As the row over takedown notices from academic publisher Elsevier already detailed in TeleRead continues to mushroom, a different perspective on the whole issue of open access research publication has surfaced from Randy Schekman, “investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2013.” Writing in the UK Guardian under the headline “How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science,” Schekman announced that he has “now committed my lab to avoiding” what he styles these “luxury journals,” while encouraging his academic peers “to do likewise” in favor of “the new breed of open-access journals that are free for anybody to read.”
Schekman’s take on this is rather different from those who are tackling takedown notices. His argument is rather that the “distorting incentives” involved in the production of these major journals mean that they do not always publish research of the quality you’d expect from such brands.
“These luxury journals are supposed to be the epitome of quality, publishing only the best research,” he states. “These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research. Like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits, they know scarcity stokes demand, so they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept.” Schekman describes the resultant gimmickry of “impact factor” as “as damaging to science as the bonus culture is to banking.” He then goes on to quote specific examples, declaring: “In extreme cases, the lure of the luxury journal can encourage the cutting of corners, and contribute to the escalating number of papers that are retracted as flawed or fraudulent.”
Obviously, this is a different argument to the kind that Academia.edu and others are advancing for publicly-funded research to be made public purely on principle. But it brings some very practical reasons to bear for doing just that. And yes, as an editor of open access journal eLife, Schekman may be engaged in some special pleading. But again, it seems to be pleading that is hard to refute – not least as the cases he cites of these “luxury journals” withdrawing papers provide some actual objective measure of the effect that is obvious even to the non-scientist.
Meantime, the row over open access rumbles on. As quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mike Taylor of the Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week blog, remarked that: “preventing people from making their own work available would be insane, and the publisher that did it would be committing a PR gaffe of huge proportions.” Tom Reller, Elsevier’s vice president for global corporate relations, replied at length via email to the same publication, and it’s worth going over to the website to check out how those arguments actually stack up against each other. And once again, for an extremely detailed government-level viewpoint on the issue of “public access to publicly-funded research,” it’s worth going over to the text of the speech by the UK Minister for Science David Willetts to the 2012 UK Publishers Association annual general meeting, here.