A Nobel Prize winning biologist has announced a boycott of high impact journals such as Nature, Science, and Cell.
When a Nobel Prize winner says something like that, people listen. The question is really whether or not that stance is well founded. Randy Shekman, the Nobel winner in question, is the editor of an open access journal called e-Life, and is former editor-in-chief of PNAS (impact factor >8).
So, why the boycott? Shekman says that the pressure to publish in high impact journals leads scientists to focus on glamorous projects and cut corners in order to get more exposure. High impact publications are more likely to accept flashy projects with definitive results. Shekman argues that people are focusing on flashy science instead of important science because they want to be published in one of these publications.
There is a reason for that. Almost anyone in the sciences will tell you that a Nature or Science publication will make a career. High impact publications are a great step on the route to tenure and permanent job security. So, what is an early career scientist to do? Publishing in lesser journals obviously doesn’t look good on paper. Plus, when you do something great, you want other people to read it. High impact journals are high impact for a reason, people read them and people cite the articles in them. To get a job and make a name for themselves, early career scientists shoot for projects that have the potential of landing them in these types of journals. As long as the academic system remains the way it has been for decades, people will continue to aim high to get recognized.
As one of the comments on the original “Guardian” article pointed out:
“that’s the sort of stance you can take when you’ve gota nobel prize behind you. us mere mortals, however, have to get publications in top journals if we wish to continue to be funded or employed.”
Shekman, who has been published 10 times in high impact journals (impact factor >8) over the past 4 years alone, just won a Nobel Prize, is extremely well known in his field, and has job security. He has used this system that he is now boycotting to get where he is. While it is great that he is now turning towards open-access journals such as PLOS ONE ( which he has been published in several times recently), and e-Life, which he edits, we all must admit that it would be very difficult as a graduate student, post-doc, or non-tenured professor or researcher to hold fast to a boycott of top publications. In case we didn’t already have enough to worry about, right?
I do appreciate him bringing this issue to light though. The system is broken. In fact, it is so broken that many of these “high impact” journals do not make articles readily available to the general public. Without an account or institutional access to the journal, people cannot read this new and cutting edge science that has been designated as high importance.
To me, this is the more frustrating thing. Many high impact journals aren’t open-access, and some of the journals that are open-access are subject to scams and other issues (See my previous post about the issues surrounding open access).
Much of academia focuses on the “publish or perish” lifestyle. That is just how it is. It would be great to ignore this rat race and do research just because you are interested in it, or because it will benefit man-kind without needing to worry about what journal you will publish in, or if you will get tenure. However, if tenured researchers are willing to take a stand to change things, perhaps we will see a change. In the meantime, we will keep researching and when the time comes to submit for publication, perhaps we will take a little bit of extra time to really consider what the best option is.