Nobel laureate Schekman boycotts top-tier science journals

Randy Schekman, UC Berkeley's newest Nobel Laureate, speaks at a press conference Oct. 7.
Carli Baker/Senior Staff
Randy Schekman, UC Berkeley's newest Nobel Laureate, speaks at a press conference Oct. 7.

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In a move to break free from the tyranny of top-tier science journals, Nobel laureate Randy Schekman announced that his lab will be boycotting these publications.

In an op-ed to The Guardian on Monday, Schekman said his lab will no longer be sending papers to “luxury” journals  particularly Nature, Cell and Science  that he claims are creating incentives that negatively impact research. Schekman received his 2013 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

In the essay, Schekman, who teaches molecular and cell biology on campus, argued that the lure of publishing in these prestigious journals causes scientists to pursue “sexy” fields of research instead of other equally important work such as replicating studies.

Schekman explained that the pressure to publish from these sources encourages researchers to “cut corners” in their work, which increases the number of retracted or fraudulent papers.

“This influences the science that scientists do,” Schekman said. “It builds bubbles in fashionable fields where researchers can make the bold claims these journals want.”

Schekman also criticized a popular metric called the “impact factor”  a score measuring the number of times papers from a particular journal are cited in subsequent works  and said that journals such as Nature, Cell and Science needlessly limit the number of papers selected in order to inflate demand.

“A paper can become highly cited because it is good science  or because it is eye-catching, provocative or wrong,” Schekman said.

In order to increase their impact factor, journals also tend to publish more review articles rather than primary research papers, said Abby Dernburg, a UC Berkeley molecular and cell biology professor.

“It’s flawed in the sense that it can be manipulated,” she said.

Dernburg explained that journals usually limit the total number of references that can be included, and because review articles include summaries of several research papers, they are more convenient for researchers and thus disproportionately cited.

UC Berkeley molecular and cell biology professor David Drubin pointed out that the score is calculated by Thomson Reuters, a commercial company, and that the calculation process is nontransparent.

Drubin also said that editors working at these journals are not working scientists and are motivated by the desire to make their journals more prestigious rather than to promote the best science.

“The situation has gotten out of hand,” Drubin said. “There’s something broken in this system when we’ve handed over the control about what’s good (science) and what’s not to people who are not working scientists.”

According to Nature spokesperson Grace Baynes, however, Nature journal editors all have scientific backgrounds including postdoctoral degrees or faculty experience.

“They think and act like scientists,” Baynes said, explaining that the editors spend considerable time visiting labs, attending conferences and conversing with leading scientists.

In a statement, Nature’s Editor in Chief Philip Campbell also said the journal selects research based on scientific significance.

“That in turn may lead to citation impact and media coverage, but Nature editors are not driven by those considerations,” Campbell said.

Schekman is also Editor in Chief of eLife, an online and open-access journal with editors who are working scientists. Articles on eLife are free for anybody to read and are subjected to “no artificial caps,” he said.

Amita Gorur, a graduate student in Schekman’s lab, described open-access journals as good alternatives.

“I think it’s time to make a change,” she said. “Everybody has to change their way of thinking  it’s the quality of work that matters and not where you publish.”

Dernburg admitted that publication in these journals still has a large impact on whether scientists receive fellowships, jobs or faculty positions.

Still, Matt Shurtleff, another graduate student in Schekman’s lab, said he doesn’t have concerns about the boycott affecting his career negatively, given his position in Schekman’s lab, although he understands why others might.

“I would hope that I wouldn’t be subjected to a litmus test based on the words ‘Cell, Science and Nature’ on my CV,” he said. “I hope that they’ll have a look at what I’ve published and see if it is a good fit for the institution and how impactful it is.”

Contact Jessie Lau at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @jessielau93.