Why Scientific Journals Are Like Wall Street Bonuses

Nobel Medicine laureate Randy Schekman addresses the traditional Nobel gala banquet at the Stockholm City Hall on Dec. 10 Photograph by Henrik Montgomery/AP Photo

Randy Schekman is a cell biologist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who yesterday received the Nobel Prize for his work on how cells transport and secrete proteins. Earlier this week he used his newfound quasi-celebrity to announce, in an opinion piece in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, that his lab would no longer contribute papers to the biggest-name scientific journals: Science, Nature, and Cell.

As far as public announcements go, it wasn’t exactly Björn Borg retiring at 26, but it was nonetheless a provocative move, and it got his fellow researchers’ attention. Those three journals have long been considered the gold standard of scientific publishing. In the cutthroat competition for grants and tenure-track university jobs, there are clear hierarchies among journals, and where a paper is published is shorthand for quality and importance. And that, Schekman argues, is precisely the problem. He writes:

“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.”

In their pursuit of impact, the top publications have become “luxury journals,” Schekman charges, in thrall to eye-catching research rather than truly valuable work. They favor papers that “make waves because they explore sexy subjects or make challenging claims” and ignore more important but less splashy work—replication studies, for example, that check to see if earlier findings hold up. And because of the weight these journals carry, their standards and editorial values become those of science itself.

Schekman is not the first scientist to bring these criticisms. Across the disciplines, the sciences are grappling with a credibility problem. Retraction rates are up sharply, and a few celebrity researchers at top-flight research institutions have been exposed as outright frauds. An alarming number of studies are proving impossible to replicate, suggesting that the initial findings weren’t findings at all.

What’s particularly interesting about Schekman’s broadside is the link he makes to Wall Street and its bonus culture. Like investment banks, he charges, the sciences have created a set of incentives that reward reckless, counterproductive, and occasionally dishonest behavior. Schekman focuses on the top journals—it’s worth noting, as he does in his piece, that he edits a journal of his own, an open-access competitor to the journals he’s boycotting—but there’s plenty of blame to go around: the universities that hire and employ scientists, the agencies and foundations that fund them and award prestigious prizes, and the journalists, publishers and speaking agents on the hunt for fresh pop-science blog posts, stories, books, and TED Talks.

The result, Schekman points out, is the same in intellectual markets as in financial ones: bubbles. Young scientists flood into fields that offer the best chance of attention-getting results. Several years ago in physics it was string theory, more recently in biology it’s been neuroscience, and in the social sciences it’s experimental economics. The sums of money involved aren’t nearly what they were with the securitized mortgage instruments that kicked off the 2008 financial crisis, of course, but when you factor in the billions of dollars spent on dead-end pharmaceutical research because of drug studies that can’t be replicated, it’s hardly insignificant.

The greater cost to society, however, is in human capital. With so many ambitious people crowding into one bit of intellectual real estate, other worthy fields are neglected, and in the hot fields there’s pressure for more and more dramatic claims. When the bubble bursts, the cost is measured in credibility as well as an unwillingness to invest in the newly discredited asset. At a time when alarmingly large numbers of people all along the political spectrum hold views profoundly at odds with the scientific consensus—on evolution, on climate change, on the health risks of vaccines and genetically modified foods—the last thing working scientists want to do is give them more reasons to doubt the scientific method.

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