A new type of scholarly journal boycott

We have seen numerous boycott calls with regard to academic publishers but they have generally been about market power and its exploitation. Today, a more serious boycott call was launched with the claim that some publications are harming science itself — a potentially more serious charge.

The call comes from this year’s medicine Nobel prize winner, Randy Schekman, who has declared he will no longer publish research in Science, Nature and Cell; three of the leading publications in biological sciences. Schekman argues as follows:

Mine is a professional world that achieves great things for humanity. But it is disfigured by inappropriate incentives. The prevailing structures of personal reputation and career advancement mean the biggest rewards often follow the flashiest work, not the best. Those of us who follow these incentives are being entirely rational – I have followed them myself – but we do not always best serve our profession’s interests, let alone those of humanity and society.

We all know what distorting incentives have done to finance and banking. The incentives my colleagues face are not huge bonuses, but the professional rewards that accompany publication in prestigious journals – chiefly NatureCell and Science.

Schekman’s first claim is familiar: he argues that there is a Matthew effect in science with the rich getting richer when it comes to journals. So there is pressure to select on the type of publication rather than just to pursue quality research.

Of course, this need not be mutually exclusive. If the best outlets published the highest quality research there would be no issue. But Schekman develops his claim further:

These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research. Like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits, they know scarcity stokes demand, so they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept. The exclusive brands are then marketed with a gimmick called “impact factor” – a score for each journal, measuring the number of times its papers are cited by subsequent research. Better papers, the theory goes, are cited more often, so better journals boast higher scores. Yet it is a deeply flawed measure, pursuing which has become an end in itself – and is as damaging to science as the bonus culture is to banking.

Now on the one hand, this claim seems to be aimed at three journals that operate a little differently from others. For instance, they have professional editors rather than academic editors. Thus, they will select papers that will be read by their subscribers not necessarily by scientists — although one has to worry about whether there is anything wrong with that per se. Science is produced for other scientists to be sure but it has a broader mission of dissemination of knowledge as well. Moreover, near as I can tell, the impact factor mentality hits all journals currently as Joel Baum has extensively discussed. In addition, impact on follow-on and commercialised research is surely a factor but Schekman does not appear to have considered the evidence provided by Dan Fehder, Fiona Murray and Scott Stern in this regard.

Schekman is concerned that citations are driven not just by paper quality but also by attention. And if attention is focussed on a few journals then that is a problem. Moreover, he claims that those journals restrict the amount of research published which creates more scarcity with regard to attention. He has in mind a situation where more limited content concentrated in some journals leads to more attention to those journals and away from others. This is certainly possible but if attention really is scarce then there is value to curation.

Schekman seems to ignore this in his alternative:

There is a better way, through the new breed of open-access journals that are free for anybody to read, and have no expensive subscriptions to promote. Born on the web, they can accept all papers that meet quality standards, with no artificial caps. Many are edited by working scientists, who can assess the worth of papers without regard for citations. As I know from my editorship of eLife, an open access journal funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society, they are publishing world-class science every week.

If attention is limited — and Schekman must believe this for there to be a problem with “luxury” journals, then open access won’t hurt. Attention will be drawn to those with existing reputations — like appointments at good universities or, you know, Nobel prizes and such. And that really matters as was recently found for the HHMI. So the implication of this is that the Matthew effect will move from journals as platforms to scientist’s themselves. It is hard to see that that is a better state of affairs. From that perspective, Schekman’s boycott looks less nobel.

Now there may be insufficient incentives for risk-taking in today’s academic world. But it is hardly clear that the business model of leading journals is to fault. Instead, the tenure committees and lab structure of institutions surely has a greater role.

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