I select these journals for comparison for a reason, of course. First, I'm in the addiction fields and Addiction Biology tops the JIF list of ISI Journal Citation Reports for the subcategory of Substance Abuse. Second, Biological Psychiatry and Neuropsychopharmacology publish a lot of behavioral pharmacology, another superset under which my work falls
The timeline is one of convenience, do note that I was in graduate school long before this.
When I entered graduate school, it was clear that publishing in the Journal of Neuroscience was considered something special. All the people presenting work from the platform at the Annual Meeting of the SfN were publishing relentlessly in JNeuro. People with posters drawing a crowd five people deep and spilling over the adjacent posters in an arc? Ditto.
I was in graduate school to study behavior, first, and something about the way the body accomplished these cool tasks second. This is still pretty much true, btw. For various reasons, I oriented toward the chemical communication and information transmission processes of the brain as my favored level of analysis. In short, I became a behavioral pharmacology person in orientation.
In behavioral pharmacology, the specificity of the analysis depends on three overarching factors. First, the components of the nervous system which respond to given drug molecules. Second, the specificity with which any given exogenous drug manipulation may act. Third, the regional constraints under which the drug manipulation is applied. By the time I entered graduate school, the scope of manipulations were relatively well developed. Sure, not all tools ended up having exactly the specificity that they were assumed to have. New receptor and transporter and intracellular chemical recognition sites were discovered frequently. Still are. But on the whole, we knew a lot about the interpretive space within which new experiments were being conducted.
I contrast this with lesion work. Because at the time I was in graduate school, there was another level of analysis that was also popular- the brain lesion. This related to a set of techniques in which regions of the brain were surgically deactivated/removed as the primary manipulation. The interpretive space tended to include fierce debate over the specificity with which the lesion had been produced. The physical area removed was rarely consistent in extent even within one study. Different approaches to the target might entail various collateral damages that were essentially ignored within a paper. The regions that were ablated contained, of course, a multitude of neuronal and glial subtypes and occasionally axonal tracts that were just passing through the neighborhood. Specificity was, in a word, poor.
I noticed very early in my days of grinding reading of my areas of interest that the Journal of Neuroscience just LOOOOOOOVED them a lesion study. And absolutely hated behavioral pharmacology.
I was, for a time, dismayed.
I couldn't believe it. The relative level of confidence in the claims versus the experimental evidence was ridiculously poor for lesions versus pharmacology. The designs were less comprehensive and less well controlled. The inconvenient bits of evidence provided early were entirely forgotten in a later rush to claim lesion/behavior impairment specificity. The rapid fire exchange of data in publications from the competing labs was exciting but really pointed out the flaws in the whole premise.
At the very least, you could trade one level of uncertainty of the behavioral pharmacology for an equally troublesome uncertainty in the lesion world.
It boggled my mind that one of these technique domains and levels of analysis was considered The Awesome for the flagship journal of the very prestigious and large Society for Neuroscience and the other was considered unworthy*.
Particularly when I would see the broad stretch of interpretive domains that enjoyed space and an audience at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. It did not escape my attention that the SfN was delighted to take dues and Annual Meeting fees from people conducting a whole host of neuroscience investigations (far, far beyond the subject of this post, btw. I have another whole rant on the topic of the behavioral specificity and lack thereof.) that would never be considered for publication in J Neuro on a categorical basis.
It has been a long time since my dawning realization of these issues and I have survived just fine, so far, doing the things that interest me in science. I may have published work once or twice in J Neuro but I generally do not, and can not. They are still no fans of what I think is most interesting in science.
It turns out that journals that are fans of behavioral pharmacology, see Figure above, do publish some of the stuff that I think is most interesting. They are accepting of levels of analysis that are most interesting to me, in addition to considerable overlap with the J Neuro-acceptable analyses of the present day. And as time has gone by, the JIF of these journals has risen while that of J Neuro has fallen. Debate the reasons for this as you like, we all know there are games to be played to change the JIF calculation. But ultimately, papers are cited or not and this has a role in driving the JIF.
I watch the JIF numbers for a whole host of journals that publish a lot more pedestrian work than these journals do as well. The vast majority are on slight upward trends. More science is being published and more citations are available for distribution, so this makes a lot of sense.
J Neuro tends to stand out as the only one on a long and steady downward trend.
If J Neuro doesn't halt this slide, it will end up down in the weeds of the 3-5 JIF range pretty soon. It will have a LOT more company down there. And it's pretensions to being the venue for the very best neuroscience work will be utterly over.
I confess I am a little bit sad about this. It is very hard to escape the imprinting of my undergraduate and graduate school education years. Not too sad, mind you, I definitely enjoy the schadenfreude of their demise.
But I am a little sad. This Journal is supposed to be awesome in my mind. It still publishes a lot of good stuff. And it deserves a lot of credit for breaking the Supplemental Materials cycle a few years ago. I still like the breadth and excitement of the SfN Annual Meeting which gives me a related warm fuzzy for the Journal.
But still. If they go down they have nothing but themselves to blame. And I'm okay being the natterer who gets to sneer that he told em so.
*There is an argument to be made, one that is made by many, that the real problem at J Neuro is not the topic domains, per se, but rather a broader issue of the insider club that runs SfN and therefore the Journal**. I am not sure I really care about this too much because the result is the same.
**One might observe that publications which appear to be exceptions to the technique-domain rules usually come with insider-club authors.