In defence of Science (magazine)

Posted: January 25, 2014 in Academia, Publishing

Recent Nobel Laureate, Randy Schekman, wrote an op-ed piece in The Guardian back in December railing against the “glamour mag” journals of Science, Nature, and Cell for damaging science (also discussed here and here). He rightly slams the culture of using journal impact factors as a judge of paper quality, which I agree with wholeheartedly. However, I disagree with what appears to be the crux of his argument, that that these luxury journals are artificially limiting the number of papers they publish solely in pursuit of selling more subscriptions:

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. The exclusive brands are then marketed with a gimmick called “impact factor” – a score for each journal, measuring the number of times its papers are cited by subsequent research. Better papers, the theory goes, are cited more often, so better journals boast higher scores. Yet it is a deeply flawed measure, pursuing which has become an end in itself – and is as damaging to science as the bonus culture is to banking.

This is where this young postdoc parts ways with the opinions of the decorated Nobel laureate, particularly with respect to Science magazine which is produced by the non-profit American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS). I have been subscribing to the print version of Science since two years into my PhD, and I have continued to receive it here in the UK despite the $160 price tag of having an overseas subscription. Why get a subscription to Science as opposed to say, Nature or Cell? A couple of reasons:

  1. I get an additional line on my CV because I’m now an AAAS member. When I was first deciding between the two journals, this was the deal breaker for a young graduate student looking to find ways to beef up, what was at the time, a very bare bones CV.
  2. I am supporting the AAAS, an organization that I respect and is an advocate for science in the world of US gov’t policy. A subscription to Nature or Cell just lines the coffers of DutchBritish, and  German fat cats. Might as well support the boys (and girls) at home fightin’ the good fight!
  3. I supremely enjoy the content. Half of the print Science magazine is not scientific articles, but science journalism of various sorts. There are stories, policy debates, op-ed pieces etc. I typically read this portion of the magazine end-to-end. It’s generally very high quality and an order of magnitude better than Scientific American or New Scientist, magazines I was getting prior to, and during the first years, of graduate school. However, I rarely read the scientific articles unless they are interesting enough and close enough to my field that I can understand them. On occasion my sub-field gets a little bit of love in Science, and I definitely read those.
  4. Call me old school, but I much prefer a print magazine to reading things on a device. I have commuted to work via public transit for over 8 years now, and I typically just grab the latest Science mag to read to/from work. I’m willing to pay a premium for something new to take with me every week of the year (despite protestations from my spouse as they tend to pile up around the flat…).
  5. Exposure to different fields and ideas. Whilst I have no desire to read the scientific literature on archaeology or snake venoms, I quite enjoy reading well written scientific journalism on the topics. In addition, there’s always interesting articles about publishing, open access, bibliometrics etc.

Thus, there is considerable value in having a print version of Science magazine. This is not an “artificial” limitation on the number of articles that can be published in Science, as Scheckman claims. It is legitimate. There is still a significant place for print subscriptions, even in today’s increasingly digital world.

Nonetheless, it does look as if Science is already working to address, in part, the point that Scheckman makes with respect to the number of papers that are published. In the past year, Science has added a “Research Article Summary” along with the “Research Articles” and “Reports” that they publish. These summaries are a single printed page, with what is basically an extended abstract and a single figure. There is then the inclusion of a web address to access the entire article. Perhaps this is a format that the editors are exploring so they can indeed publish more papers.

Finally, Scheckman charges that Science (and Nature/Cell) tout their impact factors incessantly. I’ve never once seen a mention of Sciences’ impact factor in the magazine in the 7+ years I’ve been reading it. That’s not to say in other forums it is not touted, but it’s definitely not in your face as far as the magazine itself is concerned.

It seems to me that Scheckman, editor of the newly created eLife online journal, has his guns trained on the wrong target (along with a clear conflict of interest). The real pushers of glamour mags is funding, tenure, and hiring committees. Whilst I wouldn’t shed a tear if Nature, Cell, and their ilk went the way of the dodo bird, they are just for-profit organizations trying to make a buck the best they can within the existing culture. They don’t strike me as drivers of the culture; that lays with administrators, scientists, and policy makers.

So keep your hands off my Science mag!

—————————————————-

Disclaimer: I never have, and probably never will, publish in Science.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s