Nobel Prize Winner Randy Schekman: Science Journals, Like Cell And Nature, Are Harming Science
This year, scientist Randy Schekman won the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine — which is a category, not our own uncertainty — for his research about the proteins inside cells. Then, before Schekman flew to Stockholm Tuesday to collect his prize, he did something surprising: He called for a boycott of top research journals Nature, Cell, and Science, and swore that his lab would no longer submit papers to their editors.
This isn't because of uncreative titles, either: Schekman wrote in a recent article for the Guardian that the journals have swapped their integrity for academic glamour. "I have published in the big brands, including papers that won me a Nobel prize. But no longer," he wrote. "Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of bonus culture, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals."
Schekman's attack on what he calls "luxury journals" isn't a reflection of rejections: Since June 1971, Nature has published 27 papers the researcher has co-authored. Since 1981, Cell's run another 26. Science has published 12 of Schekman's articles, the first back in 1974.
Rather, Schekman's problem is where academia and journalism collide: Instead of facilitating a productive intersection, he says, the scientific community now relies on these "luxury journals" as professional validation. "Because funding and appointment panels often use place of publication as a proxy for quality of science, appearing in these titles often leads to grants and professorships," he wrote.
And here's where he goes for it: "But the big journals' reputations are only partly warranted ... they do not publish only outstanding papers." Like a consumer magazine, they produce what sells. "These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research," he wrote.
Schekman points out that editors at these publications (mostly) aren't practicing scientists, but people with scientific backgrounds who have focused on publishing. These people, he claims, are about the eye-catching and the page-turning at the expense of more mundane but critical topics.
Bustle found the LinkedIn profile of the editor-in-chief of Cell, Emilie Marcus, which reads more like a managing editor than like a researcher whose scientific credentials (that she has) qualify her to lead a top journal.
There are four predominant threads that run throughout my professional career. One is leadership for growth and innovation, a capacity to see not only what "is" but also what "can be" in both organizations and people. A second is a demonstrated ability to manage teams of diverse high-value employees for business success. The third is a deep and passionate commitment to serving and advancing biomedical science and scientists. And the fourth is the ability to move effectively between scientific academic environments and business contexts, most recently reflected in my experiences at the Harvard Business School AMP program.
And then there's Marcus' LinkedIn credentials, which include "content management," "delivering results," "business development," and "inspiring people." Every magazine editor knows that headlines drive the consumer — but is this top-tier group sacrificing hard-hitting, un-sexy science for headlines that get heads raised? When your publication is a voice for the field, the mundane matters, too.
The Guardian follow-up to Schekman included responses from the editors-in-chief of the journals Schekman named. All of them said the same thing: The journals' existence is validated by reviewers and the scope of articles sent to them for submission, which both boost and reflect the journals' impact.
Research publication is not a system without merit: How will research departments uphold their reputation if they don't have any research to show? After all, the historical role of universities is predicated on the sharing and dissemination of knowledge.
But the academic world relies on publication to make scientists credible. The everyday world relies on publication to make science visible. For universities, having credible and visible scientists translates into research (and tuition) dollars. So professors are pressured to meet implied quotas to keep their jobs and to research topics that are trendy enough for publication.
Peter Higgs, the University of Edinburgh Nobel-winning physicist who discovered the fundamentals-altering Higgs boson particle, said that in today's academic world, no university would hire him — because he's "not productive enough." Since his first paper, published in 1964, catalyzed his further particle research, he's published no more than 10 papers in 50 years. "He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today's academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers," writes the Guardian in Higgs' profile.
In other words, the man brilliant enough to basically figure out the building blocks of the universe would be unemployed.
"It's true I could have a harder time getting my foot in the door of certain elite institutions without papers in these journals ... 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," one of Schekman's post-doc students, David Sirkis, told the Guardian.
Stick it to the man, Sirkis and Schekman.
In the meantime, can we trust scientific journals? Yes. Ish. Insofar as we approach them with a shred of skepticism. What they publish might not be the most important discoveries of the day. Instead, what we — study-loving journalists and curious civilians alike — could find instead are the catchy, digestible topics generating clicks for them and visibility for the scientists.