One of the unspoken rules in research is that a successful career in science is only possible with one or more papers with an impact factor above 10 or higher. This belief creates a lot of peer pressure among young scientists and may be even one of the causes of increasing numbers of scientific fraud cases. But is it true?

To answer this question it is crucial to get a very clear idea what “a successful career in science” means for you. It is very simple: If you want to work and succeed in an environment where high impact papers are necessary you must have high impact papers. Interestingly, PhD students and postdocs are quite often not aware in which contexts impact factors play a role – and where not!

There is a lot of debate whether impact factors measure anything useful to define scientific quality and there are multiple suggestions for alternative ranking systems. However, here I want to describe some of the societal effects of the “impact factor culture” in science:

High impact factors are the “currency of fame” in academia

High impact factors are the “currency of fame” in science because they lead to invitations to give invited talks and become session chairman during scientific meetings, become member or chairman of scientific committees, to become reviewer for or editor of important scientific journals and get much more press coverage after a publication. Similarly, labs with high impact factor publications often attract more excellent and ambitious candidates for open positions. Finally, scientific prizes are given mostly if not always to researchers with high impact publications.

euro-96289_640 pixabayHigh impact factors lead to more public funding in academia

There is no doubt that one or more high impact factor papers will increase the chances to get future funding. Funding is often given on the assumption that “previous performances predict future performances”. In the many different committees I had the honour (and extra-terrestrial pleasure) to participate impact factors were always used as very strong arguments because they are so easy to measure and they can be listed, calculated and compared between candidates. Mobility, scientific expertise, motivation and scientific potential are much more difficult to evaluate.

High impact factors may be less important to get industry funding in academia

For companies impact factors quite often play a minor role. They definitely help to build the reputation of the scientist since they may be an indicator of quality. Quite often expertise in a specific domain, experience with certain techniques and models, permission to do certain experiments and personal relationships over a longer period are much more important to get industry funding for research project(s) in academia.

High impact factors lead to more intramural funding in academia

In most Western countries impact factors are a key element to evaluate the research output of an academic institution. This is important to justify current and future funding by the government. Impact factors may also substantially influence the position of universities in international rankings. Therefore, most if not all Western research institutions included impact factors as well as attracted grants (which are also partially based on previous impact factors) in their list of key performance indicators (KPI). Therefore, intramural (=internal) funding in research institutions is often used to stimulate and promote research which leads to higher impact factors.

Better job chances in academia

Due to the mechanisms described above, candidates for postdoc or professor positions in a research institutions have higher chances to get hired in a competitive environment  – because previous performance is considered to be a predictor of future performance. Interestingly, in smaller research institutions the majority of professors quite often have no publications with very high impact factors. Thus, without no doubt you can become professor without Nature and Science papers. 🙂

Not necessarily better job chances in the industry or public sector

PhD students and postdocs often overestimate the significance of the impact factors of their publications for a job in the industry or in the public sector. Striking research from ECOOM shows that there is a considerable mismatch of the PhD students’ expectations and the real needs of the industry. Quite often transferable skills such as being a good team player are much more important to get a good job in the industry sector than research skills and scientific knowledge.

Do I find a job in science without high impact factors?

Interestingly, 97% of all PhD holders do NOT find their job in academia. The good news is: you are most likely to find a job somewhere else for example in the industry sector, the public sector, NGOs or teaching. Thus, the impact factors of your publications may be less important than you think – but being lazy will be punished in most cases (especially when the previous supervisor is asked as a reference for a future position). A PhD with a small number of low impact publications is a bad start to find a position in any research environment (academia or industry) although there are multiple jobs where impact factors of previous publications do not play any role such as journalism and other jobs outside the research context.

In summary, choose consciously and decide wisely whether high impact factor publications are important for your very personal concept of a successful career in science.

Check out this striking ECOOM study: De Grande et al: The skills mismatch: what doctoral candidates and employers consider important

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