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The House of Cards: on meeting Randy Schekman

Alexander F. Brown

Alexander F. Brown

Alex is an Anglo-Italian with a profound love for his spiritual home of the Golfo dei Poeti. Despite most people thinking he was a ‘humanities’ person at school in Cambridge, he walked into UCL one day by mistake and, following capture, is now on the verge of obtaining a PhD in molecular neuroscience. Now freed again, he plans to move into scientific writing. He will use this blog to write about his many cultural and philosophical interests, which means there will eventually be one about cricket.

A reflection upon Culturico’s interview with Professor Randy Schekman about the growing open-access movement in the biological sciences, and what it means for the future of scientific publishing.

On Friday, 5thApril 2019, I had the unexpected honour of conducting a long-distance video interview with Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine Professor Randy Schekman. This interview is carried out in conjunction with Federico Germani’s in-depth Culturico article on open-access science publishing, and it provides valuable insight into the opinions of one of the open-access movement’s most ardent disciples.

Watch the highlights of the interview with Randy Schekman (short version and full video below):


Short version of the video:


Full interview:


A few personal reflections:

1. Impact Factor is meaningless

Schekman stated that his views on impact factor, a number derived from the total number of citations a paper receives over a two-year window, were formed early in his career. His utter contempt towards this ‘phoney number’ is crucial to understanding his vision of a radically different scientific publishing system. He illustrated this contempt through the example of a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by famous geneticist Seymour Benzer, that provided the first genetic evidence for Circadian rhythm in Drosophila (1). Cited merely 10 times in the 10 years following its publication, it nonetheless formed the basis for the careers of three eminent younger scholars who went on to win the Nobel Prize in 2017. This is evidence that profound and meaningful scholarship can often go unrecognised for many years, and the current overreliance on impact factor may severely distort genuine scientific progress. Schekman’s finger of blame is pointed primarily at a ‘triumvirate’ of prestigious scientific journals: Nature, Science and Cell. These journals are accused of clouded judgement, in that their professional editors are in the conflicted position of being ultimately hired to ‘sell magazines’, instead of being active scholars simply interested in furthering scientific learning. Therefore, they privilege papers that will create a ‘buzz’ and generate immediate citations, leading to an extremely high impact factor. This impact factor means that a young researcher can effectively seal their career with a paper published in any of these journals, which thereby generate an artificially inflated scientific prestige. For Schekman, these journals, alongside their underlying publishing companies (Elsevier, publisher of Cell, comes in for especially sharp criticism due to its ‘obscene near 40% profit margin’), represent a ‘house of cards’ that must be toppled, to be replaced with an entirely open-access publishing system across the biological sciences.

2. Plan S and funding agencies

To that end, Schekman invited all scholars to come out in support of the ‘bold initiative’ Plan S, an open-access science publishing movement that started in the UK and has spread throughout Europe. To his credit, he took some time to address legitimate scientific and economic concerns around what such a radical shift in scientific publishing would mean for the profit margin of other, less prestigious journals. He proposed, for example, that a lot of money could be saved by universities and research institutes by cancelling subscription fees to publishing companies, and money could be gained in charging an extra fee for open-access publication. However, Schekman concluded that many of the scientific concerns around open-access science could largely be dispelled by the actions of the major funding agencies. With the Gates Foundation already mandating open-access publication for all of their scholarships, the Wellcome Trust shortly following suit, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute considering the move, scholars may forget their concerns and do as they are told by their funders: and in this case journals, even the major ones, will be forced to adapt.

3. A personal note

Unsurprisingly therefore, the aforementioned ‘triumvirate’ are fighting Plan S as vigorously as possible. Even at the University of California, Berkeley where Schekman is based, scientists feel the continued pressure to publish in prestigious journals such as Cell, despite the cancellation of the university subscription to Elsevier. Their courage and conviction were called into question by Schekman, who since 2013 has refused to personally submit papers to those journals and called on other scientists to do likewise. Strikingly however, in our final discussion, he himself opened up about his own publishing history before and after the dramatic events of 2013, when he both won the Nobel Prize and decided to use his newfound fame to campaign for open-access science, writing an editorial piece for The Guardian and becoming editor of the peer-reviewed open-access journal eLife.
I used to publish in those prestigious journals before I made that statement: I did so because I too felt that I needed to have that recognition”, he stated, before ruefully adding “I view that now as a flawed position.” He recounted experiences even after 2013 of feeling obliged to publish as a co-author in one of the ‘triumvirate’ journals, an experience so evidently troubling to him that he wouldn’t even specify which one. In these admissions of fallibility, Schekman reveals with total clarity the immense powerlessness scholars experience within the current scientific publishing system. Not all scholars fully understand the issues with the current publishing system, very few scientists feel strongly enough about them to say no to a Nature paper, and hardly any will win a Nobel Prize or obtain the level of fame that will allow them to totally renounce publishing in the most prestigious journals. Ultimately, it may be for those in positions of great privilege such as Professor Randy Schekman to carry forward the open-access publishing movement and get the major funding agencies fully on board. If this succeeds, Culturico’s deeply intelligent and passionate first-ever interview guest may be even more delighted than that happy day in Stockholm in 2013 when his academic labours were rewarded, and his public battle against the ‘house of cards’ began.

 

Alexander F. Brown

 

The questions of the interview have been written by Alexander F. Brown and Federico Germani.

 

References:

  1. Konopka R., Benzer S., “Clock Mutants of Drosophila melanogaster, PNAS, 1971
Received: 22.04.19, Ready: 30.04.19, Editors: FG, RG.

 

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