The pursuit of knowledge does not fit well into human institutions, the 9 – 5 regime, career plans, nor the profit motive. Cracks are everywhere. The message grows that science is being exploited and distorted.
Randy Schekman received his Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine yesterday. At the same time he has declared that his lab will not be sending papers to the top-tier journals Nature, Science and Cell because they are damaging science. He calls for more open access papers saying “science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals”
“I am a scientist. Mine is a professional world that achieves great things for humanity. But it is disfigured by inappropriate incentives. The prevailing structures of personal reputation and career advancement mean the biggest rewards often follow the flashiest work, not the best. Those of us who follow these incentives are being entirely rational – I have followed them myself – but we do not always best serve our profession’s interests, let alone those of humanity and society.
Chiefly, he points out that the “luxury” journals manage themselves as brand-names, and choose papers for reasons other than their scientific advances. The journals seek “sexy”, provocative papers that will improve their citation rating and impact factor.
The exclusive brands are then marketed with a gimmick called “impact factor” – a score for each journal, measuring the number of times its papers are cited by subsequent research. Better papers, the theory goes, are cited more often, so better journals boast higher scores. Yet it is a deeply flawed measure, pursuing which has become an end in itself – and is as damaging to science as the bonus culture is to banking.
Scientists pursue research that will be rewarded through publication in the brand-name journals, and the vital work of replication falls by the wayside.
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.
Poor quality papers means more retractions, or worse, no retraction at all…
In extreme cases, the lure of the luxury journal can encourage the cutting of corners, and contribute to the escalating number of papers that are retracted as flawed or fraudulent. 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.
Open access science is the way to go:
There is a better way, through the new breed of open-access journals that are free for anybody to read, and have no expensive subscriptions to promote. Born on the web, they can accept all papers that meet quality standards, with no artificial caps. Many are edited by working scientists, who can assess the worth of papers without regard for citations. As I know from my editorship of eLife, an open access journal funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society, they are publishing world-class science every week.
In my opinion the real problem is death-by-committee — at every point individual responsibility is turned over to a group. Peer review becomes a committee decision, government grants are all committee recommendations and only when one person is held responsible for deciding an outcome will we get better processes and better outcomes.
Funders and universities, too, have a role to play. They must tell the committees that decide on grants and positions not to judge papers by where they are published. It is the quality of the science, not the journal’s brand, that matters. Most importantly of all, we scientists need to take action. Like many successful researchers, I have published in the big brands, including the papers that won me the Nobel prize for medicine, which I will be honoured to collect tomorrow. But no longer. I have now committed my lab to avoiding luxury journals, and I encourage others to do likewise.
Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of the bonus culture, which drives risk-taking that is rational for individuals but damaging to the financial system, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals. The result will be better research that better serves science and society.
To correct the groupthink that is destroying science, editors who publish rubbish (like MBH98) need to be held accountable. Government Ministers which allow “bodies” like the ARC to approve junk applications need to feel the heat. As usual, The Media IS the Problem. If Nature‘s failings were investigated by “science” journalists and exposed in features, they would quickly change their attitude. But few science journalists even know what science is.
Note that Schekman is editor of an open access journal called eLife, so there is a potential conflict of interest and a motive to complain. But there are no shortage of others who agree, and it does not make his words less true.
Daniel Sirkis, a postdoc in Schekman’s lab, said many scientists wasted a lot of time trying to get their work into Cell, Science and Nature. “It’s true I could have a harder time getting my foot in the door of certain elite institutions without papers in these journals during my postdoc, but I don’t think I’d want to do science at a place that had this as one of their most important criteria for hiring anyway,” he told the Guardian.
Sebastian Springer, a biochemist at Jacobs University in Bremen, who worked with Schekman at the University of California, Berkeley, said he agreed there were major problems in scientific publishing, but no better model yet existed. “The system is not meritocratic. You don’t necessarily see the best papers published in those journals. The editors are not professional scientists, they are journalists which isn’t necessarily the greatest problem, but they emphasise novelty over solid work,” he said
Schekman also claims the brand names artificially limit the number of articles they publish, though I find that point unconvincing. I’m more interested in getting science beyond the tyranny of peer review and government dependency. In my opinion the brand name of Nature has been hopeless compromised by its open activism, rather than it’s open attitude. That they will publish name-calling, hypocritical and pointless papers, yet turn down important corrections, tells us all we need to know about the quality of this once great publication.
Nature is the journal of UnScience.
My posts on the scandal of Nature pretending “denier” is a scientific term
I consider these to be among of the best posts I’ve written. As I said “All this mess could be cleared up with an email.” I asked Bain to name the observations that deniers deny. He never did.
“If those papers (God forbid) do not exist, then the true deniers would turn out to be the researchers who denied that empirical evidence is key to scientific confidence in a theory. The true deniers would not be the skeptics who asked for evidence, but the name-calling researchers who did not test their own assumptions.” – Jo
- Defining “denier”. Is it English or Newspeak?
- My reply to Dr Paul Bain — on rational deniers and gullible believers
- My reply to Paul Bain: The name-caller is hurt by the names they throw
- Dr Paul Bain and Nature issue partial correction
H/t A friend in Europe.