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 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.


  1. Thanks, academic publishing has to change and the sooner the better.

    Go electronic and be done with rest. Being charged $35 dollars for an article is gouging, and there are so many journals I cannot access at all because my university does not subscribe.

    Don’t under-estimate the interest that lay enthusiasts have, or indeed many students, who would purchase journals if they were cheap and electronic. I am hoping to see high standard journals selling for a dollar or two, especially now that the universities are in such intellectual decline.

    Thanks Schekman!

  2. PS — google this. i have been in touch with Dr Beall on this last year:

    Predatory publishers are corrupting open access

    Journals that exploit the author-pays model damage scholarly
    publishing and promote unethical behaviour by scientists, argues
    Jeffrey Beall

    12 September 2012
    e-mail first became available, it was a great innovation that made
    communication fast and cheap. Then came spam — and suddenly, the
    innovation wasn’t so great. It meant having to filter out irrelevant,
    deceptive and sometimes offensive messages. It still does.

    The same corruption of a great idea is now occurring with scholarly
    open-access publishing.

    Early experiments with open-access publishing, such as the Journal of
    Medical Internet Research and BioMed Central, were very promising. Set
    up more than a decade ago, they helped to inspire a social movement
    that has changed academic publishing for the better, lowered costs and
    expanded worldwide access to the latest research.

    Then came predatory publishers, which publish counterfeit journals to
    exploit the open-access model in which the author pays. These
    predatory publishers are dishonest and lack transparency. They aim to
    dupe researchers, especially those inexperienced in scholarly
    communication. They set up websites that closely resemble those of
    legitimate online publishers, and publish journals of questionable and
    downright low quality. Many purport to be headquartered in the United
    States, United Kingdom, Canada or Australia but really hail from
    Pakistan, India or Nigeria.

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