Randy Schekman and Nature’s tyranny

Read time: 4 mins

“Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of the bonus culture, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals”. Straight to the point, Randy Schekman – the Nobel Laureate in Medicine in 2013 – attacks the most famous showcases of scientific publishing, like Nature and Science.

“The most prestigious scientific journals are distorting the progress of science, encouraging a “tyranny” that must be interrupted”. For his j’accuse, the American Biologist has chosen the perfect stage: the Nobel Prize award ceremony, few days ago in Stockholm. “I have published in the big brands, including the papers that won me the Nobel Prize for Medicine. But no longer” stated Schekman. ”Publishing on luxury journals encourages scientists to submit “flashy and eye-catching” papers, and not scientific researches that really deserve attention”, he piled it on from The Guardian. Schekman is surely not the first and only scientist who attacked top brand journals.

Another 2013 Nobel Laureate, Peter Higgs, publicly declared that he would have had a hard time in founding a job in the academic system today, since he is “not enough productive”. However, it is not the same for many other researchers; being able to publish a paper on these journals brings great advantages in terms of grants, career and international acknowledgment. Becoming a member of this “golden club” reinforces a scientist’s reputation and opens many doors. For example, Ping Chi, after the publication of her research on new drugs for cancer, obtained important funds for clinical experimentation. “If I had published in less-known journals I surely would not have received such a generous start-up package”, explained the oncologist of the Kettering Cancer Center in New York.  

For emerging countries, then, publishing on top journals has even more appeal, since Indian or Chinese researchers receive awards or incentives when they appear on PNAS or CELL.
Racing for the highest impact factor journals, however, cannot forget the scientific value of the researches.
“Governmental officers cannot understand our works, the easiest thing to do is comparing the journals” says Yingjie Peng, Chinese astrophysicist who just moved to Cambridge. “Many people, such as funding committees or administrators, do not evaluate quality. They only consider the impact factor instead of reading the paper”, declared Rob Brooks, from the University of Sydney.

Back to Schekman, he accuses Nature and other journals that they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept, distorting the “market of science”. Data confirm his thesis: in 1997, about 1.1 million scientific papers were published, whilst in 2012 they were more than 2 million, with an increment of 86%. In these 16 years, the number of papers submitted to Nature increased from 9,000 in 1997 to 12,000 in 2012, but the number of published articles did not change. Last year only 8% of papers where accepted, whilst the open access PLoS One publishes 70% of submitted articles. Many researchers also complain about the publishing prices. According to the Californian consulting company Outsell, the scientific publishing sector’s turnover in 2011 was around $9.4 million, with an average income of $5,000 for paper.
The American analysts estimate profits around 20-30%. Publishing on top journals, for example on Cell Reports, costs about $5,000 dollars, whilst on PLoS One only $1,350. Publishing a paper on open-access journals can cost as little as $8, but as recently denounced by John Bohannon in his enquiry published on Science, could hide many unpleasant surprises.
Price variety and economic crisis are leading all the involved subjects to re-discuss the top journal system, welcoming open access of scientific results. In the United Stated, the Obama Administration declared that state-funded scientific researches must become public within 12 months after their publication, whilst in the United Kingdom state-funded researches will be published only on open-access journals.
Other researchers, however, prefer less prestigious journals than Science also because they can better describe their researchers. “My work on galaxies evolution, published three years ago on The Astrophysical Journal, already received more than 150 citations. Its success is due to the fact that The Astrophysical Journal allows longer papers than Science and Nature, therefore I could thoroughly explain my theory’s data” told Peng.
But who is going to judge if a work is worthy? Here is another accuse by Schekman.
The Nobel Laureate explains in fact that the papers submitted to these “unmentionable” journals are evaluated  by “editors who are not active scientists and favour the publication of studies that promise to become scoops more than basing their judgement on the scientific contents”. According to the scientist, active researchers should evaluate the scientific papers and they should accept them only when they all agree. As for eLife, the online journal established by the Wellcome Trust, where the 2013 Nobel Laureate in Medicine is among the editors. 

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