In December, cell biologist Randy Schekman of the University of California at Berkeley, two months after becoming a Nobel laureate for his work on how cells move parcels of molecules around, announced that he would no longer be publishing papers in the “luxury journals” Nature, Science and Cell. The “tyranny” exercised by these top journals, he argued in the Guardian, is distorting science, rewarding research that is flashy and trendy rather than necessarily important and forcing scientists to devote undue effort into publishing there.
The response from the journal editors was muted. Nature’s editor Philip Campbell insisted that the decisions of his staff weren’t driven by the likely media coverage a paper will generate, which they couldn’t predict anyway. Monica Bradford, executive editor of Science, issued a statement that, while doubtless true, came across with consummate corporate blandness: “Our editorial staff is dedicated to ensuring a thorough and professional peer review upon which they determine which papers to select for inclusion in our journal.”
One can understand these editors not wishing to be drawn into an antagonistic spat with their clients, which constrains them to the faux politeness of the abused hotelier in This Is Spinal Tap: “I’m just how God made me, sir.” But it means that Schekman has rather got away with it. As an ex-editor of Nature who feels some fondness but no duty towards his alma mater, I can offer something more robust.
Schekman’s complaint about the kudos attached to publishing in these journals is valid and important. But like many scientists, he seems on the one hand pretty clueless about how the journals operate and on the other hand in denial about where that inflated kudos comes from.
One of his gripes is that the journals manipulate the market by restricting the number of papers they publish. At Nature, the size of the printed journal was always dictated solely by economics, with a view to which the managing editor was constantly worrying about the page budget. While the journal stays on paper, that isn’t likely to change. But the real point is that, during my time at Nature, not once was I or my colleagues compelled to reject a good paper because there was no room for it. Competition was stiffer in the life sciences (I handled physical sciences), but frankly this had more to do with that community’s sometimes inflated sense of self-importance than…