Commercial science publishing is flawed

Commercial science publishing is distorting the process, argues eLife Editor in Chief, Randy Schekman...
10 June 2014

Interview with 

Randy Schekman


eLife's Editor in Chief and Nobel Laureate, Randy Schekman explains to Chris Smith why, in his view, the present commercial system of science publishing is distorting science.  He also sets out his vision for what eLife is doing to change things...Randy Schekman

Randy -   I felt very strongly that particularly at the high end in the life sciences, young investigators felt undue pressure to publish in a very small number of venues.  Commercial journals such as Nature and Cell, and Science Magazine - these are fine journals, they publish important work.  But they artificially restrict the number of papers and pages that they publish because at least in the case of Science & Nature, they're still modelled on a print version and it's expensive for them to print more pages.  And so, they've created - I feel - an artificial commodity.  They do this frankly to sell magazines and this has - I believe - a distorting influence on the way young scholars choose to publish their most important work.  They compete for limited resources even when those resources represent an artificial commodity.  In the 21st century, it seems silly to me to be making decisions based on a print run when most young scholars read everything online.  They don't even know these journals exist in a hard copy form.

Chris -   But you are Editor in Chief of PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, another very prestigious journal.

Randy -   Yes, I was and that's actually where my opinions formed most clearly.  I saw that in spite of the success of the proceedings that investigators still preferred to publish in venues that restricted the number of papers that they published.  At PNAS, we felt that it was important to publish all the great papers that we receive.  So, we didn't have such an artificial restriction.  And yet, scholars chose not to send their best work generally to the PNAS because of the influence of a number, called the impact factor.  The number that greatly - I think - influences decisions about where the young scholars prefer to send their work because they feel review committees, Grant committees, often base their decisions on the impact factor of the journals in which work is published and these journals, particularly the commercial journals use that number shamelessly and they're advertising.  Indeed they manipulate the calculation to exaggerate the number and to give themselves even more influence in decisions about where scholars publish.

Chris -   And you're seeking to change this with eLife.

Randy -   Absolutely.  We will not restrict ourselves based on some perception of the number of citations that a paper will generate or the number of papers that we publish.  If we get great papers, we'll publish all the great papers we evaluate.

Chris -   The other key difference of course is that if you publish in those aforementioned journals, in order for me, if I send them a piece of work - as one person told me - they were grossly offended to be told by the journal to go and buy a copy of their own paper when they wanted a reprint of it because that's how these journals make money.  They're selling the science that the taxpayer funds to the scientific community.

Randy -   Absolutely.  They're in the business of selling magazines.  But the fact is, that they make money on both ends.  They make money selling magazines.  They make money on subscription licenses.  They make money from advertising.  They rely on the academic community to do essentially most of their work in evaluating the science.  We're not compensated for their services.  I think scientists have bought into this inappropriately.

Chris -   So, how would you like to see change and how will you make a difference?

Randy -   Our challenge is to capture the imagination of scholars, having a venue that they will seek out to publish their best work.  So, we have to influence young people who are at crucial career stage so that they make those decisions based on how their work is seen by the community and not based on some artificial number like an impact factor.  The other thing I want to say this impact factor is, influence, not necessarily only by the quality of the work but by whether the work is fashionable.  I'll give you an example.  Nature published two papers a couple of months ago where the authors claimed that they could convert adult cells into embryonic stem cells by a simple low pH treatment.  The work was met with great scepticism and in fact, people are unable to reproduce these results.  There was evident manipulation in the papers.  Now, people are quite suspicious but the fact is, that these papers will generate thousands of citations for Nature and so, they want profit by having published those papers even if they end up being retracted.

Chris -   You're getting behind an initiative called the OA or Open Access button.  What is that and why are you putting your name to it?

Randy -   So, it's a very interesting programme just beginning to identify when a reader has trouble getting behind the firewall of a commercial journal.  For those people who are aware of the Open Access button programme, you can automatically alert this service when you have failed to gain access to a published work because of a firewall restriction.

Chris -   But how would you use the data that comes from it in order to enact change?

Randy -   Well, I think it will be very striking to realise if, with the data that they compile, how many people are frustrated by their inability to gain access to the literature.  Commercial journals may be forced inevitably to introduce Open Access journals on their own.   In fact, I know that the editor of Nature, Phil Campbell has indicated that he sees the Open Access movement as the future.  He suggested that maybe even Nature may eventually go Open Access, but they feel that they'll be able to charge.  He suggested - for instance $30,000 - might not be an unreasonable sum to expect.

Chris -   And of course, that money would have to come from the scientist which inevitably means it would come from their grant pot, wouldn't it, the money that the taxpayer in some cases or a charity like the Wellcome Trust gives to the scientist to do their research.

Randy -   That of course is the problem and the question is, would people be willing to pay that sum of money to publish their papers.  I should tell you, there's another under Current that has taken shape in Asia that I think is quite alarming where scholars in China are literally offered bribes to publish in these high profile journals.  Last year, the Chinese Academy of Sciences issued a bulletin to its scholars, offering a cash reward of the equivalent of $33,000 for success in publishing a paper in Cell, Nature or Science, irrespective of the subject matter of the paper.  So, you could well imagine that an author, having won the lottery and published in these journals would simply take the profit that the Chinese Academy of Sciences offers to pay the fees that the journal charges for an Open Access version of the paper.  I think this is a terrible distortion in the system.

Chris -   UC Berkeley's Randy Schekman, eLife's Editor-in-Chief.  That's it for this month.  Don't forget that all of the papers we've been discussing are freely available alongside previous editions of this podcast from eLife's website that's at  My name is Chris Smith.  This is a Naked Scientists production.  You can find out more about us from our website at and I'll be back next month with another look inside eLife.  Until then though, thank you for listening and goodbye.


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