An Alternative to Schekman’s Boycott of Luxury Journals

Written by: Richard Lenski

Primary Source: Telliamed Revisited

In a provocative op-ed that appeared in The Guardian, Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman says that he and his scientific team will “avoid” luxury journals, and he “encourage[s] others to do likewise”.  In effect, Prof. Schekman is calling for scientists to boycott Science, Nature, and Cell, probably the three most prestigious scientific journals in the world.

Prof.  Schekman raises some important issues about scientific publishing—ones that are receiving more and more attention as scholars and publishers alike experiment with new modes and models for publishing.

But Prof. Schekman’s biggest concern seems to be with the problems that “luxury” journals (or ‘glam’ journals, as they’re called on Twitter) create in terms of excessive attention and inappropriate incentives.  These are important issues, too, but I think there are some flaws in his argument.

Prof. Schekman compares luxury journals and the problems they create with Wall Street’s out-sized bonuses and the problems they’ve caused for the financial system.  That certainly grabs attention.

Prof. Schekman is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the luxury universities.  Here’s the title and one key paragraph from his opinion piece:

“How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging 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 While they publish many outstanding papers, they do not publish only outstanding papers.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.”

Now let’s make a few small changes. I don’t think the words I’ve substituted are any less true than those that Prof. Schekman wrote.  I’ve changed only those words in italics:  

“How universities like Harvard, Caltech, and Berkeley are damaging science”

“These luxury universities are supposed to be the epitome of quality, training only the best students. Because funding and appointment panels often use place of degree as a proxy for quality of science, obtaining degrees from these institutions often leads to fellowships and professorships. But the big universities’ reputations are only partly warranted. While they produce many outstanding scientists, they do not produce only outstanding scientists. Neither are they the only producers of outstanding scientists.”

So, will Prof. Schekman and his group also avoid luxury universities, and will he encourage others to do the same?

[EDIT: ADDED 1:30 PM]  Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that these universities should be boycotted. Rather, I simply want to point out that there many dimension of “luxury” and “glamor” in science (as in life more generally), and these can distort attention and incentives.  I’m not convinced that boycotts are the best way to address the underlying issues with respect to either journals or universities.

[EDIT #2: ADDED 1:35 PM] Let me also say I think eLIfe is off to a great start, with some new ideas on how to improve scientific publication.  I wish Prof. Schekman and the journal every success.

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Richard Lenski
Dr. Lenski is an evolutionary biologist. He writes about evolutionary science – past, present, and future – and some of the goings-on in the life of a scientist.
Richard Lenski

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