Can Contributors Change Journals?

We asked Melinda Baldwin, who specializes in the history of scientific journals, to offer some thoughts on Randy Schekman's recent editorial in the Guardian. Melinda is currently finishing a book, Making Nature: The History of a Scientific Journal, to be published by the University of Chicago Press. You can learn more about her work here.

On Tuesday, Nobel Prize-winning biologist Randy Schekman made a startling announcement: he intends to boycott three top scientific journals—Science, Nature, and Cell—that published much of his Nobel-winning research. According to Schekman, these “luxury journals” are “damaging” and “distorting” science. As researchers, funding bodies, and tenure committees have focused on brand names and impact factors, the quality of papers—and of science—has declined. 

Top Journals Science, Nature, and Cell (Image Source)
Schekman’s editorial naturally sparked my interest—I am currently finishing a book about the history of Nature—and made me think about journal prestige in the twenty-first century. The three “luxury journals” certainly don’t lament their status as the world’s most sought-after scientific publications. In Nature’s case, this level of prestige is (as I argue in my book) partly the result of a conscious effort by several Nature editors to attract interesting papers and make Nature a desirable place to publish new research.* But it is also bottom-up: for decades, researchers have chosen to publish in Nature, and it is this role of contributors I want to explore today.  

As more and more contributors chose Nature, the increase in submissions drove down the acceptance rate—which only made publication there more desirable. Thus, researchers and publishers get caught in feedback loop. Certain journals are considered prestigious largely because they accept so few submissions, and in turn they receive a large number of submissions because they are considered so prestigious.

Schekman suggests two ways to break this cycle. First, the luxury journals could stop “artificially restricting” the number of papers they accept and raise their acceptance rates. Second, and more provocatively, Schekman points out that contributors could stop sending papers to luxury journals—and announces that his lab will no longer submit papers to Science, Cell, or Nature. Schekman says he’s taking this step to try and “break the tyranny of the luxury journals” and he encourages other researchers to join him.

Could contributor pressure really change how a scientific journal operates? As a historian, I'm allergic to making predictions about the future, so instead I will say this: it has in the past.

Nature was founded in 1869 under the leadership of the astronomer and British War Office bureaucrat J. Norman Lockyer, with the backing of the London publishing house Macmillan and Company. Lockyer had a very specific vision for his new weekly journal: he wanted Nature to be a publication written by men of science** but accessible to laymen.

Norman Lockyer (Wikimedia Commons)
In his initial circular asking for contributions, Lockyer was careful to emphasize that Nature was not a specialized scientific journal. Instead, Lockyer hoped that Nature would become weekly reading for Britain’s most influential barristers, businessmen, and members of Parliament. His ultimate goal was for Nature to help convince prominent Britons that science was an important endeavor that deserved intellectual respect (and also significantly more funding).

British men of science, however, proved less interested than Lockyer had hoped in writing journalistic articles aimed at an audience of laymen. Instead, Lockyer found himself with a pile of specialized, technical submissions that would have been near-incomprehensible to anyone without a scientific background. His contributors simply did not send him the journalistic pieces he wanted, and Lockyer was not about to turn to science journalists (of whom he had an extremely low opinion) to fill the gap.

Determined that Nature’s articles should be written exclusively by qualified researchers, Lockyer printed his contributors’ technical submissions. By 1872, the clergyman Charles Kingsley—a man with wide-ranging knowledge of recent scientific research—found himself compelled to tell his friend Lockyer that Nature was no longer accessible to laymen. “I have the highest respect for [Nature], and I wish I were wise enough to understand more of it,” he wrote in a letter to Lockyer. “But I fear its circulation must be more limited than you would wish.”

Original Masthead of Nature (Wikimedia Commons)
 Lockyer found himself with an excess of specialized submissions in large part because his contributors quickly realized that a weekly journal with a short turnaround time was a convenient venue for scientific debates. Nature’s contributors knew that they could send a letter or article to Nature and within weeks (often within a single week) it would be in print and could be read by a wide range of scientific researchers across Britain. By the end of the nineteenth century Nature had become one of the most important specialist scientific publications in Great Britain. This dramatic shift in tone and content was driven by the contributors’ interests, not by editorial policies. Furthermore, this was far from the last time in Nature’s history that contributors would shift Nature in a new direction. In fact, I’ve found that Nature’s 144-year history is rich with examples of contributor pressure changing the form and content of the journal.

When an article in Science or Cell or Nature can make a scientist’s career, as it can today, it can be easy to see the editorial staff as the all-powerful gatekeepers of scientific success. But Schekman’s editorial and the early history of Nature remind us that readers and contributors are not passive nodes in the network of science publishing. Whether one researcher’s boycott will have an impact remains to be seen, but we should not discount the power of contributors to shape the development of a scientific journal.


* Although I feel compelled to mention that Nature’s current editor, Philip Campbell, has been a consistent critic of the over-use of impact factors and other measures of “prestige” or “importance.”

** Nature did not officially use the term “scientist” until 1924, and then only after a lengthy debate in the “Letters to the Editor” section.


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