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Rockin the tabloids

Rick Gerkin points me to this opinion piece from a couple years ago by biologist Randy Schekman, titled “How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science” and subtitled “The incentives offered by top journals distort science, just as big bonuses distort banking.” Here’s Schekman:

The prevailing structures of personal reputation and career advancement [in biology] mean the biggest rewards often follow the flashiest work, not the best. . . .

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.

These luxury journals are supposed to be the epitome of quality, publishing only the best research. Because funding and appointment panels often use place of publication as a proxy for quality of science, appearing in these titles often leads to grants and professorships. But the big journals’ reputations are only partly warranted. . . .

These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research. Like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits, they know scarcity stokes demand, so they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept. . . .

A paper can become highly cited because it is good science – or because it is eye-catching, provocative or wrong. Luxury-journal editors know this, so they accept papers that will make waves because they explore sexy subjects or make challenging claims. . . . It builds bubbles in fashionable fields where researchers can make the bold claims these journals want . . .

In extreme cases, the lure of the luxury journal can encourage the cutting of corners, and contribute to the escalating number of papers that are retracted as flawed or fraudulent. . . .

Sharif don’t like it.


  1. Simon Gates says:

    Andrew Wakefield immediately springs to mind.

  2. numeric says:

    Going to send the jet fighters to bomb Nature, Science or Cell?

  3. Chris G says:

    The influence, power, and perverse incentives theme makes me think of Koka Kola –

  4. Jonathan says:

    All good points. But not completely unbiased, as Schekman is the founding editor in chief of a journal (elife) who’s stated goal is to compete with science/nature/cell.

    Though I must say, as both an author and reviewer of elife (and science and nature) I highly recommend elife! Quality, interactive, and transparent reviews with rapid turn around times, and resulting in fully open source publication that embraces web-based media. What’s unique (at least in life sciences) is that the reviewers have several rounds of discussion amongst themselves and the editor before the editor drafts a single review that all reviewers sign off on.

    Hopefully eLife continues to attract top quality work and really establishes itself as a top journal. But I do wish Schekman would be more upfront about his competing interests in these op eds…

  5. Dzhaughn says:

    Perhaps you can elaborate on what you find valuable in this editorial? To me, it reads as propaganda; “Nature/Cell/Science should be decreased in esteem.” Whatever; I just find Schekman’s argument to be pathetic nonsense. I’ll spare you details.

    (I always thought it was “Cheri don’t like it,” based on Pepe le pew, “Oh, Ma cheri, come vit me to ze casbah…” Such is my cultural alignment with The Clash.)

  6. Rahul says:

    It is interesting that he chooses to blame the Journal editors for distorting incentives. And not the whole academic enterprise that bases its decisions on superficial metrics.

    I think Nature / Science are the lesser problem, perhaps only a sideshow. Lazy decision making frameworks by academia are the root cause.

    • Economist says:

      You couldn’t be more right. The system allocates resources at the discretion of people not qualified to properly evaluate the merits ( scientific/social usefulness) of research. So, all of us have a tendency to appeal to these people. Gelman’s war on the “tabloids” is misplaced – attacking a symptom and not a cause.

    • Andrew says:


      I’m not disagreeing with you about the system having a problem. But the tabloids are part of the system. And to reform the system I think it makes sense to go for all the links. In particular, the news media tend to trust the tabloids, and there’s also the role of P.R. organizations such as the Association for Psychological Science and the BPS Research Digest which tend to take reports published in top journals at face value. So, while working on reforming other parts of the system, I think it also makes sense to remind people how bad the tabloids can be. The tabloids are not uniquely bad; the problem is that major news organizations take the tabloids seriously.

      • Economist says:

        I partially agree with you. There is definite value in eroding the (undeserved) reputation that these journals have acquired. You do a great job in this regard. However, I am not sure that this will change the fundamentals. The focus might shift to extreme preference to academics at the most highly regarded schools (princeton comes to mind :)). As long as decisions are being made by people who are incapable of making them well, the system will remain flawed.

        • Anoneuoid says:

          I *think* the solution is simple. Treat every explanation as speculative until there are accurate predictions deduced from a theory. Then confidence has to do with the precision of the prediction. I say *think* because I am sure there will be creative work-arounds.

          • Rahul says:

            I think that’s a great idea. Except that I sense a strange antipathy among academics whenever one proposes to evaluate their theories by predictive accuracy foremost rather than structural elegance, qualitative interpretations etc.

            I don’t think academics are ready to accord the precision of prediction the importance it deserves, especially among the social sciences.

  7. Rahul says:

    What does Schekman mean by his critique that “Nature / Science artificially restrict the number of papers they accept”?

    Is there a “natural” number of papers they ought to be accepting to be “fair”? How many papers should Nature / Science be accepting to make Schekman happy? Is this just rhetoric?

    This sounds as inane as criticizing an art gallery curator for artificially restricting the number of paintings they will exhibit in a month.

    • Luca says:

      I agree, the main reason to have high-impact journals is to limit the numbers of papers you have to look at. It’s another matter how well they do this, but we’re still better off with something suboptimal than nothing. And yet another why produce the deluge of uninteresting papers in the first place.

      • Rahul says:

        Exactly! There’s a lot of throwing the baby out with the bathwater going on.

        The alternative is being bombarded by thousands of un-curated crappy papers. The solution is better curators not getting rid of curation.

        Selective is good, not evil. So long as you are selecting on the right attributes.

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