Asset Publisher
javax.portlet.title.customblogportlet_WAR_customblogportlet (Health is Global Blog)

The Negative Impact of Reputable Scientific Journals


Some weeks ago, Randy Schekman, Nobel Laureate for Medicine, said that "science must break the tyranny of luxury journals" when he announced that he would never again publish in top-tier journals such as Cell, Science and Nature. While admitting that the work he had previously published in these very journals helped him to win the Nobel prize, he declared with great solemnity that from now on he would boycott these three prestigious journals.

My first thought when I read the news was: Dr Schekman, we know that the most prestigious scientific journals can be criticized on many counts, but you have waited till you reached retirement age (65 last month) and have been awarded the Nobel Prize to make this gesture. Following the same logic, perhaps we should not rule out that at some time you may refuse to receive any more Nobel prizes, because the selection process for that honour is not exactly a model of transparency and objectivity. On the other hand, perhaps the timing is justified by the fact that—having won the Nobel prize—Dr Schekman has acquired much greater visibility and his criticism will have more impact.

It is certainly true that the issue he has raised—the editorial decision process of these high-profile and prestigious scientific journals—is complex and has been the subject of much controversy. Some of these journals are led by entrepreneurs, scientific journalists and other professionals, who do not always base their decisions concerning what should be published and what should be rejected on strictly scientific criteria. Many such decisions are clearly influenced by the media coverage that will be generated by certain studies, or by lobbies of various kinds and special relationships between publishers and certain scientists. As a result, not all research is judged fairly on the basis of the most objective criteria and this practice tends to work against scientists whose subject is not fashionable and those whose results may not be as dramatic as others but who have contributed enormously to the body of scientific knowledge. This system encourages researchers to change their priorities, distorting scientific process. Furthermore, since most of the top-tier journals are based in the United States or the United Kingdom, I would go as far as to say that there is a certain preference for publishing the work of researchers who are from those countries, independently of the quality of the work.

The scientific relevance and impact of scientific journals is supposedly reflected by a measure known as the impact factor. A journal's impact factor is based on the average number of citations received per article published during the two preceding years. The day aspiring researchers first become aware of the existence of the impact factor, they do not know how important this metric will be for the rest of their scientific career. The obsession with impact factors is pervasive and the pressure to publish in high-impact factor journals is huge not just because of the scientific ego boost and professional growth associated with the achievement but also because publication in these journals guarantees researchers a competitive edge in attracting new funds to continue their research. To some extent, this process distorts the ultimate goal of research, which rather than being the generation of knowledge useful for progress has become publication in a high-impact journal. Knowing how difficult it is to attract research funds, especially in these times of cuts in R&D, scientists are acutely aware that publishing in certain journals will guarantee their team the funds they need to survive, and few of them (us) are averse to publishing in these prestigious journals.

So what is the solution? Is the current system the best we can hope for? There are good editorial initiatives that promote greater transparency and open access and ensure that articles are not rejected solely because the study results are not sufficiently dramatic. In such systems, editorial decisions are made by more than one person and by people with scientific expertise. Plos  and eLife are two examples of this new model. But even these measures do not eliminate the risk of the publishing process being perverted. In the end, the decisions are made by a small group of people, and scientists who are members of editorial boards have their own interests and do not always use their influence in a disinterested way. 

Until we stop placing so much importance on where a researcher has published in our evaluation of research groups, PhD theses, curriculums and scientific projects it will be difficult to break this vicious circle and, together, we will continue to feed the system we all criticize.

Previous Posts by the Author

Health Cuts, a Risk for Controlled Diseases

Cada 23 segundos, una muerte por tuberculosis