prevents the reporting of rich detail about
interesting phenomena for which no theory yet exists but which, once
reported, might stimulate the search for an explanation.”
These are the foibles in the management A journals, but each
discipline has its own issues. In the A journals of any field, what
constitutes good research is only that which propels the research tracks
of the moment. It blinds the field to the interesting ideas that may
lie outside those tracks, and only a few brave scholars would deviate
from those tracks for fear of risking tenure.
Yet such nonconformity can lead to real payoff. For example, Paul
Krugman, Nobel laureate in economics, published some of his best papers
in B journals because, he told me, “They were rejected by A journals!”
Krugman’s story is a cautionary tale for young academics in the midst
of the great explosion of publishing outlets. Today, there are just
under two million articles published annually in an estimated 28,000 journals.
Some are in what are considered A journals, but the vast majority are
in B journals. Add to that growing landscape the world of social media. Many academics
are now using blogs to test and crowdsource their ideas with peers and
the general public. In short, future academics can publish in a broad
portfolio of outlets to increase the creativity and impact of their
Guaranteed irrelevance. How long does it take between submission and publication of an article? One study
found that publication lags range from nine to 18 months, with the
shortest overall delays occurring in science, technology and medical
fields and the longest in social science, arts/humanities and
business/economics. Such long lag times virtually guarantee the
practical irrelevance of a paper’s research.
Moreover, as the number of researchers and papers grows over time -- according to another study,
the number of scholarly papers is growing at a rate of 3.26 percent per
year, or doubling every 20 years -- you could fairly hypothesize that
much this growing volume of research will be aimed at the short and
fairly static list of A journals, thus leading to ever-longer publishing
As this lag time increases, think about the number of hours an
average academic will spend over the course of the one to four years
necessary to publish an A paper. One study estimated that the cost of a single scholarly article written by business school professors was as much as $400,000.
Is that really the best use of so much high-powered mental capacity?
Is the outcome and payback really appropriate to the effort? How could
that time be better spent? In some cases, the same paper could be
submitted to a B journal, accepted and published more quickly, with time
remaining to disseminate the results in a blog, a media interview or
some other format -- and with the next paper begun.
Questionable impact. Regardless of such sobering
statistics, academics are still directed to pursue the A journal for
academic status. And that pursuit disregards another sobering statistic
on who actually reads them. We can take this issue in two parts.
First, let’s consider a journal’s impact factor,
which is the ratio of (a) the number of citations in the current year
to articles published in the previous two years divided by (b) the
number of substantive articles and reviews published in the same two
years. So an impact factor of 5.3 for a top-tier A journal in my field, Administrative Science Quarterly,
means that the average paper is cited 5.3 times annually over its first
two years. The five-year impact factor only raises that number to 7.5.
Is that real impact?
Looking more deeply, the distribution is not normal, leading to what
some call the 80/20 phenomenon, where 20 percent of articles may account
for 80 percent of citations. A 2005 editorial in Nature
noted that 89 percent of the journal’s impact factor of 32.2 could be
attributed to 25 percent of the papers published during that time
period. In a larger study, only 0.5 percent of 38 million articles cited from 1900 to 2005 were cited more than 200 times.
And that leads to the second way to look at the question. Citation
counts are our primary measure of a paper’s scholarly impact, and yet
citation counts on average are distressingly low. By one count,
12 percent of medicine articles were never cited, nor were 27 percent
of natural science papers, 32 percent in the social sciences and
82 percent in the humanities. Another study
found that 59 percent of articles in the top science and social-science
journals were not cited in the period from 2002 to 2006. It is time to
question our primary reliance on citations and journal impact factors
for measuring impact.
B journals that reach nonacademic audiences are cited much less by
academics (if at all) and are therefore ignored as having impact.
Further, social media is starting to enter the academic portfolio and is
again ignored, even though increasing numbers of the public, politicians and even fellow academics
find their information about science there. How does a blog with a
half million views compare in impact to the average academic paper that
was cited only 10.81 times between 2000 and 2010 (that number drops to
only 4.67 for the social sciences), according to Thomson Reuters?
Further, some preliminary research
is beginning to show a positive value from social media, like Twitter,
for increasing visibility (even citation counts) for academic papers.
And some organizations, like the American Sociological Association,
are exploring metrics and models for rigorously measuring the impact of
alterative outlets. It is time to reconsider whom we are trying to
reach and how we measure the extent to which we are reaching them.
What Are We Becoming?
In 1963, Bernard Forscher published a letter in Science
magazine, lamenting that academic scholarship had become fixated on
generating lots of pieces of knowledge -- bricks -- and was far less
concerned with putting them together into a cohesive whole. In time, he
worried, brick making would become an end in itself.
Perhaps his critique has now come true. We are becoming a field of brick makers,
and the narrow focus on A journals is one factor among several that is
helping to guide us there. That is truly dangerous as we may, as a
result, be courting irrelevance.
We need to be re-examining how we practice our craft, not challenging
the rigor of what we do, but recalibrating and expanding our focus.
Returning to the sentiments expressed by the Mayo Clinic: “As clinician educators our job is not to create knowledge obscura,
trapped in ivory towers and only accessible to the enlightened; the
knowledge we create and manage needs to impact our communities.”
J. Hoffman is the Holcim (U.S.) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at
the University of Michigan, with appointments in the Ross School of
Business and the School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Academics shouldn't focus only on prestigious journals (essay)