Interview with Nobel Prize Winning Cell Biologist Prof. Randy Schekman

Randy Schekman, PhD, is an American cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley and former editor-in-chief of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2011, he was announced as the editor of eLife, a new high-profile open-access journal published by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust launching in 2012. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1992. Schekman shared the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with James Rothman and Thomas C. Südhof for their ground-breaking work on cell membrane vesicle trafficking. (Source: Wiki)


The following has been paraphrased from an interview with Prof. Randy Schekman on April 18th, 2018.

(Click here for the full audio version)


You have pointed out many of the flaws inherent to science publishing, what impact do all those flaws have on the reliability of scientific truth?

Facts change with time and experience, overall I am not pessimistic, the scientific method takes time to get to truth, well, an approximation of truth, it never quite reaches absolute truth. But, things can be sent in the wrong direction with some of the perverse incentives we in the biomedical community feel when we decide to publish our work.

What advice would you have to the layman just trying to figure out what is true?

That is a serious problem. When you read an article in a newspaper that presents something in a seemingly spectacular form, you have to maintain a healthy skepticism.

15 years ago there was a scientist at Harvard Medical School who proposed that cancerous tumors are sustained by vascular growth within the tumor. He claimed that if you inhibit vascularization of tumors, you could kill tumors without them developing resistance to the treatment, like in typical chemotherapies. He had some preliminary evidence of a protein that could inhibit vascularization of tumors in mice, it hit the front page of the New York Times and James Watson said this was going to be the cure for cancer, people were very hopeful. Then it was found that his results were iffy, it took many years before drugs were developed based on his results and they only had a marginal effect. There is one drug that became partially effective in treating breast cancer, but it is not a cure.

This just shows that you have to be very skeptical, headlines are often misleading, you have to really delve into the subject to know what to believe, unfortunately very few people and media outlets are willing to go that far.

One problem with science publishing is the tendency to not print negative results or reproducibility studies. How have you tried to tackle these problems at your publishing company, eLife

We are determined to publish retractions and corrections if we make mistakes. The most selective journals, the so-called high impact journals, Science, Nature, and Cell, are very reluctant to publish papers that challenge something they already published. We get a lot of inquiries from people who get rejected from these journals simply because they are publishing something that contradicts something else the journal has already published. I think the journal has a responsibility to publish legitimate challenges.

There is a famous paper from Science 10 years ago where the investigators found a bacterium that could replace phosphate with arsenate, the implication was that DNA could be made with arsenate instead of phosphate, which would be astonishing. It got published and NASA even held a press conference because this might have explained how life evolved on other planets. But, as soon as it was published, people who actually know the details of the experiments said that they hadn’t taken the right precautions or used the right controls. Yet, still, that paper has not been retracted. Now they are finally challenging the conclusions, but, frankly, they haven’t had the guts to retract the paper.

How much of the problem is the simple fact that these papers are a business that needs to make money? Could some of these problems be resolved if these papers were publicly funded?

I think the decision making process is tainted by the profit motive, particularly at Nature and Cell, which are big private businesses. The problem with those two in particular is that, for the most part, the people who make the decisions about what gets reviewed and what gets published are professional editors employed by the publisher to sell magazines. I think this is a conflict of interest. They of course deny this, they say they couldn’t possibly predict what is going to be useful or important. But until very recently, largely as a result of public shaming, these people have promoted their journals on the basis of a phony metric called the journal impact factor which is promulgated by another commercial outfit to help sell magazines. Science is a little different because it is a non-profit, they still make a lot of money but that gets put back into the promotion of science, so I am a little more sympathetic to them.

But, Cell and Nature are purely for profit. I’m a capitalist, I believe in free enterprise, and if they were truly making a better product, I would support them, but they are not. They have a business plan that is very effective. People feel trapped by the system and compelled to publish in these journals because it has become part of the culture in biomedical science that if you don’t publish in these journals your career will go nowhere. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy and they bank on the vanity that scientists have.

What are better ways to assess the merits of a researcher than metrics like impact factor?

I think there is no substitute to people in positions of authority making decisions on who gets hired and promoted, and who gets fellowship and grants. You have to actually read the work and judge its merits. Also, they should be scrutinized by active scientists, not by people in the business of selling magazines.

What are the drawbacks of the alternative, open-access publishing through publications like eLife?

There are predatory journals that exploit people that have no standards, they publish anything for a fee. Whenever there is money to be made, people will find a way to exploit it. But, anybody publishing in those journals only has themselves to blame.

For young researchers who feel compelled by the system to publish in these high impact journals, what advice would you give them?

Just say no. I know young people who appreciate the trap that they are placed in and who rebel. I have young colleagues who are highly regarded and have never published in those journals. People think they have to publish in those journals, but they don’t. Also, people in positions of authority who are judging those scholars should remove the toxic influence of impact factor, and they should blind themselves to where something is published and just read the papers. Though it is a chore when you have hundreds of applicants, and they all have multiple publications. They could also rely on letters of recommendation or a narrative that describes the achievement of an individual. It is hard but the impact factor is flawed in so many ways, it is a joke that anybody pays attention to it.

Do you see things getting better or worse?

I don’t think they are getting any better or worse. I think more people are aware, and there are people who agree with me, but a lot of people just smile and carry on with what they do. It is the tragedy of the commons, people will exploit the system to their own advantage, even if it is to the detriment of the common good. It is human nature and these high impact journals exploit that human frailty.

Click here to learn more about the work of Prof. Randy Schekman

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