“Scientists distort the publication process, not editors”


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.

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  1. I don’t think either side can claim innocence in creating the status quo. The community and the editors both had a hand in creating this system of distorted incentives. But rather than shift the finger of blame back and forth between the community and editors, it would be much more fruitful to work towards a solution. I’m unsure if open access will provide the key to a fair, effective and sustainable publishing process but I think it’s definitely worth pursuing as an alternative to the status quo.

    • Brian Hughes

      I agree that neither the status quo or current open access approach seems ideal. In my opinion, the most difficult sticking point will be cost of production. How can you guarantee a quality peer-review system that somehow pays for itself? The status quo involves the (semi-invisible) influence of profit-making global publishing corporations, while the current open access approach shifts the (not insignificant) publishing costs to frontline reseachers, while sending out mixed messages about acceptance rates vs. quality control.

      I also agree that neither editors/publishers nor community can claim innocence in creating the status quo. The scientific community were quite happy for decades to be publishing in non-open access journals.

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