An Alternative to Schekman’s Boycott of Luxury Journals

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 While they publish many outstanding papers, they do not publish only outstanding papers.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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17 Comments

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17 responses to “An Alternative to Schekman’s Boycott of Luxury Journals

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  2. Well, Rich, I have done my best to avoid luxury universities. I only failed once! Seriously, your point is solid: people, not pedigrees, should count. And with journals, the tail should not wag the dog. Great essay, sure to raise some serious controversy.

  3. Don Strong

    Berkeley has educated orders of magnitude more great students than Caltech and Harvard, on about the same budget. Berkeley is blue collar.

    • Don, I respectfully disagree. Take a drive over to Cal State East Bay, and you’ll see serious blue collar. From my vantage point at CSU Dominguez Hills, all of the UCs (save Merced) and Caltech are members of roughly the same class.

  4. Lenski’s piece brings new light Schekman’s argument: whether it is luxury journals or luxury schools, science funding increasingly relies on “luxuriousness” rather than on reproducibility of research. Flashy trumps truthful.

    • Kim Gilbert

      I think this is a great point. A boycott of either type is meant to draw attention to the fact that there are flaws in our publishing and assessment mentalities. I think highlighting this, whichever way one may decide to do so, is a step in the right direction for future research and researchers.

  5. Interesting analogy. Just to play devil’s advocate I would ask if the scarcity at luxury universities is also artificially created. To me that seems to be the crux of the matter here.

  6. Marjorie Spencer

    Bravo Rich. May I also observe that the luxury universities (real and would-be) pressure students and staff to publish in luxury journals?

  7. Isn’t this just a case of “the rich getting richer”? Why should science (or science publishing, or academic affiliation) be any different?

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  11. brembs

    Indeed, this is a great analogy (easy to say, I’ve made it myself as well: http://blogarchive.brembs.net/comment-n879.html 🙂

    The question with such hierarchies must always be: is there any evidence to justify the rankings? I don’t have the evidence for university rankings at hand, but we’ve collected the evidence for journal rank:
    http://www.frontiersin.org/Human_Neuroscience/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00291/full
    As you can see, there is little to nothing that one could use to rationally justify the standing of C, N or S. It appears that while indeed some of the very top papers are published there, the overwhelming majority of CNS papers are average or below, such that the grand average turns out to be just that: average. A less conservative interpretation actually puts CNS towards the bottom of the rank, as the reliability of papers published there is actually much lower than papers published elsewhere.

    Thus, if you follow the data, CNS are nowhere near any ‘top’.anyway.

    • Thanks for the link. Congrats on the great and timely paper! Particularly revealing is the fact “journal rank is a poor predictor of statistical soundness.” Funding agencies need to wake up and stop rewarding unreproducible but flashy science.

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