Saturday, 14 December 2013 10:08

DORA in NOLA as the JIF Rebellion Reaches 10,000 Signatures and Panel Celebrates First Anniversary

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UnknownThe Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA)
was drafted one year ago at ASCB in San
Francisco. What’s next for DORA in NOLA?
Photo by John Fleischman
Insurrection, intellectual rebellion, or learned remonstrance, call it what you will, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, or DORA, began one year ago this week in a windowless meeting room in the depths of the Moscone Convention Center when a group of scientists, journal editors, and publishers decided they had a common problem that needed addressing—the journal impact factor, or JIF.

A year from DORA's quiet beginning, David Drubin can scarcely believe how far it's gone. Drubin is the Editor-in-Chief of the ASCB's Molecular Biology of the Cell (MBoC) and widely known for his work at the University of California, Berkeley, on the cytoskeleton and membrane trafficking. DORA was conceived in San Francisco on December 16, 2012, but gestation took five months. The declaration was delivered to the public on May 16 when the DORA website (www.ascb.org/SFdeclaration.html) opened with signatures from 155 individuals and 82 organizations. Seven months later on the eve of a second round of meetings at ASCB in New Orleans, DORA has signatures from 10,001 individuals and 423 organizations.

Drubin says, "I didn't know what would happen but as soon as the website went online, things took off." People and organizations began signing the declaration at an astonishing rate, Drubin recalls. "That it drew in so many people from so many disciplines was one of the unanticipated consequences. We were pretty focused on our own little area of the world, mainly cell biology, but it quickly spread to all of molecular biology. And then we started hearing from people in really diverse disciplines and not just in the sciences but the humanities too. We struck a chord."

There will be two DORA events in New Orleans on Sunday, a closed strategy session for the DORA steering group and a public panel, 2:30 pm-3:45 pm, in room 227 of the convention center. Drubin says the question the DORA leaders must hash out is how to build on the momentum that the declaration has so clearly generated. Wherever Drubin goes now in Asia or Europe, DORA precedes him. "It's really become part of the discussion. A lot of people are familiar with this [DORA] wherever I travel."

DORA plainly has tapped a deep reservoir of academic anger about JIFs, but Drubin believes that declarations are not enough to protect the young scientists who are the most vulnerable to JIF-driven assessments. "The biggest challenge we face now is to build trust among young people that if they just do good work, it will get recognized and that they will be considered for good jobs and funding."

As Editor-in-Chief of MBoC, Drubin admits that the steady drop in his journal's JIF was what first dragged him into the impact factor issue. There are a number of citation ranking systems today, but the oldest and most influential is the so-called "two-year JIF" devised by Eugene Garfield in the early 1950s and originally published by his Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) as a subscription buying tool for academic and medical librarians. The JIF, which appears once a year in Journal Citation Reports as part of the Thomson Reuters (ISI) Web of Knowledge, is the average number of citations received in a year per paper published in the journal during the two preceding years.

It seems very straightforward but the JIF is anything but a transparent calculation, according to Drubin. His concern turned to frustration when he was ignored by Thomson Reuters after requesting the data and the calculations behind his journal's JIF. When he checked with other editors at smaller "workhorse" journals in cell science, the editors too were seeing their JIFs drop and were being told by Thomson Reuters that the data upon which the calculations were based are proprietary information. That was the impetus that led to the first ad hoc gathering at ASCB 2012 in San Francisco.

But beyond the impact on MBoC, Drubin was even more alarmed at the clear effect JIFs were having in his own laboratory on his grad students and postdocs, particularly international trainees. Their manuscripts could go only to journals with high JIFs, they insisted. "They know the JIF numbers by heart," says Drubin. Through round after round of revisions, extra experiments, and rejections, the international trainees told Drubin that only a high JIF paper was any good to them. When Drubin suggested that quick publication in a solid journal like MBoC would let them move on scientifically, they repeated that in their home countries, publications in journals with a JIF below a certain number didn't "count" in official hiring, promotion, or funding decisions.

"So I don't blame them," says Drubin. "I have a job. I have funding. They don't have those things and they have to get them." And they see high JIF papers as the only way to succeed.

U.S. scientists may think things are different, but there too high JIF papers are too often the de facto gold standard on a CV up before hiring, tenure, or funding groups. While Thomson Reuters compiles and promotes the JIF, Drubin fixes the blame for their misuse closer to home. "The people who promote these factors are scientists. We do it to ourselves."Unknown-1Spelling it out: DORA is only the beginning for scientists who
much change their culture as much as their publishing goals,
says David Drubin, MBoC Editor-In-Chief.
Photo by John Fleischman

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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