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Sign of the Times: Nobel Prize-Winning Biologist Refuses to Submit Papers to Top-Tier "Luxury" Science Journals

Schekman_8_February_2012.jpgOccasionally at Discovery Institute we get an e-mail from some disgruntled Darwin advocate or other that taunts us by brandishing the names of luxury science journals, saying things like: "Until ID publishes in Science or Nature, I won't take it seriously." There's usually some reference to the Flying Spaghetti Monster thrown in there as well. My reply is, Since when does a concept have to be published in Science or Nature in order to be scientifically valid? And can't top-tier journals have their own agendas that can prevent them from publishing scientifically credible viewpoints that strongly challenge the status quo?

Well, some very prominent people apparently have similar feelings. In an op-ed in the Guardian, "How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science," the 2013 Nobel Prize-winning biologist Randy Schekman announces that he will no longer submit papers to "luxury" science journals because they corrupt the publication process:

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.

These luxury journals are supposed to be the epitome of quality, publishing only the best research. Because funding and appointment panels often use place of publication as a proxy for quality of science, appearing in these titles often leads to grants and professorships. But the big journals' reputations are only partly warranted. While they publish many outstanding papers, they do not publish only outstanding papers. Neither are they the only publishers of outstanding research.

These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research. Like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits, they know scarcity stokes demand, so they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept. The exclusive brands are then marketed with a gimmick called "impact factor" -- a score for each journal, measuring the number of times its papers are cited by subsequent research. Better papers, the theory goes, are cited more often, so better journals boast higher scores. Yet it is a deeply flawed measure, pursuing which has become an end in itself -- and is as damaging to science as the bonus culture is to banking.

It is common, and encouraged by many journals, for research to be judged by the impact factor of the journal that publishes it. But as a journal's score is an average, it says little about the quality of any individual piece of research. What is more, citation is sometimes, but not always, linked to quality. A paper can become highly cited because it is good science -- or because it is eye-catching, provocative or wrong. Luxury-journal editors know this, so they accept papers that will make waves because they explore sexy subjects or make challenging claims. This influences the science that scientists do. It builds bubbles in fashionable fields where researchers can make the bold claims these journals want, while discouraging other important work, such as replication studies.

In his view, the "lure of the luxury journal can encourage the cutting of corners, and contribute to the escalating number of papers that are retracted as flawed or fraudulent." If a Nobel Prize-winning scientist won't submit papers to Science or Nature because he feels those journals are "distorting" the peer-review process by encouraging "flawed or fraudulent" publications, then I'm pretty sure your ideas don't necessarily have to be published in those "luxury journals" in order to be scientifically valid.

But Schekman in by no means the first to point out that important scientific work is not always recognized by top journals. Just this year, here on ENV we've discussed the rejection of impact factors here, here, and here, as well as criticisms of citation counts. Indeed, even top journals admit problems with the peer-review system. As a 2001 article in Science observed: "Mention 'peer review' and almost every scientist will regale you with stories about referees submitting nasty comments, sitting on a manuscript forever, or rejecting a paper only to repeat the study and steal the glory." Similarly, an article in the journal Science Communication by Juan Miguel Campanario notes that top journals such as "Science and Nature have also sometimes rejected significant papers," and in fact "Nature has even rejected work that eventually earned the Nobel Prize." In an amusing letter titled "Not in our Nature," Campanario reminds the journal of four instances in which it rejected significant papers:

(1) In 1981, Nature rejected a paper by the British biochemist Robert H. Michell on signalling reaction by hormones. This paper has since been cited more than 1,800 times.

(2) In June 1937, Nature rejected Hans Krebs's letter describing the citric acid cycle. Krebs won the 953 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for this discovery.

(3) Nature initially rejected a paper on work for which Harmut Michel won the 1988 Nobel prize for chemistry; it has been identified by the Institute of Scientific Information as a core document and widely cited.

(4) A paper by Michael J. Berridge, rejected in 1983 by Nature, ranks at number 275 in a list of the most-cited papers of all time. It has been cited more than 1,900 times.

Elsewhere, Campanario lists "instances in which 36 future Nobel Laureates encountered resistance on the part of scientific journal editors or referees to manuscripts that dealt with discoveries that on later dates would assure them the Nobel Prize." Likewise, Tulane University physicist Frank Tipler offers the following anecdotes:
• "Another example is Günter Blobel, who in a news conference given just after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, said that the main problem one encounters in one's research is 'when your grants and papers are rejected because some stupid reviewer rejected them for dogmatic adherence to old ideas.' According to the New York Times, these comments 'drew thunderous applause from the hundreds of sympathetic colleagues and younger scientists in the auditorium.'"

• "[W]hen [Stephen] Hawking submitted to Nature what is generally regarded as his most important paper, the paper on black hole evaporation, the paper was initially rejected. I have heard from colleagues who must remain nameless that when Hawking submitted to Physical Review what I personally regard as his most important paper, his paper showing that a most fundamental law of physics called 'unitarity' would be violated in black hole evaporation, it, too, was initially rejected."

• "Today it is known that the Hawaiian Islands were formed sequentially as the Pacific plate moved over a hot spot deep inside the Earth. The theory was first developed in the paper by an eminent Princeton geophysicist, Tuzo Wilson: 'I ... sent [my paper] to the Journal of Geophysical Research. They turned it down.... They said my paper had no mathematics in it, no new data, and that it didn't agree with the current views. Therefore, it must be no good.'"

• "On the Nobel Prize web page one can read the autobiographies of recent laureates. Quite a few complain that they had great difficulty publishing the ideas that won them the Prize."

Schekman's op-ed in the Guardian offers the following solution to the problem it identifies: "There is a better way, through the new breed of open-access journals that are free for anybody to read, and have no expensive subscriptions to promote. Born on the web, they can accept all papers that meet quality standards, with no artificial caps. Many are edited by working scientists, who can assess the worth of papers without regard for citations. As I know from my editorship of eLife, an open access journal funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society, they are publishing world-class science every week."

I think what Dr. Schekman wrote tells you a lot about why open-access, web-based journals like BIO-Complexity -- that aren't necessarily committed to the status quo but nonetheless have world-class scientists on their editorial boards and require rigorous peer-review -- are vital to the future of biology research.

Image: Randy Schekman/Wikipedia.