Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Scientific print journals – or open access online?

I remember in the last recession hearing a PR adviser saying that they were telling their corporate clients not to listen to the news and comment programmes before going into work. It was challenging enough to motivate yourself and your colleagues in a difficult environment without being dragged down by relentless bad news and aggressive interviews.

Although I did listen to the news before work I avoided programmes like the Today programme except in small bites because I found the style of interviewing too aggressive for that time of the morning. I haven’t really changed my view.  The other thing that really annoys me is that the presenters seem to think that we are more interested in hearing them than the interviewee and constantly interrupt and paraphrase. I admit I don’t listen very often so perhaps I have just been unfortunate in the bits I have heard.

However on December 10 I was pleased I was listening, as there was an interview with Professor Randy Schekman due to be presented with his Nobel prize* for medicine on that day and the Deputy Editor of Science, Andrew Sugden. Schekman was criticising the three leading scientific journals – Science, Cell and Nature.
I quote from his article in the Guardian - How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science. The sub headline was incentives offered by top journals distort science just as big bonuses distort banking.  I can’t make up my mind whether that statement is a good comparison or not – but it makes a good headline!  He writes:
“I am a scientist. Mine is a professional world that achieves great things for humanity. But it is disfigured by inappropriate incentives ...... We all know what distorting incentives have done to finance and banking. The incentives my colleagues face are not huge bonuses, but the professional rewards that accompany publication in prestigious journals – chiefly Nature, Cell and Science.”
He is, of course, correct in that publication in a prestigious journal can substantially enhance a scientist’s career and bring glory to their institution. But, these are predominantly print journals and this brings an artificial limitation to the number of excellent research papers that can be published. This not only delays publication unnecessarily (which in itself slows down research) but also excludes good research for reasons of space rather than quality.
Schekman is an advocate of open access journals as am I.  This ensures that research is available to the widest audience anywhere in the world but it must be thoroughly peer-reviewed and only sound research must be published.  It is difficult to argue with that and although Sugden said that Science is now publishing additional articles on-line – I think the days of the subscription only print journal are numbered.
Schekman is Editor-in-chief of eLife where working scientists assess and select papers for publication, and all science judged to be of the calibre and high standard that eLife requires is published in the journal; there are no print-based limitations. And, all content published in eLife is openly available for all to use and re-use for free. The journal is backed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust – a very prestigious group of institutions.
When Breast Cancer Campaign commissioned its first ground-breaking Gap Analysis the resulting paper was published in 2008 in the on-line, open access journal Breast Cancer Research (and subsequently accessed over 40,000 times).  The second Gap Analysis was published recently in the same journal and has also been ‘highly accessed’.  I think that rather proves the point.

* Randy Schekman, Thomas C Südhof and James were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells"

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