ASCB Newsletter Dec 2013 - page 46

Conflicted on the Declaration on Research Assessment
Dear Labby,
I’m a recently appointed assistant professor in the chemistry and chemical engineering department
of a small university. An intramural grant program here allows new faculty to apply, during their first
year only, for funds to secure a postdoc for two years. My department chair encouraged me to apply
while my grant applications to the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation are being
developed. The application form for this intramural program asks applicants to indicate the journal
impact factor (JIF) for each publication listed in the biographical section, and this has me riled. I
signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) last spring and feel I need
to be true to that. My chair appreciates my position but reminded me that seeking such intramural
funding should be my top priority. He also pointed out that the campus review committee asks for
the JIFs because this program is so interdisciplinary—with applications from faculty in mathematics,
engineering, and all of the physical and biological sciences—that the members of the committee
don’t know how to rank the various journals outside their fields. But isn’t that the whole objection
to JIFs, that they are unduly “trusted” by people who don’t know how to evaluate the science in an
applicant’s papers? This comment by my chair, which I know was meant to be helpful, got my blood
The other day I was discussing this with a faculty colleague who is in the biology department
and she said ASCB had played a major role in DORA and that there is also an advice column in the
monthly newsletter. So here I am, seeking your counsel.
Dear Stuck,
Your concern is admirable but here’s the thing: Your ability to change the insane “JIF culture” is, to
be frank, quite limited at present. And although a single voice can sometimes be very catalytic, you
must put your nascent independent career first. Your best and really only course is to submit the
application (with the JIFs—you can’t risk leaving them off) and then, whether or not yours is among
the applications funded, proceed to meet with the appropriate official to air your concern and take
the pulse of how riveted a position there may be with respect to the use of JIFs. From there, you
might mobilize a working group of faculty to pursue the matter further.
Your situation is interesting in that you and others of like mind are not only objecting to JIFs as
a general matter, à la DORA, but also have a vivid case in point right there on your campus. One
point you might consider making is that all of the applicants have already passed the hurdle of
having recently been hired as faculty members by your university. In addition, the perceived quality of
publications from each applicant’s pre-faculty years may have been influenced by all sorts of factors,
e.g., lab size, stature of the lab head, and roles of various co-authors. So the committee might
consider focusing more on the intrinsic value of the proposed project and less on the applicant’s pre-
and postdoctoral track record. Perhaps a case could be made that the form should request no prior
publications at all. Since you are allowed to apply only in your first faculty year, this could ensure that
no applicant is placed at a disadvantage (or advantage) based on information beyond the project
itself. Of course, it is true that the broad, interdisciplinary range of this program adds to the reviewing
challenges. Perhaps in your follow-up efforts you could raise the possibility that the funds for this
program be divided into three pots, administered in parallel by engineering, the physical sciences,
and the biological sciences. Appropriately appointed review groups would erase any perceived need
for JIFs.
Thank you for this engaging query and your commitment to the cause. If ASCB can help you
further on this, please contact us again.
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