Recipients of this year’s Nobel Prizes converged on Stockholm yesterday to receive their medals, dine with the King and Queen, and be treated like the scientific royalty. For most this time is, understandably, about them and their work. So bravo to my University of California Berkeley colleague Randy Schekman – one of this year’s recipients of the prize in physiology or 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, Schekman 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 Nature, Cell 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 have devoted immense amounts of time and energy over the ensuing 13 years to convince other scientists to do the same. I co-founded an open-access publisher – Public Library of Science (PLOS) – whose raison d’etre was to provide authors with an alternative to the big-name subscription publishers Schekman so rightly takes to task.
My career has flourished without publications in the “big three”, and PLOS is now a major player in the publishing workld. But if Schekman’s announcement is big news, then it is a measure of just how far we have to go. The incentives to publish in “high impact” journals still remain powerful.
I hope that Schekman will serve as inspiration – an example for others to follow. But, sadly, I suspect that will not happen. The world of academic publishing is deeply tied to how science is done. Journals are awarded an “impact factor” based on how many other researchers cite their papers on average. Then career decisions – be it an application for a job or a grant – tend to be based on the impact factors of the journals researchers publish in, rather than on the quality of the science they do.
Many have dismissed Schekman’s boycott as the easy action of someone who has already “made it”. And of course they are right. Even before his Nobel Prize, Schekman was a science superstar whose papers would have been read if he had done nothing more than taped printed copies to the bulletin board outside his office. His students and postdocs don’t need a Science, Nature or Cell paper to be taken seriously – they only need a good letter from their Nobel Laureate adviser.
I know most people will dismiss Schekman’s example, because they have done it to me. Even though I gave up publishing 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 post-doctoral researcher, and you were already well known. You could get away with it. I can’t.”
I understand why – especially when the government is cutting science funding – people are unwilling to shun a game they may despise. Almost everybody tells them they have to play it to survive.
This is sad. Because we need to listen to Schekman. Indeed we need to go one step ahead. While I admire what the new journal eLife is doing, where Schekman is the editor, they still reject a lot of good papers that don’t meet the reviewers’ and editors’ standards of significance. This significance is determined by a scientist’s peers (in case of eLife) along with editors of journals (in case of Nature, Science, Cell and most other journals). But peer review isn’t devoid of problems. I believe that 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 Schekman’s vision of 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 to abandon the current system. So what is it going to take bring them on board?
The time is ripe
Fifteen years ago, when I first became involved in reforming science publishing, the big problem was that there were no alternatives. Now there are plenty – eLife, PLOS, BioMed Central (BMC) and many others – who are attacking various pathologies in science publishing. And yet Science, Nature and Cell maintain their allure. And they will continue to do so until people no longer believe they are the ticket to success.
It is a nasty, self-fulfilling prophecy. Most biomedical scientists still send their best work to the big three publishers, and so there is a correlation between who gets jobs, grants or tenure and publishing in those journals. This means the next generation thinks they have to publish in those journals to get what they want, and so the cycle continues.
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 do not consider “significance” as a factor in their publishing decisions. We should do that. But I don’t think most scientists are ready.
A better place to start this revolution is on the committees that make decisions to hire or give grants. We should commit never to look at the journal in which a paper appeared when we are evaluating someone, and we should speak up when anyone else does it. If we really endeavour to judge people solely by the contents of their manuscripts, word will slowly get out, and people will stop thinking they need slog through the slow process of review at the “luxury journals”. They will stop spending months doing pointless experiments that will make their work “sexier” to editors and reviewers.
And maybe then we will start seeing Nobel Prize winners whose work was never published in Science, Nature or Cell – and nobody will even notice.
Michael Eisen is co-founder of PLOS, an open-access publisher.