The Problem with Scientific Journals, Especially Elite Ones

Examples of elite scientific journals are Science,Nature, and Cell. But this problem generalizes to practically all refereed journals. Unfortunately, a criterion many refereed journals regard as one of success is a high rejection rate for submitted papers. This problem was recently articulated by Randy Schekman, the 2013 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine.1 One of his criticisms was the artificial restriction of papers they publish that result in a high rejection rate. The second criticism has to do with published “impact factor” that purports to measure how important a journal is. The result of these pernicious factors is the conclusion John Ioannidis made in 2005 in Plos: Medicine, that most published research findings are false.

The sine qua non of science is replication. But journals do not like to publish replications of research. Much worse, is that failures to replicate are also likely not published. Simply put, that is how the majority of published research findings are false. This problem is so severe that the cover of the October 19th to 25thEconomist read, HOW SCIENCE GOES WRONG. The feature article elaborated on the very brief synopsis that I have provided.

At one time, in the era of paper publishing, there was a serious cost that limited how much research could be published. However, that is no longer the case. There is no limit to how much research can be put online. There is still a cry for research to be refereed. I have participated in the review process both as a reviewer and as a receiver of reviews. I have not been impressed by the process. There is a large factor of arbitrariness, and often form is weighted more strongly than substance. Frankly, I do not need what I read to be refereed. I can quickly ascertain whether a particular paper is worthy of further attention.

I think the major force behind refereeing are the academics. When making tenure decisions, the number of refereed publications is a factor that is heavily weighted. Absent this metric, academics might actually need to read the papers of those they are considering for tenure.

Randy Sheckman has started his own on-line journal. Expect many more in the future. Indeed, expect being able to download more research papers from authors’ websites.

This is certainly a welcome development for poor bloggers such as myself trying to access relevant research. There is also a push to make more data available to researchers. As most of this research is funded with taxpayers’ money, this is certainly appropriate, but I shall stop here before proceeding on another rant.

1What’s wrong with Science, The Economist December 14th 2013, p. 86.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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2 Responses to “The Problem with Scientific Journals, Especially Elite Ones”

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