December 23, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Nobel Prize Winner Fights Tyranny of Big Scientific Journals

He’s on a campaign to bring power to the people.

Randy Schekman, a co-winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in cell transport mechanisms, now has a powerful platform for speaking his mind.  In “How to break free from the stifling grip of luxury journals” in The Conversation, he is using it to empower thousands of beleaguered scientists who might feel threatened with the loss of careers if they were to speak up.  The major “luxury journals” like Science, Nature, and Cell, he feels, have “distorted how science and scientists operate.”  That’s also why he has started up his own online open-access journal called eLife, for which he is Editor-in-Chief.

I am saying what many others believe but feel they cannot say, because they fear their careers might be damaged.

Journal publishing has long been considered a criterion of science.  Ideas not published in peer-reviewed journals are subject to scorn as being pseudoscientific.  What this assumption has led to, though, is a fawning dependence on recognition from a few high-profile journals.  A measure called “impact factor” distorts the value of original research, he argues, leading universities and the public to rank the quality of research according to “branding” by the luxury publications.

I am deeply committed to developing the careers of younger scientists I work with – that, indeed, is a major motivation for my argument. I do not want them to have to play a system where the artificial scarcity of prestige publications makes recognition and advancement such a lottery. It is gratifying that several of my lab colleagues have publicly supported me.

The digital revolution, Schekman argues, does away with the limits created by paper, yet the luxury journals remain wedded to paper.  “It makes journals more selective than they need to be, driving extreme competition for space that is good for subscription businesses but bad for science.”  How is that?

Intense competition for space in key journals means that the editorial process often involves multiple rounds of revision, review and resubmission, causing long delays in publication. Additional experimental data and information are often demanded by reviewers who might later, as authors, be competing for space in the same journals. Much of this data is then relegated to supplementary appendices. The experience can be highly dispiriting for researchers.

By vastly increasing the publishing real estate, electronic publishing removes the need for quotas and liberates the market.  A growing number of open-access journals are paid not by advertisers and subscribers, but by the scientists or their institutions.  They typically have much lower overhead, faster turnaround, and can make their posts accessible to the public immediately.  Standards will still be held, but if a researcher meets an electronic journal’s requirements, artificial barriers are removed.  This benefits all: there is plenty of space for all the research that meets the criteria, and they can be made accessible to everyone, rather than hiding behind paywalls.

After advocating for e-journals, Schekman becomes more radical.  He wants to remove branding and impact factor altogether.  The brand name of a journal should make no difference in funding decisions, quality assessment, or tenure.  Concentrate on the cereal, not the box: “Article metrics might have a role to play, but narrative explanations of research significance and accomplishments would be more helpful.”  Reviewers should agree beforehand that “journal brand cannot be used as a proxy for scientific quality.”

Schekman is happy just to “spark a discussion” about this, and indeed he has: his previous article in The Guardian sparked 268 comments.  “I was not surprised by the range of opinions my comments provoked, but I have been impressed by their quantity,” he said.  “The evidence that the scientific community wants and needs this discussion could not be stronger.”

The journals are not unaware of the trends.  PhysOrg published an article by Alex O. Holcombe about how publishing giant Elsevier, which “owns much of the world’s academic knowledge” in the form of copyrights, is stepping up “take down notices” against scientists who republish PDFs of their papers on, a kind of wikileaks for scientists where they can share and follow research.  The website boasts over 6 million researchers in its community.  Holcombe argues that it’s time for scientists “riled up” at Elsevier’s dominance to embrace open-access journals. Both Nature and Science took note of a new preprint server for biologists, like the arXiv that physicists have used for years.  Bucking tradition, preprint servers allow peer review after publication, not before.  In addition, social media like Twitter are allowing scientists to get rapid feedback from large numbers of colleagues instead of comments from a few anonymous reviewers who might be rivals.

Evolution News & Views discussed some of the changes underway in “Public Science 2.0” – a return to the days when science was conducted in the public eye.  For a few decades now, people have equated print publishing in peer reviewed journals as a hallmark of scientific quality, but “there was never anything sacred about traditional scientific practices,” the article points out.

Witness a scientific revolution in the making.  If Schekman’s priorities go mainstream (and there is every indication they will), it will be like a country going from dictatorship to democracy.  The quality of science will no longer be measured by connections, artificial metrics and the tyranny of editorial boards.  Anyone who does good work can get a hearing.  Undoubtedly new concerns and difficulties will arise, but like the proverb says, sunlight is the best disinfectant.  What this will do to the creation-evolution controversy remains to be seen, but in general, democracy is better than oligarchy.



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