Are articles in high-impact journals more like designer handbags, or monarch butterflies?

Monarch butterfly handbag

Monarch butterfly handbag (src)

US biologist Randy Schekman, who shared this year’s physiology and medicine Nobel prize, has made prompt use of his new bully pulpit. In

How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science: The incentives offered by top journals distort science, just as big bonuses distort banking

he singled out these “luxury” journals as a particularly harmful part of the current milieu in which “the biggest rewards follow the flashiest work, not the best,” and he vowed no longer to publish in them. An accompanying Guardian article includes defensive quotes from representatives of Science and Nature, especially in response to Schekman’s assertions that the journals favor controversial articles over boring but scientifically more important ones like replication studies, and that they deliberately seek to boost their impact factors by restricting the number of articles published, “like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits.”  Focusing on journals, his main concrete suggestion is to increase the role of open-access online journals like his elife, supported by philanthropic foundations rather than subscriptions. But Schekman acknowledges that blame extends to funding organizations and universities, which use publication in high-impact-factor journals as a flawed proxy for quality, and to scientists who succumb to the perverse incentives to put career advancement ahead of good science.  Similar points were made last year in Serge Haroche’s thoughtful piece on why it’s harder to do good science now than in his youth.   This, and Nature‘s recent story on Brazilian journals’ manipulation of impact factor statistics, illustrate how prestige journals are part of the solution as well as the problem.

Weary of people and institutions competing for the moral high ground in a complex terrain, I sought a less value-laden approach,  in which scientists, universities, and journals would be viewed merely as interacting IGUSes (information gathering and utilizing systems), operating with incomplete information about one another. In such an environment, reliance on proxies is inevitable, and the evolution of false advertising is a phenomenon to be studied rather than disparaged.  A review article on biological mimicry introduced me to some of the refreshingly blunt standard terminology of that field.  Mimicry,  it said,  involves three roles:  a model,  i.e.,  a living or material agent emitting perceptible signals, a mimic that plagiarizes the model, and a dupe whose senses are receptive to the model’s signal and which is thus deceived by the mimic’s similar signals.  As in human affairs, it is not uncommon for a single player to perform several of these roles simultaneously.

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