Breaking the Academic Stranglehold

Repudiating Science, Nature and Cell

The overwhelming flaw in the traditional peer review system is that it is listed so heavily towards consensus that it showed little tolerance for genuinely new findings and interpretations.

— David O’Leary, The ID report, Jun 15, 2006

The peer review process in the world of academic publishing.  The process by which, it is assumed, peers of an academic field review peers in that field.  The situation is fraught with meddling and distortion.  Blind review is truly blind – reviewers often fail to read their allocated papers in full.  Then come other issues: editorial limitations, concerns about timing, topicality and vested interests. Ever was the ivory tower shut from full view and inspection.

The peer review system also foists upon its readers a fundamental paradox: the good may well be rejected; the poor might well be accepted.  Capture the intellectual fashion of the moment and the editorial board will be won over.

Some of the best research in history has not found its way into the technocratic drivel of refereed literature.  The Stakhanovites that preside over academic institutions these days would have been puzzled to confront such publications as Darwin’s Origin of the Species.  In the US Supreme Court decision of Daubert v Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (1993), it was held that, “Publication (which is but one element of peer review) is not a sine qua non of admissibility; it does not necessarily correlate with reliability, and in some instances well-grounded but innovative theories will not have been published.”

Little wonder then that cell biologist and Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman of the University of California Berkeley, is fed up.  Having won this year’s prize in medicine, he has proclaimed an academic boycott of the holy trinity of science publishing.  “I am a scientist.  Mine is a professional world that achieves great things for humanity.  But it is disfigured by inappropriate incentives.”  Such incentives, argues Schekman in The Guardian (December 9), come in the form of “professional rewards that accompany publication in prestigious journals – chiefly, Nature, Cell and Science.”

Then, a confession, and a pledge.  “Like many successful researchers, I have published in the big brands, including the papers that won me the Nobel Prize for medicine, which I will be honoured to collect tomorrow. But no longer. I have now committed my lab to avoiding luxury journals, and I encourage others to do likewise.”  The pointed suggestion here is that such luxury journals damage science the way the banksters have damaged finance and banking.

These gripes are standard and hard to fault. Nature, Science and Cell have popular pitches, claiming to drive the pioneer’s vehicle into uncharted waters. That said, the dirt under the nails is not regarded as important.  Glamour is what wins over, chic science, the sort that makes a splash. Editorial inclinations feed author expectations – a vicious cycle is thereby created.

This is not to say that all work of the holy three falls into that category.  But their critics have a point, and the stranglehold is hard to avoid. If you wish to succeed – to do, for instance, what Schekman has done – the door is hardly ajar to those who do not publish in the very journals he has repudiated.  Like François de La Rochefoucauld’s aphorism on the elderly, sagacious advice tends to be given by those who no longer have a use for it.

The problems of the scientific aristocracy and its seemingly dour emphasis on a narrow range of acceptable topics is indicative of broader trends in the academic field.  The curse of specialisation, claimed the British comedian Kenneth Williams, is that it can become so acute one ceases to be an expert on anything.  The entire field of academic pursuit has succumbed to a fit of constipation, at least as far as the pursuit of hard original research is concerned. One churns out papers for the sake of publication, a mechanical drive that repels rather than gathers knowledge.  Contradictions are avoided.  Grants are awarded on a narrow range of acceptable topics.  Speculative research is shunned.

Such trends have also seen an inevitable orthodoxy develop on academic boards.  Academics are recruited to protect rather than falsify hypotheses.  The pressure to publish can also, as Schekman points out, lead to the “cutting of corners”.  Science found itself in hot water when it had to retract papers on stem cell research after finding out that claims to have created new lines of human embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos was based on false data.

Such is the curse of that terrible term to have “outputs” on one’s research profile.  Shoddiness and shabbiness in research is bound to emerge.  That inventory is further measured by means of Research Assessment exercises or the equivalent.  Novel approaches are looked upon with suspicion, as well as they might.  A paper that invalidates years of work by others, taking the carpet from under an entire establishment, is bound to be seen as dangerous.

Open Access journals have come as something of a revelation regarding the supposedly elite segments of science publishing.  Such a scheme targets the profit incentive big journals have, taking the shine off the luxury. It opens the findings to a broader audience.  Such avenues for publishing have multiplied.  There is eLife (edited by Schekman), PLOS and BioMed Central (BMC), among others.  Michael Eisen, also of the University of California Berkeley, co-founded the Public Library of Science (PLOS) for that very reason.  “My career has flourished without publications in the ‘big three’, and PLOS is now a major player in the publishing world.”

His suggestions should be taken on board. Start sending the best work to those journals, though one is skeptical whether “most scientists are ready.”  Any revolution in this field, to make sense, will have to come from within the establishments – the grant making bodies, the editorial committees.  The pointless experiments will stop. The luxury tag will drop.  Well, that’s at least the theory.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.