The impact of Randy Schekman abandoning Science and Nature and Cell

Recipients of this year’s Nobel Prizes converge this week on Stockholm to receive their medals, dine with the King and Queen, and be treated like the scientific royalty they have become. For most this time is, understandably, about them and their work. So, bravo to my Berkeley colleague Randy Schekman – one of this year’s recipients of the prize in Physiology/Medicine – for using the spotlight to cast a critical eye at the system that brought him to this exalted level.

In a column in The Guardian, Randy writes:

I am a scientist. Mine is a professional world that achieves great things for humanity. But it is disfigured by inappropriate incentives […] We all know what distorting incentives have done to finance and banking. The incentives my colleagues face are not huge bonuses, but the professional rewards that accompany publication in prestigious journals – chiefly NatureCell and Science.

He goes on to make his case for why these high-impact subscription journals are so toxic, and finishes with a pledge:

Like many successful researchers, I have published in the big brands, including the papers that won me the Nobel prize for medicine, which I will be honoured to collect tomorrow. But no longer. I have now committed my lab to avoiding luxury journals, and I encourage others to do likewise.

I gave up publishing in Science, Nature, Cell and all other subscription-based journals when I started as a junior faculty at Berkeley in 2000, and having devoted immense amounts of time and energy over the ensuing 13 years to convincing other scientists to do the same. I co-founded a publisher – PLOS – whose raison d’etre was to provide authors with an alternative to the big-name subscription publishers Randy so rightly takes to task.

Yet despite great success – my career has flourished without publications in the “big three”, and PLOS is now a major player in the publishing work – it is a measure of just how far we have to go – just how powerful the incentives to publish in “high impact” journals are – that Randy’s announcement is big news.

I hope that Randy will serve as inspiration – an example for others to follow. But, sadly, I suspect the will not. Lots of people have already dismissed his shift as the easy action of someone who had already “got his”. And of course they’re right. Even before his Nobel Prize, Randy was a science superstar whose papers would have been read even if he had done nothing more than tape printed copies to the bulletin board outside of his office. His students and postdocs don’t need a Science, Nature or Cell paper to get taken seriously – they only need a good letter from their now Nobel Laureate advisor.

I know that most people will dismiss Randy’s example, because they have done it to me. Even though I gave up subscription journals at the beginning of my independent career – before I had students, grants or tenure – most people I talk to say “Good for you. But you were trained in high-profile labs, you had Science and Nature papers as a postdoc, and you were already well known. You could get away with it. I can’t.” It’s all true. I understand why – especially in this horrible funding climate – people are unwilling to shun a game that they may despise, but which almost everybody tells them they have to play to survive. And since everything that is true about me is 100 times more true about Randy, his followers are likely to come primarily from the far upper tier of scientists.

This is sad. Because we need to listen to him. Indeed we need to take him one step further. While I admire everything eLife is doing to make the process of peer review saner, they still reject a lot of good papers that don’t meet the reviewers’ and editors’ standards of significance. As I’ve written elsewhere [1][2], we need to dispense entirely with journals and with the idea that a few reviewers – no matter how wise – can decide how significant a work is at the time. But whether you support Randy’s vision of sane pre-publication peer review, or my vision of a journal free world built around post-publication review, we have the same problem – we need more than a handful Nobel Prize winners and true believers to abandon the current system. So what’s it going to take?

Fifteen years ago, when I first became involved in reforming science publishing, the big problem was there were no alternatives. Now there are plenty – there’s eLife, PLOS, BMC and many others who are attacking various pathologies in science publishing. But still SNC maintain their allure. And they will continue to do so until people no longer believe they are the ticket to success. It’s a nasty, self-fulfilling prophesy. Most biomedical scientists send their best work to SNC, and so there’s a correlation between who gets jobs/grants/tenure and publishing in SNC, and so the next generation thinks they have to publish in SNC to get jobs/grants/tenure and on and on and on.

We could all just choose to stop. Start sending your best work to eLife instead. Or just do what we should all do and send ALL of our work to PLOS ONE, BMC and other journals that don’t consider significance in the publishing decision. We SHOULD do that. But, listening to people out there, I don’t think most scientists are ready to.

I think a better place to work is on hiring, grants and tenure. If we all commit to NEVER looking at the journal in which a paper appeared when we’re evaluating someone, and if we speak up when anyone else does it. If we really endeavor to judge people solely by the contents of their manuscripts word will slowly get out, and people will stop thinking it’s worth it to go through the slog of review at SNC. They’ll stop spending months doing pointless experiments that will make their work “sexier” to editors and reviewers.

And maybe we’ll start seeing Nobel Prize winners whose work was never published in Science, Nature or Cell – and nobody will even notice.

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