You are an assistant professor in the biomedical sciences and are three or four years in, trying to really hammer on your productivity before the tenure dossier goes in a couple of years from now. Professor MegaMentor, editor of your society’s second-tier journal (impact factor of 2.5), approaches you to write an invited review article on the state of your field. You take a look at the promotion and tenure guidelines for your institution and find that review articles are not counted as “original, peer-reviewed research publications.”
Professor MegaMentor has been very good to you since she spotted you as a rising postdoc when your advisor sent you to a Gordon Research Conference. She’s helped you already get invited twice as an ad hoc reviewer on a NIH study section, recommended you for your current position, and is someone who you will suggest as an external referee when you come up for promotion and tenure. This invitation is a great honor and you start pulling together your PDFs and some old hardcopies of articles.
But your cranky old chair, ProfessorBugUpHisAss, tells you that review articles are a waste of time and that you should only put your effort into getting the least-publishable-units of your primary research out the door and in press.
You walk down the hall disgusted – that out-of-touch old loser – you’ve been invited to write an article by a senior scientist who respects your opinions and growing reputation in your field.
So you saunter over to the office of AssociateProfessorRockStar who is about to come up for full professor after only five years since getting tenure. She and other senior members of faculty tell you that review articles are a thankless job best left to folks who’ve gotten tenure or those who don’t care if they don’t.
C’mon, what about the “scientific stature” of being invited to write a review article by a prominent scientist in your field? It will still be peer-reviewed and will be in a society journal – not the top journal but still a society journal. Plus, the review won’t be just a mindless literature regurgitation; you will synthesize new ideas and it might even serve as the basis for the Background and Significance section of your new grant application. A publication is a publication, right?
I was just rolling through a reformatting of my CV and found a couple of my own review citations and pulled out the original articles. Some of them are pretty good and I’ve turned to them time and time again to give to new people in the lab. Some older ones I even still use in teaching because of their historical perspective. One even got incorporated into a clinical textbook despite me not even being a MD. And two of my reviews are among the top four most-cited articles of my career.
These articles bring me pride, even ten or fifteen years later, but I doubt that they brought me tenure.
While publishing in Nature Reviews journals might be an exception, review articles largely get no respect by promotion and tenure committees, at least in the pharmacology related departments where I have trained and served.
Is my experience common? Should junior faculty put any energy into review articles, invited or not? Are there any subdisciplines where review articles get counted as original contributions to the literature? Should anyone write review articles, regardless of whether they hold tenure or not?
Why then are review articles the first place many of us turn to get a feel for an area where we lack significant expertise?
Better yet, in writing for a more general audience, are review articles simply the science blogs of the conventional publishing world?