Scientific magazines hinder development of science

It is no secret that publication of articles in prestigious scientific journals increases the chances of the researchers to receive a grant or professorship. This is why, according to a Nobel laureate biologist Randy Schekman, these days such journals only hinder the normal scientific process, appreciating sensational nature of work more than its quality.

This summer, when discussions of a scandalous "reform" of the Russian Academy of Sciences were ongoing, its supporters relied on the fact that the share of publications of the Academy of Sciences in prestigious scientific journals of the world is very, very low. According to them, this was a serious indication of the ineffectiveness of the Russian academic science, and if so, it certainly should be reformed. The situation in Europe, the U.S. and Asia was cited as an example. It was argued that since scientists from these countries are published in leading journals more often, the situation with science in these countries is much better.Perhaps the supporters of this opinion would be shocked to find out that many foreign researchers believe this performance evaluation system to be disgusting. Moreover, according to them, the leading scientific journals interfere with the normal scientific process, because the desire to see their work in a similar publication encourages scientists to engage in what is considered trendy, but not that important for science. The trends are defined by the editors of these journals that do not include scientists, but only professional publishers, who, like the heads of "glossy" magazines, are primarily interested in sensation and not the value of research to the world of science.

American biologist Randy Schekman who won the Nobel Prize for his cell research this year spoke about it with The Guardian. Explaining to the reporters why he would not send any articles to "elite" scientific journals, the scientist noted that he and his colleagues get professional awards based on their publications in prestigious journals likeNature, Cell and Science. However, the reputation of these journals and similar publications is not entirely warranted. While they publish many outstanding works, there is a lot of fluff on their pages.This happens because their editors are concerned with their brands, and care more about subscriptions than promotion of the most important research. Like fashion designers who produce limited edition bags and outfits, they know that the deficit is fueling demand, so they artificially reduce the number of accepted works. Then the so-called "impact factor" is done for advertising of  luxury brands, that is, they measure how many times the articles published in the magazine are quoted in subsequent studies. The better the article, we are told, the more it is cited, so the best journals receive the highest rating.However, is this approach valid? In fact, it is not fair, as the average rating of the journal does not say anything about the quality of a given article. Furthermore, citation is not always related to the quality of work. An article may be widely cited not only because it is good science, but because it is on a trendy topic, controversial or even erroneous. The worst thing is that the editors of these journals understand this and accept works that can make a stir, discuss a hot topic or have ambiguous statements. However, these works have no value for science and are published for the sake of increasing the rating.

Thus, the public is misinformed about the events at the forefront of the science. Unsubstantiated sensationalism overshadows the real work of thousands of dedicated researchers. But the worst thing is that as a result of such policy the journals and scientists themselves have become involved in a "soap bubble" instead of the more important, though more humble work.  

Over two years ago, the Science journal accepted for publication an article whose author argued that the DNA of special bacteria that live in a salty lake in California contained arsenic instead of phosphorus. Immediately after the publication many biologists have pointed out that the experiment described in this article was carried out in a sloppy and illiterate manner, therefore arsenic out of the lake could easily get into the DNA preparations. Despite all reasonable scientific criticism of this work, the editors have not withdrawn the publication of the article.  All this not only undermines people's confidence in science as a whole, but also leads the scientists on the wrong track. Donors and agencies, taking personnel decisions, see these journals as a litmus test. The appearance on their pages increases the chances of getting a researcher a grant or professorship, and it is not surprising that many are trying to get to the pages of these publications at any cost. As a result, they publish "raw" research with unchecked data or even quite unreliable results. 

Speaking about the situation, Professor Schekman compared it with the practice of bonuses in the banking sector, which, in his words is rational for certain individuals, but harmful to the financial system as a whole. The scientist noted that today the quality of the research itself, and not the brand of a scientific journal,  should be of crucial importance in the distribution of research funding. He believes that the scientists themselves must take action. He, like many other successful researchers, at the time published several works on the pages of major brands, and among them were those that allowed him to become the winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine. However, he assured that this would not happen again. His lab will ignore the luxury journals, and he encouraged everyone else to do the same.   

Many other researchers agree with this assessment of the situation in the scientific world. For example, Dr. Daniel Sirkis supported his supervisor saying that while it would be hard for him to get into elite institutions without certain articles in these journals, he did not want to practice science in places where publication was an important criterion for admission to employment. Biochemist from the Jacobs University Sebastian Springer noted that many respected journal editors appreciated novelty more than the quality of work, and not all the best articles get on the pages of these publications.  This is a paradoxical situation. While the Russian authorities are forcing scientists to get published in prestigious international scientific journals, scientists from Europe, USA and other countries, on the contrary, are calling for a boycott of these publications. They believe that this is the only way science will be able to overthrow the tyranny of the elite journals. It would be great if Russian "reformers" listened to the opinion of the Nobel Prize winner and his colleagues. 

Anton Evseev


Read the original in Russian

Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov