One of the classes I took this quarter was focused on analyzing articles from the journals Science and Nature, two of the most esteemed science journals. We spent a lot of time asking ourselves what makes an article Science- or Nature-worthy. Although it’s often considered the ultimate scientific achievement to have work published in one of these journals, a lot of the articles left us feeling dissatisfied. Sometimes the consensus was that the findings or methods were not especially revolutionary or that contrary results were swept under the rug. We often felt that factors like an author’s prestige, an individual editor’s interest, or fortunate timing determined whether an article would be published more than the quality of the science presented. By the end of the course, I was a little disillusioned with these journals.
Just as the course was ending, I discovered this article in the Guardian about Randy Schekman, a winner of the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, announced that his lab is boycotting the top-tier journals Science, Nature, and Cell. According to the Guardian, Schekman said:
Leading academic journals are distorting the scientific process and represent a “tyranny” that must be broken.
He believes that the pursuit of publication in one of these “luxury” journals has driven scientists to cut corners and pursue research that will “make a splash,” as opposed to the topics that are most important. He compared the incentives for researchers to publish in these journals (in addition to prestige and career advancement, the Chinese Academy of Science pays successful authors the equivalent of $30,000 for a publication, for example) with Wall Street’s “bonus culture.” He also criticized the journals’ practice of limiting the number of articles they publish, arguing that this creates a demand “like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags.” Not really the image scientists are going for, I’m guessing.
Journals like Science, Nature, and Cell have high impact factors, meaning that the articles they published are widely cited by other researchers. This is generally accepted as a reflection of high-quality science, but Schekman challenges this assumption. He argues that good research is not the only science that is likely to be cited, but that eye-catching, provocative, and wrong science might also be widely cited. In the latter case, a high impact factor cannot be said to reflect high-quality work.
One scientist (or even a few) boycotting these journals is not going to have a big impact. An interviewee in the Guardian article points out that researchers are hired and awarded grants and fellowships based on their publication records, so there’s a lot of pressure for scientists to publish in top journals, whether they agree with the practice or not. If the prestige of a publication in a luxury journal is going to decrease, it will need to be a widespread acknowledgment. It will be interesting to see if the discontent with the current top-tier journals will spread.