The Schekman Manoeuvre

This is the original version (with the original title) of an article that has been published at The Conversation

Having climbed all the way to the Nobel prize on a ladder made of Nature, Science and Cell papers, biologist Randy Schekman has turned around and declared that he is going to boycott these ‘luxury’ journals in future because of the way that they damage science.

When asked for an opinion about Schekman’s announcement few hours before it was published online, I replied that it would be easy to carp about the position he has adopted. And so it has proved to be.

Schekman has been branded as hypocritical since he owes much of his success to the journals he has denounced and because, in his tenure as editor at PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), another relatively prestigious journal, he exhibited many of the foibles that he finds in the editors at Nature, Science and Cell; his clear conflict of interest as editor-in-chief at eLIfe, a new online journal that has deliberately set out to become a direct competitor of the top tier journals has not gone unnoticed; there have been hard questions too about the knock-on effects for the junior members in his lab, who have yet to make their way in a scientific culture that remains firmly in the thrall of publication in ‘luxury’ journals; he has been criticised for conflating too simplistically the issues of filtering (or selectivity) and the push for open access, which aims to make the research literature freely available to all; and some have pointed out that a boycott, even if it resulted in the closure of Nature, Science and Cell, would simply shift the problem somewhere else because of the competition inherent in a world peopled by egotistical scientists striving for finite resources.

Well, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. All of these accusations have merit and demand good answers.

But the issue not quite as simple many of Schekman’s critics would have it, nor, to be fair, as Schekman laid it out in his brief piece in the Guardian.

Too few commenters — with a few notable exceptions such as Michael Eisen — have been willing to see Schekman’s announcement for what it is: a brilliantly orchestrated publicity stunt, timed for the week of his Nobel award when the full glare of the world’s media would be upon him. Nor have they been willing to give Schekman much credit for having thought the issue through beforehand. This isn’t the first time he has written about the problems due to journal prestige; and he has been putting his money where his mouth is, both by committing time to eLife (which, despite aspiring to be a top tier journal, has a declared policy of not promoting the impact factor metric) and by being an early signatory of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which is aiming to neutralise the poisonous effect of impact factors on science and scientific careers.

Instead there has been the repeated assertion that it’s easy for a Nobelist to disregard the top tier journals. But if it’s so easy, why is Schekman the first to make such a stand? My guess is he anticipated all the brickbats that have been flung his way in the past week but had the nerve to go ahead anyway.

Nevertheless, he could do more and I expect that Schekman himself sees his recent declaration as simply a milestone on what has to be a long journey, given the abiding nature of the problem (which I have discussed in more detail elsewhere) .

He could certainly have written a much better article than the one that was published in the Guardian, so I hope he will take time to respond to critics and to lay out his argument more carefully. In particular, I would like to know how he talked through the move with his group and how he aims to mitigate the risks to their careers?

Philip Campbell, Editor of Nature issued a dignified response to the boycott announcement, pointing out his journal’s long-standing relationship with the scientific community and, rightly, that the obsession with luxury journals is largely a problem created and sustained by that community. Campbell was also correct to remind people that Nature has done a good job of drawing attention to the issue of impact factors in its editorials and reporting.

But I think journals such as Nature can do more. It is not sufficient to lay the problem at the feet of the research community when journals are part of that community. Or to shrug off advertisements of their impact factors when pitching for authors or readers as the work of the marketing department. I would like to see ‘luxury’ journals take a leaf out of another Nature-branded title, Nature Materials, which has in the past revealed the detail of the citation data behind the single-figure averages that are trumpeted each year when the new impact factors are published by Thomson-Reuters. That practice should become standard as it would help to demystify the allure of this quality proxy.

I would also like to understand the reasons why Nature, unlike Schekman, has not signed up to DORA, which represents a serious and determined move to bring in the culture change that Nature says it supports. Campbell has only said of DORA that “the draft statement contained many specific elements, some of which were too sweeping for me or my colleagues to sign up to”. It would be helpful to know more about Nature’s objections, to explore ways around them.

Of course, ultimately, it is the research community that has to act. Schekman has made a bold manoeuvre that has stirred up the issue afresh, and for that I tip my hat to him. But I hope he’s not now done with this.

 

 

The Conversation

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