Just before he accepted a Nobel Prize in December for his work exploring how cells regulate and transport proteins, University of California–Berkeley professor Randy Schekman penned an indictment in the pages of UK newspaper The Guardian criticizing the role of what he calls the “luxury journals”—Nature, Cell, and Science in particular—for damaging science by promoting flashy or controversial papers over careful scientific research. Library Journal spoke with Schekman, who also edits the open access journal eLife, about what he sees wrong with academic publishing today and how it can be fixed.
For those who haven’t read your piece in The Guardian, what’s the thrust of your argument?
My feeling is the system is broken. People are chasing what amounts to a lottery to get their best work published in these journals, and those decisions about what gets published are being made by people who are not practicing scientists.
Commercial journals restrict the number of articles that are available by making limited print runs. In the electronic world, there are no limitations. They do this because it’s their business plan to sell subscriptions. Scientists and science suffer as a result.
What prompted your boycott? Was there a straw that broke the camel’s back in publishing for you?
I haven’t actually published in these journals for years, aside from a few review articles in Science and Nature. I have not submitted my own research to these journals for six or seven years. I was just fed up with them. Even if you win the lotto, they make you cut the heart of the paper and relegate it to a supplement that very few people will ever read. It’s a crazy way to display scholarship.
What are the major things you see wrong with the prestigious luxury journals today?
One is restricting the number of papers and pages. In a sense, these journals have a quota, and if you don’t fit it, even if your work is first-rate, they will find an excuse not to publish it. And these decisions are being made by people who are not active scientists and have not seen experiments for sometimes decades. Most scientists would prefer to have these pub[lication] decisions made by active peers.
One of the other major problems is that journals now live and die by impact factor. That is a measurement of citation and impact that was initially created by the Institute for Scientific Information (now Thomson ISI) to help librarians determine the journals they should be subscribing to. Now it has morphed into a number that every young scientist knows by heart. It’s become a holy grail for publication, and it’s being used in ways it was never intended for.
Are there things the industry could do to fix impact factor?
I think reducing scholarship to a number like that is a foolish task. What people need to do to evaluate the impact is to read a scholar’s paper, not use surrogate measures. I think there’s no substitute for reading the content and having active experts in the field judge whether the work has meaning and impact.
One of the problems you cite is that these journals encourage “sexy” studies at the cost of important work such as replication studies, which can provide important verification of existing data. Can you speak to that a little more?
These journals look for things that are flashy. They look for novel or seemingly controversial, big impact titles. People play this game when they want their papers published, and it ends up misrepresenting the work. They look for papers that are going to get cited a lot to drive up their impact factor, so papers that are not as flashy fare worse in the luxury journal environment.
There are papers that reach the same conclusions that have no chance of getting published. If a conclusion that has been reached is confirmed, that study has no chance of being published in these luxury journals, even though the data in support of a conclusion may be much more substantial in the next paper.
What would you say to a young scientist who feels like he or she can’t turn down a chance to be published in a journal like Nature or Cell? How do you sort of break the cycle, for lack of a better term?
I feel their pain. What I urge them to do is consider journals like eLife, the open access life sciences journal I work with. We’re doing our best to promote our work and the work of young scholars, and we feel we have a better process. I feel like I can’t just complain about the system, so I’m trying my best to do something. We also have to work on convincing universities and review committees to be more thorough and to look at the scholarship someone is producing rather than using the titles of journals they’ve been published in as a surrogate.
What do you say to critics who say that when you call for a boycott like this, you have a horse in the race owing to your work at eLife?
I’d be hypocritical if I didn’t have a horse in the race. I could be just another complainer. Instead, I’m spending a lot of time trying to create another venue that I think is a better, more rational way of dealing with the work.