Opiniomics

bioinformatics, genomes, biology etc. "I don't mean to sound angry and cynical, but I am, so that's how it comes across"

I think you might be a hypocrite

Much is made of the “fact” that scientific publishing is broken, and to be honest, I have a lot of sympathy with these ideas.  However, I don’t really have a problem with those that disagree with me – life is full of people with different opinions, and there is nothing wrong at all with two people who disagree.  I think they’re wrong and they thing I’m wrong.  There is a certain nobility to holding your position clear and sticking to it.

What I do have a problem with is people who reap the rewards of a system throughout their career, and then at the end, when they are rich, fat and happy, turn around and tell me that the system is broken and that I need to fix it.

Step forward Randy Schekman, the Nobel prize winner who has just declared a boycott of the top science journals Nature, Science and Cell.  However, as Noah Gray pointed out on Twitter, Randy has an exceptional track record of publishing in these journals:

A quick glance indicates 46 such publications, including a Science paper published in May of this year.

I wrote a blog post recently called “We didn’t ask for it”, and in case you missed the subtle nuance (!) of the post, what I was trying to say is that if you’re an established scientist, a tenured professor with hundreds of peer-reviewed papers behind you, and especially if you’re a man, you don’t get to tell people like me that the system is broken, because you’re the one who broke it!!!

Bear in mind that Randy is already part of the generation who burned all the fossil fuels, created the hole in the ozone layer, oversaw the destruction of rain forests and the loss of countless species, overfished the seas, sent countless pieces of junk into space, wrecked the global economy and got rich off the housing market, then (mostly) retired in their 50s, and you might begin to understand a simmering anger in the younger generation(s) when people who in powerful positions tell us that things are broken and need to be fixed.

Here’s the thing – the younger generation are going to fix things, because we have to, and you don’t get to take any of the *!&%-ing credit Randy!

22 Comments

  1. How is accusing Schekman of hypocrisy in any way constructive? IMHO, the more people join the movement the faster it will succeed, and I think Schekman deserves a lot of gratitude for using this once-in-a-lifetime megaphone to advocate for changes the open access community has been pushing for – especially since progress up to now has been pretty slow. Is who gets credit somehow more important than moving forward?

  2. Don’t we want the spokesman for a movement to have some gravitas in the area? A track record? What would you tell a Doctor who prescribes you a drug they themselves wouldn’t take? A politician pushing public education who sends their kids to private school? A rich man who has never worked telling the poor to get a job?

  3. The point about journal elitism is well taken but it’s a low blow to throw in all that stuff about the ozone layer and the economy. Surely Schekman wasn’t personally responsible for all that the way he was responsible for publishing in Nature.

    Also, think about it this way; Schekman wouldn’t have been able to be Schekman had he not published in the pages of these journals. The problem is that you cannot fight the system from outside so I think it’s legitimate to first turn yourself into an insider and then fight it out. It’s a little like accusing Noam Chomsky of criticizing the US when he himself lives there; the point is that his criticism wouldn’t have been half as effective or well-informed had he lived somewhere else.

  4. I don’t think Schekman is personally responsible for the Ozone layer, I’m just pointing out (as Ben Goldacre did in his letter to The Times) that the current generation of people in power, be it in science, politics, finance etc, if they are saying that a system is broken, then it’s because they broke it.

    And I seriously doubt that Schekman was some kind of under cover agent working to bring the system down from within. I’m more than happy to bring it down from the outside, thank you very much.

  5. On the other hand people can change. It’d be hypocritical of him to attack them whilst he was still publishing in them, on the other hand it’s possible he’s simply changed his mind. Yes he benefited from them, it doesn’t necessarily mean he can now never, ever be against them.

  6. I absolutely agree and I think it’s great that he has changed his mind – and I am sure it is just coincidence that this change of mind comes at the same time he takes up an EiC post at eLife, and hence his stance advances his career even further.

    What I missed from Randy was the apology. Here are his words:

    “Those of us who follow these incentives …. do not always best serve our profession’s interests, let alone those of humanity and society.”

    There’s a frank admission there that his past actions didn’t serve science’s best interests, they didn’t serve society’s best interests and they didn’t serve humanity’s best interests.

    Wow. The next phrase, the one he forgot to write, was “I apologise. I made a mistake”.

  7. Honestly, I think you are missing the point. Most researchers are in agreement that the situation has deteriorated significantly over the last decades, with a far greater stress on publishing or perishing. To the detriment of research not done with a clear short-sighted goal. I for one welcome the fact that someone who has nothing to gain by attacking this system is actually protesting. Not independent researchers that could be accused of having a case of ‘sour grapes’.
    Perhaps we don’t all agree on what the solution is, but I think a lot of us see that the high impact journals’ increased focus on ‘clickable’ stories is a drain on quality research.

  8. Nothing to gain? You mean other than the career boost as he takes over as EiC at eLife?

    Can you honestly say you see nothing hypocritical in his actions?

  9. We have never measured the ozone and there wasn’t a hole present. Never. Just saying. Science!

  10. Not only that, but eLife is trying to position itself as THE elite open access journal, fully underwritten with private funding. Schekman wants to replace the Cell, Nature, Science crowd with his own brand of elitism. Calling out one’s competitors is not unreasonable, but The Guardian might have been well-served by noting this conflict.

  11. Note that the Nobel Peace Prize didn’t just go to Nelson Mandela, but also to F.W. de Klerk. Gotta have all sides advocating for change.

  12. I agree with biomickwatson on the point that he should apologize. That’d make him more noble and give the matter more seriousness in public debate, contributing to faster change. In that sense his “hypocritical” attitude doesn’t make that much good. (sorry for my english)

  13. As a young academic (be it scientist, humanist, or whatever), you are likely to be two things: idealistic and ambitious. Sometimes they conflict. You may not like the academic publishing model, but when your job (& family, etc.) is on the line, it’s not evil to suck it up and go along until you’ve got the power to change things. And it’s not hypocritical to make full prof and begin to use your academic freedom as a force for change. Sure, an acknowledgment of his role in creating the current system would be nice, but let’s also support those who can afford to reject it when they do so.

  14. I remind people that “famous” & less famous scientists banded together and threatened to boycott prestige journals in the 00’s to bring about open access practices and, again, just a year and half ago to protest Elsevier’s (publisher of “Cell”) business practices. Randy (obviously) doesn’t need to publish in the big three anymore – his reputation is soundly established – but I’m pretty sure most of his graduate students and post-docs want to (indeed, need to!) publish in the top tier, highest impact journals to get fellowships and jobs! I rather suspect that is reason behind any apparent hypocrisy on his part. The system is broken, but (sadly) it still might still be the best one out there, for now, given that science is a human endeavor (with ids, egos, superegos that must be served) and resources are limited. The real question is whether the “system” is supposed to be about the science or about the people doing it. I, personally, think it should be about the former, but, obviously, the best science is done by happy people with unfettered minds. I do feel that at this time, the level of competition for those limited resources is such that the quality of science is grossly compromised. People can’t afford (time, money) to be truly rigorous.

  15. I would argue that now his grad students and postdocs no longer need to publish in CNS, precisely because he’s made this very public declaration. Hiring and tenure committees will definitely be aware that if they don’t have a CNS publication from their tenure in the Schekman lab, it’s not (necessarily) because their publication wasn’t worthy, but because of the boycott. See, for example, Mike Eisen’s trainees success: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=911 (note: I am one of Mike’s current grad students)

    What’s not clear is if someone from a less illustrious lab, whose PI hasn’t made everyone who’ll listen aware of their boycott, could also stand to boycott those journals on ideological grounds. I suspect that the answer is yes, but I recognize that it is reasonable for someone to disagree.

  16. A topic/field gets fashionable, pulls up the people who were working on it and gets published in CNS (and maybe eLife – who cares) then falls out of fashion and then gets published in more specialized journals – interesting paper or not. The problem is, that there are too many people jockeying for the few positions in research academia (and industry) have to offer, otherwise this wouldn’t all be such a big deal. How would you – without CNS – get an ass prof’ship with an open access journal (counting the readership) article when your field is not popular? You don’t! CNS is your only hope. Fact is that dumb and lucky people can have brilliant results once and their mentor has the rest and these get a position while the smart ones like YOU languish in post-docia till kingdom comes (if you can even hold on to those positions) – because you couldn’t publish in CNS. Rating agencies, CNS editors… they aren’t infallible and the system depends too much on them because there are far too many players. This is the wrong fight, we’ve lost that one in the 90ies when the NIH was ridiculously enlarged, killed the jobs in industry and got us all kinds of dumbos in positions they shouldn’t be in (and that still includes about half of the Ph.D. students). Here we are now, jobless, cheating, fighting for scraps while we only know half the genes we have and cis-platin is still the main cancer drug…

  17. Hey you’re a moron and a terrible writer, please close this site and get a new hobby. Sorry, are you NOT part of the generation that burns fossil fuels? Oh, right, yeah you are actually. So I guess we shouldn’t listen to anything you have to say either, since you’re also a hypocrite. Stupid c***.

  18. NIH’s “enlargement” (which wasn’t that much) had nothing to do with the loss of jobs in industry. That loss was due to business culture changing in the 80’s, from thinking about long-term goals to thinking of this quarter, next quarter, and maybe next year. As much value as I place on research, and yes, we can talk constantly about how worthy it is, isn’t geared to fit that culture. It’s a cost center without readily evident tangible benefits to the bottom line. Add in a recession in the early ’90’s, and businesses proceeded to slash their R&D budgets like there was no tomorrow. Because of that, for some of them (Eastman Kodak springs to mind), there wasn’t. But it looked good on the stock report at the time.

  19. The number of researchers per company and researchers in total in industry and not only in obvious places like in the US, but also in Europe like in Basel, Switzerland and recession proof companies without stock woes (Roche, privately owned) went down precipitously in the late nineties and OOs. “Blue sky” research indeed doesn’t fit into a business model – never has – but applied research as financed by the NIH does.
    First, a factor 2 over ~7 years does seem a lot to me. Secondly, the number of research groups exploded in the US as evidenced by the explosion of hiring by “private” (but still grant funded) universities in the 90ies), also the number of researchers per group exploded (hence the now standard 10 person “Post-Doc driven lab” with 1 tech). Since the demand for people suddenly couldn’t be met, people from parts of Europe and China on H1-Bs who don’t pay taxes for 3 years arrived. -> Too many people, even if you think that they would be as good as they could be. Third, applied research (type in p53 into pubmed and you’ll know what I mean) did kill parts of the more obvious research routes. I am not saying that there is NO research anymore. They still produce the odd k.o. mouse, crystallize this and that… But muuuch less and most research people in industry worked in lead generation/lead confirmation and attached departments that also did other things. Why would you, as a company, research something when you can either get it for free or be blocked by patents generated by cheap researchers or have your old research in the public domain? That’s why they stopped doing it (largely) by themselves. Less research and more researchers lead to a higher degree of specialization for the rest of the jobs which isn’t good for anybody. So no, the Pharma sector per se didn’t press to change the business model, they had to adapt. They now buy little companies.
    You can argue with me about whether universities should have a spin-off bureau instead of a tech transfer office or whether PIs hired in the 90ies really are dumber than the ones hired in the 00s, as my model predicts but that the doubling of the NIH extramural funding didn’t affect the industry job market…. I hope I have convinced you.

  20. @Blub Blubber

    No, you haven’t, and it’s possibly because I was around in the late 70’s and 80’s, before that NIH funding increase you blame. These declines in industry R&D positions were evident well before that, and in industries that had absolutely no relationship with NIH funding. It’s one of the reasons I pointed to Eastman Kodak as an example. So the increase in NIH funding is more a result than a cause when it comes to industry positions.

  21. Eastman Kodak had their specific problems, wasn’t a Life Science firm (a few films don’t make a pharma company) and industry research jobs did not start to significantly decrease until the mid/late nineties. We agree to disagree here…

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