People continue to complain about the high price of journal subscriptions. The Economist has this article in the 14 December issue, which focusses more on the problems of restricted access and the impact of big journals’ prestige in hiring decisions. The longer we go on with open access journals, which seem to be pretty well established now, the more impressive it becomes that academic publishers are still able to sell subscriptions to these marquee journals.

What’s wrong with Science

BLUNT criticism is an essential part of science, for it is how bad ideas are winnowed from good ones. So when Randy Schekman, one of the 2013 crop of Nobel prize-winners (for physiology or medicine, in his case), decided to criticise the way scientific journals are run, he did not hold back.

Dr Schekman chose the week of the prizegiving (the medals and cheques were handed over on December 10th) to announce that the laboratory he runs at the University of California, Berkeley, will boycott what he describes as “luxury journals”. By that he meant those commonly regarded as the most prestigious, such as Cell, Nature and Science.

He levels two charges against such journals. The first is that, aware of their pre-eminence and keen to protect it, they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept—acting, as he put it in an interview with the Guardian, a British newspaper, like “fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits…know[ing] scarcity stokes demand”. Their behaviour, he says, is more conducive to the selling of subscriptions than the publishing of the best research.

Second, he argues that science as a whole is being distorted by perverse incentives, especially the tyranny of the “impact factor”, a number that purports to measure how important a given journal is. Researchers who publish in journals with a high impact factor—like the three named above—can expect promotion, pay rises and professional accolades. Those that do not can expect obscurity or even the sack, a Darwinian system known among academics as “publish or perish”.

Dr Schekman may not be the most disinterested commentator. Besides his job at Berkeley, he also edits eLife, an open-access journal (in other words, one that does not charge its readers) with ambitions to compete with the top dogs, and which is bankrolled by a trio of wealthy science charities. But working scientists will tell you, perhaps after a few drinks, that he is far from alone in his views. Scarcity of space is meaningless in a world in which more and more research is distributed online. And many worry that the pressure to publish flashy research in glitzy journals encourages hype and faddishness, and rewards being first over being thorough. Jobbing scientists can be reluctant to speak up, fearful of the damage they might do to their careers by rocking the boat. But one of the many perks of being a Nobel laureate is that you no longer have to worry about such things.