Nobel laureate Professor John Gurdon defends under-fire scientific journals

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 December, 2013, 5:29am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 December, 2013, 5:29am

The "father of cloning" and last year's Nobel laureate for medicine has defended top-tier academic journals, after a successor said three major publications - Nature, Science and Cell - damaged and distorted science by favouring flashy papers over important research.

"I don't think there are many cases where an important result is rejected just because it isn't flashy," said Professor John Gurdon yesterday, talking to reporters at a conference at the University of Hong Kong.

"If a field is important, I think papers on that field will be published."

Gurdon added he understood why Nature and Science would publish papers of greatest public interest, and that it was key to drawing global audiences to science. The scientific community has in recent years been grappling with the influence publication in a branded journal with a "high impact factor" - the likelihood of being cited - has on procuring research funding, and the question of whether worthwhile but less "sexy" subjects are being neglected.

In an op-ed in The Guardian, Randy Schekman, the 2013 laureate for medicine, likened being published in the three to Wall Street bonuses, saying the journals have created a set of incentives that reward reckless, counterproductive and occasionally dishonest behaviour.

"It builds bubbles in fashionable fields where researchers can make the bold claims these journals want, while discouraging other important work, such as replication studies," said Schekman, whose UC Berkeley lab will no longer submit papers to the journals. Schekman said the journals aggressively curated their brands to sell subscriptions, and did not stimulate the best research. He compared the journals to fashion designers selling limited-edition handbags that artificially restrict the supply.

Nature rejects around 99 per cent of the papers it receives.

Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, said: "We select research for publication in Nature on the basis of scientific significance. That in turn may lead to citation impact and media coverage, but Nature editors aren't driven by those considerations, and couldn't predict them even if they wished to do so."

The open-access journal eLife that Schekman edits is a free competitor to the three journals being boycotted, and funded by the Wellcome Trust, the same institution that funds research at the Gurdon Institute.