Dec 172013
 

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BLUNT criticism is an essential part of science, for it is how bad ideas are winnowed from good ones.

So when Randy Schekman, one of the 2013 crop of Nobel prize-winners (for physiology or medicine, in his case), decided to criticise the way scientific journals are run, he did not hold back.

Dr Schekman chose the week of the prizegiving (the medals and cheques were handed over on December 10th) to announce that the laboratory he runs at the University of California, Berkeley, will boycott what he describes as “luxury journals”. By that he meant those commonly regarded as the most prestigious, such as Cell, Nature and Science.

He levels two charges against such journals. The first is that, aware of their pre-eminence and keen to protect it, they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept—acting, as he put it in an interview with the Guardian, a British newspaper, like “fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits…know[ing] scarcity stokes demand”. Their behaviour, he says, is more conducive to the selling of subscriptions than the publishing of the best research.

Second, he argues that science as a whole is being distorted by perverse incentives, especially the tyranny of the “impact factor”, a number that purports to measure how important a given journal is. Researchers who publish in journals with a high impact factor—like the three named above—can expect promotion, pay rises and professional accolades. Those that do not can expect obscurity or even the sack, a Darwinian system known among academics as “publish or perish”.

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