Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nobel prize winner declares boycott of major science journals

The British newspaper, The Guardian, reported Dec. 9, 2013 that U.S. physiology/medicine Nobelist Randy Schekman, a biology professor of University of California, Berkeley, has announced that he will boycott publishing in Nature, Cell and Science. Dr. Schekman writes directly to the public about the problem as he sees it, in the pages of The Guardian.

1. The high profile journals are often more interested in improving their "brand" than in forwarding knowledge.

2. Publication in high-profile journals is often used as a proxy for quality when decisions are made about grants, promotion and tenure.

3. In order to pump the brand by increasing the perception of exclusivity, these journals artificially restrict the number of papers they accept.

4. "Impact Factor" has been used as a marketing tool, and in fact, is deeply flawed as a measure of the actual impact of either the journal or the articles it carries. Pursuing the increase in Impact Factor has become a distorting end in itself, affecting acceptance decisions, and other decisions.

5. The factors that go into calculating the Impact Factor, such as number of citations, are not necessarily real measures of the quality of the article. It may simply be eye-catching, provocative or wrong.

6. Editors of these high profile or luxury journals recognize this and often accept article that are poor science simply because they will be highly cited, pumping up the journal's average Impact Factor.

7. Many scientists also recognize the increase in publishability of such articles and are writing more such articles, creating bubbles in fashionable fields, making bold statements that are attractive to such editors. The prevalence of these articles are driving out the doing of more important science and publishing such as replication studies.

8. In extreme cases, Schekman believes that the high-profile journals contribute to researchers cutting corners, with the result that articles are published which must ultimately be retracted. He points to a recent events where the journal

Science alone has recently retracted high-profile papers reporting cloned human embryos, links between littering and violence, and the genetic profiles of centenarians. Perhaps worse, it has not retracted claims that a microbe is able to use arsenic in its DNA instead of phosphorus, despite overwhelming scientific criticism.

Schekman is editing one of the new open access e-journals, which he hopes will help address these problems. He edits eLife, which he says has no artificial caps on the number of articles it will accept. He has a number of scientist editing articles along with him, so that the editorial choices are being made on the quality of the science in the paper, rather than any other criteria. He notes that the journal is currently supported by Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society.

Schekman calls on the decision-making and funding organizations to move away from reliance on the high-profile "luxury" journals as proxies for quality. He admits that the papers that won the Nobel prize were published in such journals. Which gets back to the basic problem in this battle. Unless and until tenure committees truly commit in a reliable way to accepting publication in a journal such as e-Life as the equivalent to publication in Science or Nature or Cell for tenure and promotion decisions, junior faculty will be loathe to follow Schekman in his boycott until they, too, have made their names. The boycott will necessarily be a struggle of senior scientists who have made their names. In a way, that will be good, because these high-profile journals will be damaged by losing such high-profile authors. Yet, the up-coming Nobelists will still be publishing the papers in Cell, Nature and Science that will sooner or later win the their Nobel prizes.

The decoration of the cart before the horse is from a blog post at http://kathieontherun.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/the-high-cost-of-being-well/, a witty post about funding her training for marathons by issuing indulgences for sloth. She does not give any information about where she found the image, which looks old enough to be out of copyright. Also, charming. It reflects my humble opinion that until the academic establishment begins to really support this idea, these boycotts are putting the cart before the horse. But I suppose the establishment won't move its collective fanny without such gestures. We'll see.

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