Defining and Defending the Unique Role of Practitioner Publications
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 publica-
tions feature well-written, tested strategies for enhancing science teach-
ing that are read by thousands of teachers each month. Educators are
the end users of our publishing endeavors and very likely put into prac-
tice 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 ulti-
mately 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.
THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER FROM THE EDITOR 555
FROM THE EDITOR
William F. McComas, ABT Editor