As reported before, the angst regarding traditional scientific journals rumbles on. Previously, the growth of ‘Open Access’ was greeted with much fanfare as representing a David-style stone lob by researchers (and their public funders) in the direction of the Goliath-style mega-industry that is scientific journal publication (and their private beneficiaries). More notable, as recently as December, Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman, of the University of California at Berkeley, declared that he would immediately cease sending papers to traditionally elite journals such as Nature, Science, and Cell, and instead devote his attention to their Open Access counterparts.
(In passing, we might note that he simultaneously gave airtime to the journal the he, himself, edits. Not free publicity, or anything, you know. Perish the thought. It was clearly an essentially relevant point for him to make.)
Now former Nature editor Phil Ball has written a stinging riposte, debunking some of the arguments presented by Schekman (and other like-minded commentators). Ball points out a number of ways in which traditional (“luxury”) journals are actually innocent of many of Schekman’s charges, and how the scientific community at large are responsible for many of the publication-distorting problems that they are now so vocal in complaining about:
It’s the scientists and their institutions that dote on [impact factors], not the journals (although the editors could undoubtedly do more to quell the baser impulses of their marketing departments).
And therein lies the root of the problem with Schekman’s outburst. He has identified a real problem, and hopefully he will stimulate an overdue debate about it. But by presenting it as a poor, innocent scientific community being abused by tyrannical editors—comparable to the way citizens are at the mercy of a corrupt and rapacious financial system—he runs the risk of misdirecting the discussion from the outset. The distorted incentives, misplaced priorities, corner-cutting and jockeying for position are problems self-inflicted by the scientific community. If Nature, Science and Cell are becoming monsters, it’s the scientists who have created them. They have no moral high ground from which to preach.
See what you make of it yourself, here.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.