In a recent article in the Guardian entitled, “How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science,” with a subtitle reading, “The incentives offered by top journals distort science, just as big bonuses distort banking,” Randy Schekman, one of the editors of eLife, starts out with a plaintive and humble “I am a scientist.” With such a demure start, it might seem surprising that the article itself devolves immediately afterwards into a piece that has inspired incredulous ridicule in emails, on Twitter, and in the comments on the article — not because the initial statement is false, but because the very next statement is laughable given the author and the context:
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.
Schekman shared in this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, certainly one of the “biggest rewards” in science. (Commendably, he donated his prize money to his university.)
Luckily, when a prize-winner of Schekman’s caliber complains about the incentives in science, people sit up and take notice. Unfortunately for him, most responses were incredulous or derisive. As one Twitter wag commented:
I refuse to be considered for the Nobel prize. Distorts science.
Other comments included:
Schekman has published 46 papers across Science, Nature, and Cell, and published an article in Science just this year. In a prime example of biting the hand that fed you, Schekman seems to demonstrate that once you win the Nobel Prize, the journals you used to establish your career and publish the findings that led to the Nobel somehow become just something to scrape off the soles of your shoes. (His example is almost as classic as Harold Varmus’, another Nobel Laureate who sought to undermine the system of publication incentives that brought his works to light.) As Schekman writes:
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.
One complaint from Schekman is that these luxury journals artificially cap publication, while open access (OA) journals, which have been, in his terms, “born on the Web,” do not suffer from such unnecessary constraints:
Born on the web, they can accept all papers that meet quality standards, with no artificial caps.
Why his own journal rejects about the industry average percentage of papers may require some explanation, given that it was birthed in the digital age. This is just one of many sleights of hand Schekman or his amanuensis engages in.
Schekman is either ignorant or disingenuous in castigating the incentives involved with publication as a problem for science. Surely, some incentives (like direct payments for publishing in high impact journals) can be misaligned, but these misalignments tend to occur because academic or funding bodies introduce distortions. Schekman is unwilling to blame anyone but established publishers for these and other woes, even though publication is clearly aligned with science and the public good. As economist Paula Stephan stated in my interview with her last year, publication — and the priority thereby established — is what allows a scientist to claim a work as her or his own:
Priority “solves” the public good problem, providing a strong incentive for scientists to share their discoveries. The upside is that priority encourages the production and sharing of research. There are other positives — one relates to the fact that it is virtually impossible to reward people in science for effort since it’s virtually impossible to monitor scientists. The priority system solves this, rewarding people for achievement rather than effort. Priority also discourages shirking — knowing that multiple discoveries of the same finding are somewhat commonplace leads scientists to exert effort.
There are many incentives in science, of course. Among them, publication is a relatively modest one for most scientists in most instances.
Other incentives can have more power. Prizes as an incentive have been used for centuries to spur scientific investigation, and there are currently dozens of large-scale prizes and hundreds of smaller prizes. Among other salutary effects, these prizes can incentivize particular types of research, establish timeframes for contests, or push research forward in particular regions.
Grants are another form of incentive, a prize if you will, and granting bodies routinely set out funding agendas that can affect the direction and pace of research.
Tenure is yet another incentive, as is academic advancement. But these incentives are barely mentioned in Schekman’s article, and those who may be mismanaging them are not castigated.
In addition, Schekman doesn’t seem to know where to assign incentives. For instance, he writes:
These [luxury] journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research.
Publications don’t “stimulate” the most important research or typically set any type of research agenda. In nearly all instances, publications merely indicate the field or domain being covered and wait for outputs that match. Some compete aggressively for papers, but publications and publishers are generally relatively passive when it comes to establishing upstream incentives and research agendas for scientists. Accusing publishers of neglecting a duty they have never possessed is one of many blunders in the article.
Schekman mentions that he is an editor at eLife, which as far back as 2011 stated that it was taking clear aim at journals like Nature, Science, and Cell, making it nothing better than an open access (OA) luxury journal. True to form, eLife is not beyond touting its glamorous aspects. Currently, if you visit eLife, you are first shown the layer below, clearly flaunting an incentive (the Nobel Prize) and associating this to publishing with eLife in order to make it appear to be more of a luxury journal.
The picture above has interesting incentive suggestions in it, all of which are misleading. For instance, Schekman’s work leading to the Nobel was not published in eLife. And notice how aggressively eLife is curating its own brand, both by producing the article discussed in this post as well as by splashing their Nobel-winning editor’s visage across its site. I think someone should write an article about these shameful and vain luxury publishers using incentives to entice authors in this manner.
There are numerous factual errors and intellectual slights of hand to be found in Schekman’s article, leading some on social media to wonder if Schekman actually wrote it or just signed off on an eLife press release.
For instance, Schekman blames publishers for the over-emphasis on the impact factor — the same sort of blame the authors of the DORA also erroneously assigned to publishers. Some publishers tout their impact factor to attract better authors and better papers, but the main culprits in overemphasizing the impact factor are academics themselves, related policymakers and administrators, and tenure, grant, and advancement committees. Yet Schekman is unwilling to look in the mirror here, and instead brushes the blame off on publications his journal is competing with.
When he was editor-in-chief of PNAS, Schekman sang a different tune, touting that journal’s impact factor in a 2008 editorial:
With a competitive impact factor of 9.6 and a 19% acceptance rate for papers submitted directly, PNAS remains one of the most prestigious and highly cited multidisciplinary research journals.
In the Guardian article, Schekman also bemoans how luxury journals can entice researchers to cut corners. But even Nobel laureates cut corners after winning the prize, as the case of Linda Buck shows. Does this mean that winning the Nobel Prize may distort a scientist’s behavior by making them sloppy or arrogant? Or perhaps the mere existence of the Nobel Prize causes misbehavior, as the story of Penn State’s Michael Mann suggests, when he falsely claimed sharing credit in Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize.
There just seems to be no getting out of this series of distortions via incentives. If you win, you might misbehave. If you want to win, you might misbehave. And whether you win or not, you might cut corners to make further positive outcomes more likely.
Of course, Schekman works at the University of California, Berkeley, a luxury university, as noted on the Telliamed Revisited blog, where the writer cleverly reworks Scheckman’s article into a diatribe against institutions that distort behavior with their powerful brands. It’s reminiscent of a brouhaha that erupted in August around a young scientist who was accepted by a “glam journal” and who was castigated by Michael Eisen for not choosing an OA journal. She felt Eisen was being a unrealistic, and others in the comment stream pointed out that Eisen’s lab routinely demonstrates a preference for scientists published in glamour journals when it does its hiring.
One corner that Schekman did cut in this article is one that has been cut routinely with eLife — namely, the conflict of interest corner. As a scientist, he surely knows that it’s important to declare entanglements that might affect your statement or judgment. Being a well-paid editor of eLife, which has been designed to compete with the luxury journals, certainly is a conflict of interest in an article calling for a boycott of his ostensible competitors. Yet, Schekman doesn’t say that his criticisms of Nature, Science, and Cell should be viewed as those of a straight-up competitor interested in weakening those journals. Schekman has been evasive before about eLife’s involvement in sketchy behavior. In February, he publicly threw PubMed Central and David Lipman under the bus for the eLife scandal, despite plentiful public evidence showing complicity between eLife, Wellcome, and PMC. When a self-proclaimed scientist takes the convenient route rather than the path of evidence, I worry a little.
There are times when this article reads like it was cooked up in the offices at eLife and put under Schekman’s name. Speculation in the Twitterverse also picked up on this idea. In fact, by heading just another (aspiring) luxury journal, Schekman is culpable for simply extending the problems he decries here. OA does nothing to change the incentives he’s complaining about, and may actually exacerbate them if competition for grant funding increases because grant dollars become scarcer (since more go to paying APCs) or if grants become more centralized at larger institutions or among more senior researchers. The problems with distorted and exaggerated incentives reside among academics and their institutions, not among journals.
For someone who is ostensibly so worried about distortions, it’s ironic Schekman or his amanuensis have distorted so much in order to make rank competition appear to be pure and informed scientific idealism. When a multi-year goal of eLife has been to become the luxury OA journal and unseat at least one of the three journals listed in the article’s headline, it seems that at least for now, the high level of hypocrisy demonstrated by that journal’s editor takes the prize.