Science publishing has a Zika problem

Zika virusScience publishing has a problem. I agree with Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman, who wrote that prestigious science journals like Cell, Nature, and Science – which he calls ‘luxury journals’ – are damaging science.  The succession of articles on Zika virus nicely illustrates this problem.

The big three in science publishing – Science, Nature, and Cell – have published many papers on Zika virus since the beginning of 2016. Many of these have had a turnaround time of a week or two – the time between when the papers were submitted, and when they were published online. A rapid turnaround time is unusual, and not compatible with proper peer review of the work. Indeed, many of the papers have been clearly rushed into print, and lack proper controls and clear explanations of what has been done.

The recent publication in Cell Host & Microbe of a description of an infectious DNA clone of Zika virus is a perfect illustration of the problem with luxury journals. Infectious DNA clones of viral genomes are nothing new – the first were described the late 1970s and 1980s. They are important reagents, allowing manipulation of the viral genome to study replication and pathogenesis. But publishing a reagent has never been enough to get into a high profile journal.

As a postdoctoral fellow with David Baltimore in 1981, I was fortunate to publish the first report of an infectious DNA clone of an animal virus – poliovirus – in Science (At the time there were no luxury journals. Years later Nobel Laureate Paul Berg asked why we chose to publish in such a lowly journal). A few years later, I submitted a paper to the Journal of Virology describing the construction of an infectious DNA clone of a different serotype of poliovirus which had the unique ability to infect mice. The paper was rejected because, I was told, it didn’t contain any new results.

The first infectious DNA clone of a calicivirus – the family that includes noroviruses, agents of human gastroenteritis – was published in 1995 in Virology. The senior author told me the paper was rejected from the Journal of Virology because an infectious clone is ‘just a tool’.

The Journal of Virology is a solid journal that publishes many important articles in the field. But no one would mistake it as a luxury journal.

Some infectious DNA clones of viruses have been published in prominent journals – for example, Ebolavirus and influenza virus in Science (2000 and 2001). Zika virus is a flavivirus, and the first infectious DNA of a member of this virus family was for yellow fever virus, published 27 years ago in PNAS. Subsequently there have been many reports of infectious DNA clones of other flaviviruses, notably, West Nile virus, published in Virology in 2001. This virus, which entered the United States, gained quite a bit of attention in the press.

Technically, there is nothing novel about making an infectious DNA clone of Zika virus. It is an important reagent, just as infectious DNA clones are important for the study of all viruses. But the paper reports no experimental results using the Zika virus infectious DNA that advance the field. In my opinion, the infectious DNA clone of Zika virus should not have been published in a high profile journal.

Clearly the paper was published because Zika virus is hot and it will garner the journal a great deal of publicity, a consideration that should not determine whether an article should be published or not. It is the science that should drive publication – and the luxury journals have lost track of this fact.

Schekman points out that the reputations of luxury journals reputations as the “epitome of quality” is only “partly warranted”: they don’t always publish outstanding work, and they are not the only journals to publish great science. He feels that they “aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research”. They are driven by impact factor, which Schekman and others, including myself, think is wrong. Highly cited papers are not necessarily correct; they might be “eye-catching, provocative or wrong. He says that editors accept papers that will ‘make waves’ and therefore influence, inappropriately, the direction of science. He favors open-access journals that are edited by scientists, and so do I.

In my view there are two main forces that have corrupted science publishing. The first is one that Schekman notes: that these journals are in the business of selling subscriptions. The Cell and Nature journals are owned by for-profit publishing companies. This situation is problematic because the drive for profit is not necessarily compatible with the need to publish high quality science. Editors know that controversial or prominent (e.g., Zika) papers will drive advertising revenue, but this should not even be a consideration when deciding what to publish. The publication of scientific data should not be a for profit enterprise. Unfortunately, Science magazine, which is published by the non-profit AAAS, seems to be driven by the same corrupting influences.

A second problem is that decisions at the luxury journals are typically not made by working scientists, but by full-time editors. A professional editor cannot possibly know the field as well as a working scientist, who spends his or her days in the trenches of science: designing experiments, interpreting data, guiding students and postdoctoral fellows, reviewing manuscripts, writing grants, going to meetings, and much more. The result is that the working scientist is fully immersed in science every day, all year, and is in the best position to know what work is significant, advances the field, and should be considered for publication.

These two factors control what kinds of papers are published. The luxury journals want high-impact papers that are of broad interest. But the problem is that it’s not always clear exactly where a paper fits in. Many of us have had the experience of submitting a paper to Cell, Science, or Nature, only to be told ‘it’s not of sufficient interest’. But the real reason is that the paper won’t sell advertising, or subscriptions; or perhaps the editor who made the decision simply doesn’t sufficiently understand the field.

A paper on an infectious Zika virus DNA clone will help Cell Host & Microbe get more advertising. A year ago, the journal would not even have reviewed the paper.

It’s no secret that publishing controls our scientific careers. Decisions about important things like hiring, promotion, tenure, and grant funding revolve around what you have published and where. I’ve been on many tenure or grant review committees, and it’s common to count the number of Cell, Nature, and Science publications as a metric of quality. The same occurs when examining job candidates for professorial positions.

In other words, the luxury journals are controlling the careers of scientists. Journals motivated by profit, run by professional editors who are not scientists, are deciding who is hired, promoted, tenured, and who gets grant money.

Unfortunately it is a system that scientists have created and nurtured until it has become an absurd and untenable situation, and it has to change. The PLoS journals and eLife are helping to do that, but what is also needed is to diminish the importance of the luxury journals to the careers of scientists. That is a much harder goal to achieve, as all my colleagues who are sending their Zika virus papers to luxury journals, will admit.

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