Recently, I received a question from an author who asked me how she should justify writing for The American Biology Teacher in her tenure application because her dean did not think this was the best use of time. To address this frustrating question requires some background.
First, let's talk about two often-proposed “guardians” of scholarly quality, rejection rate and impact factor. These terms may be all-but-unknown to many of our readers but loom large in the minds of many university-based writers. Rejection rate is a simple measure of how many articles are published with respect to how many are submitted to a given journal. Many believe that journals with a high rejection rate are the “better” journals, but this may be something of a circular argument. If a journal is considered prestigious, more people, even those with no business doing so, are likely to submit to that journal, and the rejection rate inevitably increases.
Impact factor reports how many articles published in the past two years from a large list known as the journal citation report (JCR), cite articles from the journal in question. So, if many articles from a journal are cited elsewhere, the impact factor is high. For example, an impact factor of 20.2 means that during the previous two years its papers received about 20 citations on average in other journals on the JCR. Higher impact factors are often said to indicate the “better” journals.
However, let me share the cautionary tale of the “drunk's walk” to make an important point. A policeman watches at night as a man stumbles from one streetlight to another apparently looking for something on the ground. When asked about this odd behavior the man admits that he lost his keys while walking home from a party. The quizzical look on the officer's face causes the man to say, “I must look in the light because that's the only place I would be able to see the keys,” even though both he and the cop realize that the keys could be anywhere in between the widely spaced spots of light.
The lesson simple. We all tend to look in areas where we might see things and avoid those areas where vision is obstructed. Impact factor is a perfect example of this conundrum. We can easily define the worth of a journal based upon a calculation of how frequently its articles are cited, but is that really a valid and reliable measure of impact?
Journals such as The American Biology Teacher and similar publications feature well-written, tested strategies for enhancing science teaching that are read by thousands of teachers each month. Educators are the end users of our publishing endeavors and very likely put into practice many of the suggestions made by ABT authors. They do not, in turn, write articles of their own citing what is published in the pages of the journal. The “impact” of the ABT on our intended audience is huge but this is not reported by the so-called impact factor, a calculation that accounts only for things most easily seen rather than things that ultimately are much more important.
Rejection rate is a similar situation. The American Biology Teacher works very hard to get folks in print and we reject papers almost as a last resort. Our rejection rate is about 25 percent, and many of the articles we decline were simply not suitable for publication in the journal. Most articles submitted are quickly sent out for review to three NABT members with expertise in the topic. In turn, our reviewing editors take the reviewers’ comments and prepare a detailed list of necessary changes. The author makes these changes and submits a revised article (sometimes through several cycles) and then will see his or her paper gracing the pages of a future copy of the journal. We work very hard to help authors turn their manuscripts into articles, so rejection for us is something of a last resort!
There are other metrics of value such as the increasing on-line presence of ABT, with more than 100,000 users from July 2017 to June 2018 (up 23% from the previous year). Even our global reach has expanded with interest in the journal coming from countries such as India, Australia, Indonesia, China, Brazil, and Germany, and increasing numbers of article submissions now coming from overseas. NABT and ABT are becoming the global leader in life science education!
No matter what view the numbers may suggest, the real impact of ABT is found in classrooms, textbooks, curriculum plans, and the hearts and minds of biology teachers, but quantifying this is difficult. Like the lesson of the “drunk's walk” we tend to measure what we can and often ignore the false conclusions implied as a result.
Sure, it would be nice to have a higher impact factor at least for bragging rights, but that's not likely, nor is it central to our mission. Likewise, we could artificially increase our rejection rate by ignoring potentially useful submissions that may just need a bit of polishing.
It is a pleasure working with our dedicated authors and members of the publication team of The American Biology Teacher. Our work to enhance biology teaching and learning while stimulating the minds and practices of biology educators is extraordinarily satisfying. For those of you asked to “defend” why you might write for a practitioner journal, perhaps it is time to push back. Let us together affirm that our mission as biology education professionals is to share the wealth, interact with the wider community of biology teachers, and help to direct research and practice in ways that truly impact practice.