A couple of years ago, a colleague sent me this picture* to say “who put J Cell Biol on a diet?”. I joked that maybe they publish too many autophagy papers and didn’t think much more of it.
Recently, Ron Vale put up this very interesting piece on bioRxiv discussing what it takes to publish a paper in the field of cell biology these days. In the main, he questions whether this is now out of reach of many trainees in our labs. It raises some great points and I recommend reading it.
One (of many) interesting stats in the article is that J Cell Biol now publishes fewer papers than it used to. Which made me think back to the photo and wonder why there has been a decline. Elsewhere, Vale notes that a cell biology paper now contains >2 the amount of data than papers of yesteryear. I’ve also written before about the creeping increase in the number of authors per paper at J Cell Biol and (more so) at Cell. Publication in Science is something of an arms race and his point is really that the amount of data, the time taken, the effort/people involved has got to an untenable level.
The data in the preprint is a bit limited as he only looks at two snapshots in time – because he looks at two cohorts of students at UCSF. So I thought I’d look at the decrease in JCB papers over time – did it really fall off? by how much? when did it start?.
Getting the data is straightforward. In fact, PubMed will give you a csv of frequency of papers for a given search term (it even shows you a snapshot in the main search window). I wanted a bit more control, so I exported the records for JCB and NCB. I filtered out interviews and commentary as best as I could and plotted out the records as two histograms using a bin width of 6 months. It’s pretty clear that J Cell Biol is indeed publishing fewer papers now than it used to. It looks like the trend started around 2002, possibly accelerating in the last 5 years (the photo agrees with this). The six month output at JCB in 2015 is similar to what it was in 1975!
In the comments section of the preprint, there is a bit of discussion of why this may be. Overall, there are more and more papers being published every year. There’s no reason to think that the number of cell biology papers has remained static or fallen. So if J Cell Biol have not taken a decision to limit the number of papers, why is there a decline? One commenter suggests Nature Cell Biology has “taken” some of these papers. So I plotted those numbers out too. The number of papers at NCB is capped and has been constant since the launch of the journal. It does look like NCB could be responsible, but it’s a complex question. Personally, I think it’s unlikely. When NCB was launched this marked a period of expansion in the number of scientific journals and it’s likely that the increase in number of venues that a paper can go to (rather than the creation of NCB per se) has affected publication at JCB. One simple cause could be financial, i.e. the page number being limited by RUP. If this is true, why not move the journal online? There’s so many datasets and movies in papers these days that it barely makes sense to print JCB any more.
I love reading papers in JCB. They are sufficiently detailed so that you know what’s going on. They’re definitely on Cell Biology, not some tangential area of molecular biology. The Editors are active cell biologists and it has had a long history of publishing some truly landmark discoveries in our field. For these reasons, I’m sad that there are fewer JCB papers these days. If it’s an editorial decision to try to make the journal more exclusive, this is even more regrettable. I wonder if the Editors feel that they just don’t get enough high quality papers. If this is the case, then maybe the expectations for what a paper “should be” need to be brought back in line with reality. Which is one of the points that Ron Vale is making in his article.
* I cropped the picture to remove some identifying things on the bookshelf.
Update @ 07:07 17/7/15: Rebecca Alvinia from JCB had left a comment on Ron Vale’s piece on bioRxiv to say that JCB are not purposely limiting the number of papers. Fillip Port then asked why JCB does not take preprints. Rebecca has now replied saying that following a change of policy, J Cell Biol and the other RUP journals will take preprinted papers. This is great news!
Creep Diets is the title track from the second album by the oddly named Fudge Tunnel, released on Earache Records in 1993