Boycotting Nature for Better Science

(December 12th, 2013) The recently published article by Nobelist Randy Schekman caused quite a stir in the science community. What’s behind his accusations? A commentary from Leonid Schneider.

This year’s Nobel Prize winner, Randy Schekman, a US biologist, recently wrote a very thought-provoking article in the British newspaper The Guardian entitled: “How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science”. The subtitle reads: “The incentives offered by top journals distort science, just as big bonuses distort banking”. This is a huge accusation. It comes right after the announcement by this year’s Nobel winner, Peter Higgs, who stated in The Guardian that no one would ever employ him as scientist these days due to his meagre publication record.
What is going on? Is The Guardian spearheading a conspiracy of mentally deranged, elderly scientists against common sense and high-profile research? Other eminent researchers have criticised Nature, Cell and Science and the likes before, however, usually about certain aspects, like biased referee selection by editors, and rarely about the whole business concept of these journals. Randy Shekman’s main thesis in his Guardian commentary is this: big journals are businesses with the aim to earn money by selling subscriptions. As business model, the journals offer their career-boosting, enormous impact factors as incentives to scientists, who are thus encouraged to produce attention-catching papers of stunning discoveries, amazing breakthroughs and mind-bogglingly novel concepts. Yet, according to Randy Shekman, the research work behind these “sexy” papers, more often than not, does not warrant their bold claims or is plainly wrong.

I think that, just as with his other claims, Randy Shekman has a very strong point here. Many papers, in any journal, aim for sensational claims, which they often can hardly support if one cared to look closer. Still, most top-tier publications present a vast body of experimental work, largely rather reliable and reproducible. However, their “sexy” interpretations, which, in the end, are the selling points, are often the problem. For example, over the past decades many papers have claimed to have uncovered the unique approach to curing cancer, yet more and more serious scientists agree that cancer biology is much more complicated than any paper in Cancer Cell may suggest. Unfortunately, one can safely assume that the top-tier journal editors, who are not scientists themselves, will be less impressed with the amount, quality and multi-directionality of research work, if no simple and exciting message is provided, ready to hit the news throughout the world. What Randy Shekman most likely means is: those who publish at the Olympic impact factor are not necessarily the best scientists. They are good storytellers and salesmen and know what the market asks for and how to provide exactly what is needed to make the eyes of the editors at Science, Nature and Cell shine with excitement.

Some claims in the top-tier publications are so incredible and revolutionary that all biology books should be burned at stake. Yet this does not happen, so I assume the serious scientific community generally agrees to ignore the fancy bits and looks for solid, more “pedestrian” science in the papers. Moreover, Randy Shekman points out that many papers, which made big waves through international press coverage had to be retracted later, mostly due to scientific misconduct. Others were proven by the scientific community to be mere misinterpretations of artefacts, yet never retracted. Randy Shekman believes that these papers which should have been retracted, but weren’t, are the bigger problem, because they keep muddling the worldwide research and promote careers of dishonest or incompetent researchers. Interestingly, just as any industry, the three big journals are less keen to admit any cases where they failed to provide high-quality goods and they do their best to avoid retracting papers, as Lab Times has recently reported in case of Cell (LT 07-2013). Besides protecting the infallible elitist facade of these journals, even a proven faulty or fraudulent paper will get cited a lot - just because it was published under such high impact factor, which it thus will help boosting. A retracted paper is, however, a blow to the journal’s reputation and an economic loss, impact factor-wise.

Of course, Nature, Cell and Science defended their publishing policies with standard phrases. They claimed to have the best possible editorial system and to publish only the best quality research available. No self-criticism or promise of being more rigorous in their investigations regarding the validity of claims, data quality or reliability. Why? The hand-in-hand of editors and successful scientists churning out one sensationalist paper after another works out economically pretty well - for those involved. Interestingly, Randy Shekman draws a comparison with investment bankers’ boni, which made them forget any economical common sense for pursuing profits. I wonder if, similarly to the financial economy, which was based on false assumptions or lies, there will be a collapse of scientific research next.

Randy Shekman’s stance is now widely criticised as he himself earned his Nobel Prize through publishing in these very journals - a criticism he accepts. Yet, when similar opinions against the big journals’ publishing policies are expressed by less successful scientists (or ex-scientists), they are readily dismissed and ridiculed as pathetic jealousy by those who made their scientific career by publishing in Nature, Science and Cell. The common argument, which probably many of us get to hear, is: “You were just not good enough a scientist to publish there, so stop envying the success of those, who are smarter and more hardworking than you.” Be it as it is, even those successful scientists are surely envious of Randy Shekman’s Nobel Prize, which hopefully would make them seriously ponder on what is going on in the publishing business.

In the end, Randy Shekman advices scientists not to go for Cell, Nature and Science, when publishing their data, but for open-access journals like his journal eLife, because these have no subscriptions to sell. And for those on decision panels, he asks to judge the published research itself, and not its impact factor, before making faculty appointments and approving grants. I think it is rather idealistic to hope for such changes, but I would love to be wrong here, also for personal reasons. Meanwhile, scientists should start with themselves by abolishing the tiresome concept of novelty which was used to kill so many high quality publications at peer-review, while forcing others to make unsubstantiated claims. If scientists would agree to judge any publication by its research quality and originality alone, rather than novelty of findings, even Nature, Cell and Science would have to follow their customers’ demand.

Leonid Schneider

Photo: Howard Hughes Medical Institute/ Hadar Goren

Last Changes: 01.28.2014