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Nobelist Schekman spells out his challenge to science journals

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Randy Schekman/James Kegley

Recently, we profiled Nobelist (Physiology and Medicine) Randy Schekman, who is boycotting Nature, Cell, and Science:

“Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of bonus culture, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals.”

Here’s his rationale in more detail:

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.

It is common, and encouraged by many journals, for research to be judged by the impact factor of the journal that publishes it. But as a journal’s score is an average, it says little about the quality of any individual piece of research. What is more, citation is sometimes, but not always, linked to quality. A paper can become highly cited because it is good science – or because it is eye-catching, provocative or wrong. Luxury-journal editors know this, so they accept papers that will make waves because they explore sexy subjects or make challenging claims. This influences the science that scientists do. It builds bubbles in fashionable fields where researchers can make the bold claims these journals want, while discouraging other important work, such as replication studies.

Papers that will make waves because they explore sexy subjects or make challenging claims?

Could he be thinking of—among many other items, to be sure—papers on ET, the multiverse, and time travel? The End of All Things?

Some papers readily gain an audience but are only called “science” because they promote or arise from or have in some way become associated with a materialist (naturalist) viewpoint. The viewpoint according to which science is “supposed to” be done.

Their prominence is one of the hidden costs of that viewpoint. Which raises a question: Can the situation be reformed? Or are we stuck with endless field trips to the bizarre as “science”?

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