How to break free from the stifling grip of luxury journals

Dec 23, 2013 by Randy Schekman, The Conversation
Science needs a revolution: it’s time to rise and act. Credit: Eric Risberg/AP

Last week was the most memorable week of my scientific career. Accompanied by family, friends and colleagues, I was honoured with the award of a Nobel Prize in an unforgettable ceremony and banquet. That same week, I also chose to express highly critical views about deficiencies I perceive in the system scientists use for publishing and rewarding scientific research, for which I was both attacked and praised.

My remarks focused on the power of certain journals, which I refer to as luxury journals, that have distorted how science and scientists operate.

I was not surprised by the range of opinions my comments provoked, but I have been impressed by their quantity. The evidence that the scientific community wants and needs this discussion could not be stronger. I write this to respond to some of the criticisms, to expand on some points I made, and to suggest some next steps.

It is understandable that some see hypocrisy in my criticism of a system that has served my own career well. I have published extensively in Nature, Cell and Science. I have now, of course, won the Nobel Prize. It is therefore easy, some have said, for me to voice my concerns. But that, in some ways, is exactly the point. I am saying what many others believe but feel they cannot say, because they fear their careers might be damaged.

Yet others have spoken out. I recognise that I am not the only person to criticise luxury journals and an academic reward system that relies too much on them. I applaud those who reached this view long before me. I accept that I could have spoken out earlier in my career, but the Nobel Prize has afforded me a platform from which to speak loudly. The charge of hypocrisy would be fair were I still submitting my own research work to luxury journals. I see none in speaking out, while doing as I say.

It has also been pointed out that I have a conflict of interest. I have edited a major subscription journal (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS), and now edit an open access one (eLife), both of which compete with the luxury journals in different ways. But I have long held a negative view of the role of impact factors, an imperfect measure of the importance of a journal and its content, and shared my views with the staff and editorial board members who served with me during my term as editor-in-chief of PNAS. The problems with the scientific rewards system extend beyond the competition among the journals.

I have also been clear as to the extent of this conflict. As was declared in the Guardian article, I am leading a challenge to the luxury journals as editor-in-chief of eLife. I am doing this work because I believe that journals need to be radically improved and we have the means to achieve this. Though I draw an employee's salary, I have no wider financial stake in eLife's success, and I have always been entirely open about my role. I believe my argument would be weaker if I were not also attempting to change the system in some ways.

I understand, too, concerns that my stance will have career implications for junior colleagues in my lab. I shared these concerns, which is why I discussed the issue with them more than two years ago, when I took on the editorship of eLife. My colleagues agreed then, as they do now, that we should be challenging the big journals, and that papers we would once have submitted to Science, Cell and Nature should go elsewhere.

I am deeply committed to developing the careers of younger scientists I work with – that, indeed, is a major motivation for my argument. I do not want them to have to play a system where the artificial scarcity of prestige publications makes recognition and advancement such a lottery. It is gratifying that several of my lab colleagues have publicly supported me.

My purpose in avoiding luxury journals, other than being seen to walk the walk, is not necessarily to prompt others to do the same. Rather it is to prompt reflection among researchers, institutions and funders, who are in a position to limit the poor incentives that the reliance on luxury journals has created. I want scientists and administrators, especially those involved in funding, promotion, recruitment and tenure, to think hard about the influence that publishing decisions and research assessments have. That is the way we will drive change.

One of the most important changes we need is for journals to exploit the advantages of publishing online rather than in print. Too many journals remain wedded to print, artificially limiting the number of papers they accept. This made sense when journals were constrained by page counts, but makes much less in a digital world. It makes journals more selective than they need to be, driving extreme competition for space that is good for subscription businesses but bad for science.

Intense competition for space in key journals means that the editorial process often involves multiple rounds of revision, review and resubmission, causing long delays in publication. Additional experimental data and information are often demanded by reviewers who might later, as authors, be competing for space in the same journals. Much of this data is then relegated to supplementary appendices. The experience can be highly dispiriting for researchers.

I see a solution in open-access journals. They generally cover their costs upfront, for example using a business model whereby a fee is levied for publication. This model is more suited to the digital medium: all the work that meets the editorial criteria for the journal can be published, and it can be made freely available to everyone. As high quality science grows, so can the number of articles published. This, more than anything, is what makes eLife not like the luxury journals: it is selective, but will publish everything that meets the editors' standards. There is no picking and choosing to meet a quota. It also tries to address some of the other issues listed above, for example using a much more efficient editorial process. And when eLife receives an impact factor, it will not be promoted.

Journals, however, are only one half of this equation. We also need to address the demand for luxury journals, from researchers themselves and from the institutions that use them to judge scientific quality. We need to discuss what researchers, universities and funders can do to remove the incentives that make it rational to publish under the biggest brands. I would like to suggest four places to start.

Academics who serve a role in research assessment could shun all use of journal names and impact factors as a surrogate measure of quality. New practices and processes must be devised and shared so that we can rapidly move forward. My Berkeley colleague Michael Eisen has added an important point: we must speak up in appointment and funding committees when we hear others use journal names this way. Here we need peer pressure as much as we need peer review.

  1. Researchers applying for positions, funding and tenure should avoid any mention of impact factors in their applications or CVs. Article metrics might have a role to play, but narrative explanations of research significance and accomplishments would be more helpful.
  2. Funders, universities and other institutions should make it clear to their review committees that journal brand cannot be used as a proxy for scientific quality. If reviewers object, they should find different reviewers.
  3. Many of us serve as editors or editorial board members of journals – and we could insist that the publishers of these journals stop promoting impact factors. Instead, the journals could emphasise the other valuable services they provide to authors and readers to promote their worth to the community.

No doubt others will come up with bigger and better ideas to move us away from the problems that we currently face. If I have helped to spark a discussion, I'm delighted. Now we have to turn our attention to action.

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3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 23, 2013
A few salient points.
The contagion is worse than suggested. I have tried placing a number of items, from a previously unknown connection between primes and pi to an elementary derivation of Stirling's Formula in journals. I don't even receive a reply verifying they received the material. The proof of my statements was presented, but they operate only by who your big money and position friends are. But, then, I can't even get publications from "Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine" and "Ellery Queen" to "Analog" and "Fantasy & Science Fiction" to even acknowledge that I sent items in. The most I get is a form letter saying they "lost interest after the first page". I tried placing articles at the Times Union of Albany newspaper, which asks for articles, such as one decrying those who answer comments "tl;dr", as if not reading something based only on its length is a badge of honor, but they sent form emails saying the material was not suitable for them.
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 23, 2013
But, overall, isn't every aspect of "science" supposed to be perfect and every "scientists" dedicated only to the truth? How could this happen in a field so purportedly pure?
And, beware. The New World Order has succeeded by, among other things, being surreptitiously on both sides of an issue. But it's easier for them to control an issue if they have limited people involved. They always promote a single person to be the spearhead, the "leading light", but to promote the NWO's interests behind the scenes. Beware of Schekman being anything more than a diverting quisling acting to continue the situation but pretending not to.
Dec 23, 2013
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3 / 5 (6) Dec 23, 2013
In other words, commenting only out of their hatred for me, Zephir_fan is saying that lamenting the fact that some people see it as honorable not to read something necessarily only because of its length is not suitable for a newspaper. The tendency to judge the value of something only by the dimwitteds' compass is characteristic of the failure that American "education" has become and a characteristic of the nation of sheep that so many are turning into. And, denouncing someone only out of hate, not out of judging their words displays much of the sentiment that seems to motivate so many Americans today.
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 23, 2013
Easier to believe that the entire world is against you, personally, than to believe you just may be a crackpot I guess.
Dec 23, 2013
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4 / 5 (4) Dec 24, 2013
Zephir_Fan why do you follow people around on this site and why do you call all of them Skippy?
Dec 24, 2013
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
no fate
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 24, 2013
Zephir_Fan why do you follow people around on this site and why do you call all of them Skippy?

When someone is born with inadequate resources mentally and physically, they derive joy from anonymously berating those they feel inferior to.

This is his way of sucking his thumb to feel better...although I am sure that actually happens alot as well. He is a typical troll as most of his remarks are actually a plea for someone to engage him so he can abate his intense feelings of lonliness and disconnection...remember the kid in class too stupid to learn but still eager to be heard, who just wound up pissing off the teacher and the other kids who were actually capable of learning?

Meet Zephir-fan...the biggest skippy on this site.

Dec 24, 2013
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no fate
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 24, 2013
It's a good thing you have that computer screen to sit behind, that's the only thing saving you from getting slapped silly. Now why don't you go over there and sit in the corner until you learn how to control yourself Skippy?

"When someone is born with inadequate resources mentally and physically, they derive joy from anonymously berating those they feel inferior to."

You didn't have to rush to verify my assessment...but thanks.
Perhaps the google can help you locate some good karma IQ're lacking.

Dec 24, 2013
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1 / 5 (2) Dec 24, 2013
"I see a solution in open-access journals. They generally cover their costs upfront, for example using a business model whereby a fee is levied for publication."

I don't see how this format would avoid the money trap. Luxury journals became so because it was profitable--right? Or rather, that was a major factor, at the very least. What would protect 'open-access' journals from eventually yielding to the same siren song? It seems to me that the only real solution is to increase demand for publication, and that would be linked to increased demand for the goods and services that scientific inquiry supports. There is only one area of growth at the moment, in health care. Not in metals, not in plastics, not in production needing chemical innovations. Demand is down across the board. So the question is (and not just in the field of scientific inquiry), how? How?

I would like to offer one solution: focus on population growth. Foster family growth. Never sterile sexuality. Growth follows.
Dec 24, 2013
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no fate
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 24, 2013
What's this Skippy? Are you stalking me?

Just for awhile. You can be entertaining but your shtick gets old fast. I saw you suck up to someone in a thread who had made a somewhat valid point that you agreed with, I think he patted you on the head you rolled over or something like that...maybe work on playing dead and see if you can master that one for a treat....Skippy
Dec 24, 2013
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Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (4) Dec 25, 2013
Julian - You jokester, you! Everyone knows it's not an unknown connection between primes and pi - it's between primes and PHI! (which would allow for a much shorter article!)

Shavera - I prefer the crackpot label as it shields my REAL agenda from public view...

Zeph-fan - Skippy. As I've commented in another post, I know YOU'RE real agenda...

Q-star - Thanks for the c(L)ue...

Albert Einstein - Now THAT was funny! Thanks for the light!
3 / 5 (2) Dec 29, 2013
Now if it's alright with you Skippy, I'll get back to reading my luxury journals, please don't interrupt me again.

This is all you have, isn't it.
Dec 29, 2013
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Old Guy in Stanton
3 / 5 (2) Dec 30, 2013
Huns >>>>"Zephir_Fan why do you follow people around on this site and why do you call all of them Skippy?"

LOL. He's either a Troll of a very cleverly programmed Chinese Room.

"Skippy" is a diminutive, and is the reason I think that he may be just a Troll, and not a Chinese Room app (which would be ever so much more interesting). Trolls use diminutives in an attempt to make others think less of themselves, so the Trolls can feel better about themselves. It's all quite "Elsworth Toohey-like" like and somewhat creepy and grotesque. A little Google research finds some info on him:

Now julianpenrod is another thing altogether. Google finds lots of hits on that name.
Old Guy in Stanton
1 / 5 (1) Dec 30, 2013
"It's a good thing you have that computer screen to sit behind, that's the only thing saving you from getting slapped silly. Now why don't you go over there and sit in the corner until you learn how to control yourself Skippy?"

Wait, so now you're an ITG, also? LOL!
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (1) Dec 30, 2013
@Old Guy in Stanton
A little Google research finds some info on him:

i doubt seriously that Zephir_fan is Zeph himself. for several reasons.
Zephir_fan has a completely different syntax, and has much better grammar, for starters...
Zephir_fan has yet to post the AWT to any cosmological/physics post that i have seen. please correct me if i am wrong.
he is also not as fanatical about certain things(like AWT). in fact, i believe he is more intelligent than Zeph as Z does not like to have evidence that contradicts AWT, and can be strange when it does, whereas Zephir_fan actually googles things and adjusts his comments in light of new evidence (not something i ever saw Z do)
he is also funnier than Zeph. Z had no sense of humour.

just my opinion, really. take it or leave it.

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