"[L]uxury journals are supposed to be the epitome of quality"
December 10, 2013 8:04 AM   Subscribe

Prestige scientific journals are bad for science, and we should avoid them. "Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of bonus culture, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals." So argues Nobel laureate Randy Schekman, urging scholars to shift their work to open source journals. posted by doctornemo (26 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Can we urge institutions to stop assessing academic staff performance on the current impact factor system, then? Because the urging of scholars to publish in open source journals won't mean much if they've all lost their joba.
posted by Jimbob at 8:08 AM on December 10, 2013 [16 favorites]

Jimbob raises a good point. Let's fix the systems of evaluation for hiring/promotion/etc. first and then change how scholarship works.
posted by clockzero at 8:32 AM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Funders and universities, too, have a role to play. They must tell the committees that decide on grants and positions not to judge papers by where they are published. It is the quality of the science, not the journal's brand, that matters. Most importantly of all, we scientists need to take action. Like many successful researchers, I have published in the big brands, including the papers that won me the Nobel prize for medicine, which I will be honoured to collect tomorrow.. But no longer. I have now committed my lab to avoiding luxury journals, and I encourage others to do likewise."
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:35 AM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

FWIW, the previous editor in chief of Science wrote an editorial opposing over-reliance on impact factors for decisions regarding tenure.
posted by kat518 at 8:37 AM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

The heightened subjectivity (" prestige", " luxury", "brands") is subtracting from the argument, imho.
posted by Dashy at 8:38 AM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Isis the scientist says:
When I look in my immediate academic circle, it’s white dudes to the left of me and white dudes to the right of me. There is no one else here that I interact with that is like me. No one else who was raised in East LA in a Spanish speaking home, raised largely by her South American grandparents. Larger than the Open Access warz, I feel that I have a moral responsibility to increase the access to science careers for women and minorities. I can’t hold the door open for those folks unless I am standing on the other side of it. That means getting tenure and if someone tells me that I can get closer to those goals by forgoing Open Access for a round or two, I’m going to do it.
posted by OnceUponATime at 8:47 AM on December 10, 2013 [8 favorites]

Pretty much everyone I know agrees with this, and yet there's still something off-putting about someone who has published a whole bunch of Nature/Science/Cell papers and won a Nobel prize stating the matter as "we should avoid them." As he states in his call, the damage is done in a few ways. Retractions due to editors chasing the next big story is relatively minor (so long as peer review is good enough, i.e. not the arsenic DNA debacle), since personal careers will always be made on having the next big story and the incentives will be there no matter the publication outlet. The hiring and funding is, however, huge, and huge for a few reasons. For one, it means that hiring and funding is at the whims of non-practicing-scientist editors and a lot of very good, very tricky work just can't fit into the page limits and narrative style of those journals. Second, the time spent by us scientists trying to get into these journals is enormous and exhausting, and really takes away from our ability to actually do more work. Interestingly, in my experience there is almost no difference in the actual scientific content of a lot of "luxury" vs just "very good" journals, but a tremendous difference in the communication and attempt to contextualize (and typically to oversell the broad impact of the work, since that is the most common reason for rejection one gets from editors and reviewers alike).

What I would like to see Schekman and his peers do is, instead of boycotting journals like N/S/C, to use their status to boost the credibility of PLoS Biology and eLIFE. While I think that many of them are doing that in practice, it's more important to say "other journals are great and more suited to modern publishing!" than it is to say "these journals are bad!" The way they are used is bad, but the journals themselves have some merits with regard to speaking to a broad scientific audience, which is something that open access journals typically struggle with.
posted by Schismatic at 8:50 AM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Larger than the Open Access warz, I feel that I have a moral responsibility to increase the access to science careers for women and minorities.

For me, one of the major, if not the greatest positive of open access journals is that people at universities in developing countries, with libraries don't have the sorts of budgets we do in our wealthy ivory towers, can read the papers and participate in scholarship without artificially high price barriers.

In conclusion, academic publishing is a land of contrasts etc. etc.

Also, the attitude that Isis The Scientist holds that tenured academics are responsible for slamming the door in the face of women and minorities (this is what you get if you look at his argument from the other side) is pretty simplistic, arrogant and offensive. There are much much greater structural issues at play to explain the disparities.
posted by Jimbob at 8:56 AM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

What I would like to see Schekman and his peers do is, instead of boycotting journals like N/S/C, to use their status to boost the credibility of PLoS Biology and eLIFE.

I think Schekman is already doing this, since he edits eLife and mentioned them in the linked Guardian article.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:56 AM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Who would hire Higgs?. An interesting perspective on publish or perish and chasing impact factors.
posted by bonehead at 9:00 AM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is good. Tenured scientists should be leading the change because they have the most influence and the least to lose, but they're also the most invested in the old ways of doing things. Meanwhile, tenure is becoming rarer and rarer and is held up as a carrot to prevent solidarity between colleagues.

"Monica Bradford, executive editor at Science, said: 'We have a large circulation and printing additional papers has a real economic cost,' [...]"

Bwahahaha. "Print." What a dinosaur.
posted by Skwirl at 9:00 AM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Heh, I'm trying to remember all the times I've held a paper journal in my hands. I think the answer is in college, when someone I know was published in them and the small stack of nature methods that I saved from a trashcan and which lived on the back of my toilet for a while.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:05 AM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Obligatory link to Bad Project:

I want good data, and a paper in Cell. But I got a project straight from Hell.
posted by ocschwar at 9:14 AM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bwahahaha. "Print." What a dinosaur.

Heh. I have detailed notes on how to convert papers from various publishers into Mobis for my Kindle.

Elsevier offers them, but fails to deliver, so to get around it I have to use Zotero.

But at least I'm not printing anything.
posted by ocschwar at 9:18 AM on December 10, 2013

His position seems to be a metaphor for so much in this world. "I've reached the top, and from this lofty perch i can finally see that the path i took was shitty in so many ways, but now that I'm here i can use the pulpit on this perch to plead for you do the honorable thing, and don't do what i did." Isn't this what the west has been telling the developing world for half a century or more?
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:20 AM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

The technology infrastructure exists for a better path. And even untenured academics have a lot of social capital so the West versus developing world analogy isn't particularly apt. Most Prestigious Occupations: Firefighter, Scientist Top List.
posted by Skwirl at 9:32 AM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by slogger at 9:55 AM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I do know that at least among a lot of psychologists Science is getting a reputation for publishing neuro-clickbait trash. But with great impact factor!!
posted by srboisvert at 10:19 AM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seriously? Elsevier is sending takedown notices? I really need to stop using Mendeley now that those doofuses have it.

Things like this make me so happy to be in a field where arxiv preprinting is the norm. I have never gone against a copyright agreement when publishing, because all my papers are up on arxiv already, and same with everything in my field; so all the journals I've published in know that and it's written into the agreements.
posted by nat at 10:27 AM on December 10, 2013

This is a good discussion, but I think it doesn't go anywhere near far enough. The whole process of counting pubs and emphasizing "productivity" is very destructive to serious work, as illustrated by Higgs' comments in the link above. Productivity, in this sense, is a corporate value, not an academic one. Sure, all things being equal, having more work output is better than having less, but most of what I've seen is people publishing basically the same paper 10 or more times before moving on. I've always wondered how much farther many fields would be if people were encouraged to do one kick-ass paper per year instead.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:38 AM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

For an alternative perspective, consider Jeffrey Beall's The Open-Access Movement is Not Really about Open Access.

Also, PLOS One doesn't do true peer review. They do use peers to check the methodology and the data, but they do not use peer review to determine what a journal editor usually does, the importance or relevance of the research. Instead they rely on what they refer to as "post-publication peer review" which is comprised of the comments left on the site about an article. Is that true peer review? If it is, there's a problem when only one in three articles at PLOS One has any comment at all, thus making silence the guiding editorial principal in the ranking of their articles.

And if the JIF (quantitative journal impact factor) is something early-career academics need to be concerned about, PLOS One's JIF is decreasing.

While I absolutely agree that there are big problems with Cell, The Lancet, ACS journals, etc., I'm not convinced that Open Access is a panacea.

Also worth noting about Elsevier's move to remove articles from Academia.edu, please remember that in spite of that domain name, Academia.edu is a for-profit business with venture capitalist investors attempting to monetize the traffic that those papers are bringing them. I am no fan of Elsevier, but it's worth noting that they are not asking authors to remove papers from their personal sites or their affiliated institutional repository, they are asking a competitor publisher (with a different revenue model) to take down papers they don't have permission to post.
posted by Toekneesan at 10:48 AM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

I feel this argument conflates selectivity with openness. Like most people in science, I'm in favour of open access, and for my own part I'm trying to make a point of publishing almost everything in journals that at least meet the "green" standard, so that I can self-archive my work. Openness is good.

However, selectivity is a different issue. I think there really is some value in deliberately limiting the number of publications that a journal releases. Life is short, and these days I find myself very short on time to go exploring to find new authors whose work I want to follow. The "artificial" scarcity of top journals can act as a filter, drawing attention to people who I might not have noticed otherwise. That's not to say that there aren't serious biases in how this selection works (as an action editor I've found some of the biases quite noticeable) but even with these biases I find the outcome helpful in broadening my reading. A large, unstructured repository doesn't achieve this.

Of course, that's not to say that journals need to strictly limit the number of publications. Once upon a time selectivity was enforced by real scarcity, since journal pages were limited. These days it is limited by the tiny amount time the readership has to spare on actual reading. With that in mind, a publisher could easily say that the top 5% of accepted submissions get "highlighted". The highlighted papers provide the selectivity, but everything that meets a minimum standard gets published somewhere. Counterintuitive as it sounds, I find that I really need a service like this in order to help keep my reading broad enough.
posted by mixing at 12:24 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

The highlighted papers provide the selectivity, but everything that meets a minimum standard gets published somewhere. Counterintuitive as it sounds, I find that I really need a service like this in order to help keep my reading broad enough.

That could also get around the problematic issue of gatekeeper cabals that systematically suppress research that conflicts with their own without having to wait for them to retire or die. The new stuff will at least be published even if it doesn't get highlighted.
posted by srboisvert at 2:01 PM on December 10, 2013

Just discovered something that might be worth mentioning. Apparently PLOS One in aware of the problem they have in getting feedback on articles so they've recently launched this Open Evaluation tool which may encourage more members of their community to engage. I would encourage those who would like to see PLOS One succeed to sign up and participate. The scholar's job does not end with their own work. It is also incumbent on scholars to evaluate the work of their peers, and if Open Access is going to have a chance, we need to fix this particular piece of it.
posted by Toekneesan at 12:50 PM on December 12, 2013

Yet another update. It seems Elsevier is now asking universities like Calgary to take the final version of articles from their faculty and repository sites. Legally, Elsevier is within their rights to do this. In most cases, the author thought they were exercising one of their contractual rights, depositing or posting their paper on their or their institution's site. But what's got Elsevier's underwear in a bunch is in most cases the author is posting the final, copy-edited, peer-reviewed version. Under Green Open Access clauses in the Elsevier contracts these authors have, they can usually post a pre-publication version of their work in certain open academic settings, depending on the journal, but rarely the final version. In most of the cases that Elsevier is upset about here, it's because the author is posting the final version, making Elsevier's version obsolete.

So yeah, they are within their rights to do this. But Christ this is stupid. Elsevier is about to flip some of their major journals to OA, and this move is a ham-fisted attempt to define the environment they will attempt to enforce their contracts in. They are setting parameters for an open access future that they want to see. I get why they did this, but couldn't they have said, look, from now on, NO MORE FINAL VERSIONS in repositories. Science articles are most important and most used in the first twelve months after publication. The value of most of the articles in question is pretty close to zero at this point. Elsevier did this to prove a point, but like when an older sibling picks on a younger one, this is just stupid and cruel, and makes them look mean. Just because they can do this, doesn't mean they should. Hope they don't find themselves on the wrong side of a Streisand Effect, but man they are really pushing their luck. They are typically very smart publishers, whether you like them or not. They have been successful because they have been very smart. This has not been smart.
posted by Toekneesan at 3:33 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

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