Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue


Academic Publishing’s ‘Luxury Journals’: Too Big to Fail?

Publishing in a spin? Young scientists caught in no man’s land. Photograph: Carol and Mike Werner/Alamy

I have visited the academic publishing arena before; and have highlighted much of the intrigue and corruption therein. Here is one roadmap to those posts for those interested in more background.

The academic publishing angle we’re pursuing tonight is the luxury journals domination over young academics who want to revolt against them for pure scientific or other moral reasons (such as being forced to research and publish on only ‘popular’ or more highly salable topics – and not the true science the young academics are truly interested in or believe will be more beneficial to mankind).

Presently, if they try to publish elsewhere, it seems, their careers will be in jeopardy! Bullshit.

This is core corruption! Are these high-profile journals too big to fail? Like some of our unfettered corporations or banks – allowed to run amok?

I HATE to think so. You see, for-profit, luxury journals such as Science, Cell and Nature (just like big corporations and banks) have, in my opinion, gained prominence because we, the people, bestowed such upon them through our patronage and support — So, why can’t the ‘we’ experts in the academic fields just remove that same patronage and start more pure academic journals and raise them to immediate prominence? Making all the new journals ‘open access’ at the same time.

This is how a prestigious academic and research field SHOULD operate. I’m aware that some progress has been made in the form of new, open-access, academic e-journals, etc., but, the progress is too damn slow and the for-profit, luxury journals still hold too many young academics hostage.

This insightful, insider perspective comes from Thomas Livermore, a PhD candidate in the MRC laboratory of molecular and cell biology at University College London:

Boycotting academic publishers is a career risk for young scientists

Research careers are built on publishing in high-profile journals, so can postdocs be expected to take a stand against them?

In December 2013, professor Randy Schekman collected his Nobel prize for physiology and medicine. He also announced his decision to boycott three of the most prestigious scientific journals: Nature, Science and Cell. He accused these “luxury journals” of exerting a kind of “tyranny” over scientific research and invites others to follow his lead.

Schekman suggests that luxury journals’ decisions to publish work, or not, are made according to how fashionable it is, rather than its scientific merit. He argues convincingly that such is the influence of these journals, they actually direct the type of scientific research undertaken. By pursuing their own agenda to publish work that will be cited, these journals encourage the disproportionate investment of resources in fashionable fields.

Schekman is not the first to argue these points, but he is the most prominent to state them so publicly, doing so just one week before collecting his Nobel Prize. It is not, however, the first time that academics have called for boycotts of the most prestigious journals. In 2012, British mathematician Timothy Gowers proposed a boycott of Dutch publishing house Elsevier, publisher of Cell, due to their practice of selling journals in bundles at great expense to universities.

In regards to Schekman, my experience suggests that many scientists agree with him that Nature, Cell and Science editors are too influential. To hear these views echoed by such a prominent colleague has been refreshing and well received. It is also my experience, however, that appreciation for Schekman’s candour is often qualified by the statement: “It’s easy for him to say that though; he’s just won the Nobel Prize”.

He freely admits that his career, like many others, has benefited from publishing in these journals. As a result of his success, he now finds himself in a position of great influence, a position that also affords a certain freedom from the tyranny he decries. So, as he calls on others to follow his lead, I wonder if early career researchers can be expected to answer his call?

For many of my peers – PhD students and post-doctoral scientists alike – Nature, Science and Cell continue to represent a major career goal, offering recognition and exposure for their research. After all, it was in these journals that the world first learnt of the existence of the neutron, the structure of DNA and the sequencing of the human genome. Despite the boycotts, the lure of these revered pages remains strong.

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