Nobel Laureate Makes Convincing Case Against the Scientific Journals

Nobel Prize laureate Randy Schekman announced yesterday that he will no longer submit to top science journals. 

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Randy Schekman, who earlier today collected his 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine, began his week by taking a broadside shot at publications that made so much of his work famous. Schenkman penned an op-ed in The Guardian on Monday announcing a personal boycott of three leading scientific journals — Nature, Cell, and Science — saying "I have now committed my lab to avoiding luxury journals, and I encourage others to do likewise." He explains: 

These luxury journals [Nature, Cell and Science] are supposed to be the epitome of quality, publishing only the best research. Because funding and appointment panels often use place of publication as a proxy for quality of science, appearing in these titles often leads to grants and professorships... These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research

Schekman argues that these journals place a premium on factors not relevant to each article's scientific heft, like how well it will attract readers (and thus, subscription money.) This, according to Scheckman, disincentivizes research in "unsexy" markets, creating bubbles that distract from more worthy pursuits. (Editors of some of the journals targeted defended themselves here.)

He adds that journals are ranked according to journal "impact factors" that rely on how often an article is cited, which is a problematic metric:

A paper can become highly cited because it is good science – or because it is eye-catching, provocative or wrong. Luxury-journal editors know this, so they accept papers that will make waves because they explore sexy subjects or make challenging claims. This influences the science that scientists do. It builds bubbles in fashionable fields where researchers can make the bold claims these journals want, while discouraging other important work, such as replication studies.

The contention has been raised before. A 2012 article posted, ironically, on Nature's blog, noted that incidents of journals citing themselves were on the rise in 2011. According to research by Thomson Reuters, 51 journals were found to have been extreme offenders that year,  a fifty percent increase from the year before. Most cited their own journals, but some colluded with other to raise each other's impact factors.

Schekman says the solution is online "open-access journals that are free for anybody to read, and have no expensive subscriptions to promote." Luckily for him, he also happens to serve as editor to one such journal, eLife. Some might choose to see that as a conflict of interest, but he isn't the only one making the argument about less-than-rigorous publishing standards.

The choice to publish the strongly worded op-ed one day before receiving such a prestigious award is a bold one. On one hand, Schekman seems to be biting the hand that feeds him. He was, as he admits, likely only able to attract the Nobel Committee's  attention by publishing his work in one of the publications he maligns. The column also refers readers to his own online journal in a move that is sort of tacky.

His words, however, can contribute to the removal of a major roadblock for such new, online publications; namely, a lack of prestige. An online journal edited by a Nobel laureate may stand a chance of drawing submissions over an established and renowned competitors like Nature. If he can't make even a small difference, it's hard to imagine anyone else will.

Schekman argues that outsize incentives offered to scientists conducting research are similar to extravagant bonuses offered investment bankers. Also, the extreme selectivity of elite journals is similar to haute designers undersupplying items they hope will seem more rare. However, we think there's a more apt comparison to be made between impact factors and college and university rankings, like those calculated by the U.S. News and World Report. Colleges and universities are ranked on a series of factors by the publication each year, including acceptance rates, which may prompt institutions to accept fewer students or inflate waiting lists to appear more selective. The ratings are seen as definitive by many students and parents who apply to a number of the top schools, feeding into a static system that benefits a handful of schools and students and harms the rest. 

Science and education, our greatest assets, are areas in which Americans consistently fall short compared to the best leading nations. It's difficult to criticize the institutions that are working to further both achievements, but it's important to recognize, like Schekman, the structural imbalances that can hold those institutions — and scientific progress itself — back. And it's important to work, like Schekman, to figure out ways to turn them around.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.