Misrepresenting science is almost as bad as fraud: Randy Schekman

The Nobel laureate in medicine has taken up the cause of journals and how the domination of a few popular journals may be disrupting science and research

Randy Schekman, Nobel laureate in medicine or physiology. Photo: Reuters
Randy Schekman, Nobel laureate in medicine or physiology. Photo: Reuters

In 2013, Randy Schekman was honoured with the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology for his discoveries on vesicles—sac-like structures that make up a major transport system in our cells—and how genetic defects can lead to malfunctions in this transport system.

The Nobel laureate has taken up the cause of journals and how the domination of a few popular journals may be disrupting science and research. Mint caught up with Schekman at the Indian Science Congress in Mumbai, and the ex-editor of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) talked about his stand against journals such as Science and Nature, the spectacular retractions that the journals saw last year, and which areas of life sciences will see the biggest breakthroughs in the coming years. Edited excerpts:

In which areas will we see the biggest breakthroughs in science in the coming year?

Predicting the future is a foolish mistake. I could not have predicted what happened in this past year, let alone the future. I can say that there are emerging technologies which will have a great impact. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), the technology with the ability to manipulate and edit genomes, will have an enormous impact and is rising very rapidly. Looking forward over many years, I think the future growth in life sciences will be particularly in neuroscience. The study of brain, human intelligence, human emotions, is a huge challenge. Reducing that to the molecular level will be a wonderful thing for a young person to think about.

You have boycotted some of the most popular science journals including Cell, Nature and Science. What are your reasons?

In the past 20-30 years, journals have become very competitive. There are certain journals, commercial journals, in the life sciences, which have very successfully branded themselves so that young people feel that if they don’t publish in these journals, they won’t have a career. These are journals that are run by professional editors who are commercially driven to sell magazines. Perfectly reasonable.

Unfortunately, I believe that this has jeopardized scholarship because one now is forced to contend with journals that restrict the number of papers and pages they will publish. They want to create this artificial commodity and brand themselves as exclusive and people want to be part of this exclusive club. And scientists spend years, money and endless hours of effort in the hope that they can publish in one of these journals. I found this increasingly when I was the editor of the PNAS, which is a fine journal where scientists make the decisions. Young people felt that if they couldn’t publish their research in Cell, Nature or Science, they would have no career. And these journals pick papers based on what their editors feel will generate a lot of citations which will feed this evil number they advertise, called impact factor. This phony number has now become a toxic influence.

Why would you call impact factor a toxic influence?

Impact factor was a number that was created years ago by an organization that was in the business of telling librarians what they should buy for their libraries. So it measures the number of citations a journal generates over all the papers. But it was never intended to be a measure of scholarship, it was never intended to be a way to measure whether an individual contribution is an important one. Unfortunately that is what has happened.

Every postdoctoral fellow or student that I encounter knows the impact factors of journals and they make their decisions on where they want to publish on the basis of this silly number. So I feel strongly that the system is broken.

I was given an opportunity to change that when Wellcome Trust, Howard Hughes (Medical Institute) and Max Planck Society decided to invest a lot of money in creating a new open access journal where the decisions would be taken by scientists. There would be no artificial limit to the number of papers or pages we will publish. So we’ve been in business now for two years, and we have been very busy trying to attract the best papers around the world.

How do you think commercial journals have affected fundamental research?

It changes the way people decide what they should work on. It causes them to think that they have to work on topics which make their way into these journals.

Now, the impact factor is calculated on the basis of the number of citations a paper gets in the first two years of it being published. This means that those journals want papers that are going to be an immediate sensational hit and not necessarily papers that will endure and be meaningful in years to come. My own work that led to the Nobel Prize, the first paper was in the PNAS and had very few citations because it was new and no one else was working on this. But the citations grew over time. Measuring the impact factor for that very meaningful paper was useless. What’s happened now is a kind of collusion between these commercial journals and people who calculate this number. This system is broken. I encourage people to think about journals run by scientists and not people who want to sell magazines.

Last year saw a few sensational retractions in journals. What do you think about these?

All journals have retractions, but Nature has had a quite a few retractions lately and some of them are quite spectacular retractions. And I think some of them are because the pressure to publish in these journals is so great that young people make mistakes and sometimes they are deliberate mistakes. In the case of the papers that were retracted by Nature on the stem cells, it was clearly fraud, manipulation. The young woman, her career is now destroyed and one of the authors has committed suicide. It’s tragic, I mean of course it is their personal flaw that led them to do it, but I point the finger at the journals which impose this pressure on people to try to make their work look more important than it is.

Misrepresenting science is almost as bad as fraud and I think these journals are part of the problem.