Nobel Prize Winner Blasts Leading Science Journals

Mark Crane

December 10, 2013

Randy W. Schekman, PhD, the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, said he will boycott 3 leading academic journals which he said are distorting the scientific process and represent a "tyranny" that must be broken.

Dr. Schekman, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley, accepted the 2013 Nobel Prize in Stockholm today for his role in revealing the machinery that regulates the transport and secretion of proteins in our cells. He shares the prize with James E. Rothman, PhD, from Yale University, and Thomas C. Südhof, MD, from Stanford University.

Writing in the British newspaper The Guardian, Dr. Schekman said his lab would no longer send research papers to Nature, Cell, and Science. He said that pressure to publish in "luxury" journals encourages researchers to cut corners and pursue trendy fields on science instead of doing more important work.

"These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research," Dr. Schekman wrote. "Like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits, they know scarcity stokes demand, so they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept. 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.

"It is common, and encouraged by many journals, for research to be judged by the impact factor of the journal that publishes it. But as a journal's score is an average, it says little about the quality of any individual piece of research.… Luxury-journal editors…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.

"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."

Editors Fight Back

Editors at Cell, Nature, and Science were quick to defend their methods for selecting which articles to publish.

Emilie Marcus, editor of Cell, said in a statement: "Since its launch nearly 40 years ago, Cell has focused on providing strong editorial vision, best-in-class author service with informed and responsive professional editors, rapid and rigorous peer-review from leading academic researchers, and sophisticated production quality. Cell's raison d'etre is to serve science and scientists and if we fail to offer value for both our authors and readers, the journal will not flourish; for us doing so is a founding principle, not a luxury."

Monica Bradford, executive editor of Science, said in a statement: "Our acceptance policies are not driven by impact factor but by an editorial mission to provide access to interesting, ground-breaking, thought-provoking and important research in all scientific disciplines. … Science works hard to ensure that peer-reviewed scientific information is distributed as broadly as possible. ... Our editorial staff is dedicated to a thorough and professional peer review upon which they determine which papers to select for inclusion in our journal. There is nothing artificial about the acceptance rate. It reflects the scope and mission of our journal."

Philip Campbell, editor in chief at Nature, told The Guardian, "We select research for publication in Nature on the basis of scientific significance. That in turn may lead to citation impact and media coverage, but Nature editors aren't driven by those considerations, and couldn't predict them even if they wished to do so.

"The research community tends towards an over-reliance in assessing research by the journal in which it appears, or the impact factor of that journal," he added. "In a survey Nature Publishing Group conducted this year of over 20,000 scientists, the three most important factors in choosing a journal to submit to were: the reputation of the journal; the relevance of the journal content to their discipline; and the journal's impact factor. My colleagues and I have expressed concerns about over-reliance on impact factors many times over the years."