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Perils of the Pressures to Publish

The blogosphere has already given it a catchy name – the Schekman Maneuver. “It” being Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman’s announcement that his lab would be boycotting “luxury” journals because of the role they play in distorting academic science We will leave it to others to debate the pros and cons of Professor Schekman’s motivations, the possible impact, what it all means, and so on. At <i>Clothing the Emperor</I>, we are more concerned with whether or not this maneuvering provides an opportunity to open up the truthful and authentic discussions it is going to take to acknowledge the obvious and get our poor naked guy off the street. Somehow, the conversation thus far, and granted it is early days, feels more like offering him a bath towel to wrap around his waist. I guess when you’re out there parading before the crowd buck naked – getting some coverage is a start. What happens next – and how much clothes our emperor eventually acquires – is up to everyone who cares about the integrity of scholarship.

Are the distortions Shekman spotlights – the perils of the pressures to publish in the luxury brand journals – representative of symptoms or root causes? Publishing seems a bit too far down the road to be a root cause. Granted – we have heard the anecdotes of first year grad students asking if a project is going to get them a Science or Nature paper. Still, it is more likely root causes lie in the rewards and incentives structuring careers in academic science to seek projects garnering such publications – a value system that seems to have devolved as a result of the misguided attempt to create “stars” and the inability of institutions to either make or trust internal decisions about the importance of a researcher’s scholarship. An increased reliance on scientific judgment made by external parties such as editors and funders disproportionately rewards publication in high profile, high impact journals however defined.

The vicious circle goes round and round – these pubs need newsworthy science, scientists need to publish in these journals to succeed, and so they do the kind of trendy, newsie, flash in the pan science the journals want. Round and round we go where its stops nobody knows. Why take risks, give young researchers some time, and encourage science to tackle difficult and important problems? Why invest in scholarship when you can go for showmanship? Why nurture prominence while the notorious get all the attention?

It is unfortunate that publication, a tool for communicating and exchanging information with scientific peers, has morphed into something akin to a Bitcoin of the realm – counted, weighed, and bartered for promotions, space, fortune and fame. That said, we think there is something more rotten going on here.
Let us know what you think…