Luxury vs. Quality: Why Journal Prestige Doesn’t Guarantee Good Science

In an op-ed in last week’s The Guardian, this year’s Nobel Laureate in Medicine, Randy Schekman, declared that he would no longer be publishing his papers in the big prestigious “luxury” journals that have dominated scientific discourse for generations such as Science, Nature and Cell. Dr. Schekman declares that the processes required for publishing in these journals have distorted the “incentives” for creating quality science and thereby undermine humanity’s deep and abiding interest in scientific progress. In his op-ed, Schekman recounts numerous instances of big name journals publishing articles on popular “sexy” subjects at the expense of quality, efficiency, and at times, truth.

Sadly the marketing of science, even within what should be the most objective of scientific forums, i.e. peer-reviewed publication, appears to not be that different than Louis Vuitton handbags and Rolex watches. If the LV brand label is attached, the handbag is widely assumed to be high quality! Alternatively among many consumers (readers) of scientific journals, if Nature publishes an article, it is assumed to be good science. But truthfully, how many handbags are merely cheap knock-offs of what is currently fashionable? While this analogy may make many scientists recoil in horror, there is clearly an element of truth which makes it so painful.

The rewards for publishing in the big name journals can make careers for many a determined academic; in the process of academic promotion, the importance of the journal in which an article is published, as typically measured by journal impact factor, has become the primary yardstick for assessing quality and importance. But is it? Yes, the average article in a prestigious journal is very good, but not all published papers within such journals are necessarily good or important.

The converse argument is important to emphasize; through the lens of hindsight, many great peer-reviewed articles were published in less than famous journals. Despite this reality, nearly all promotion committees continue to fawn over journal brand names. Shockingly, one is left to conclude that even scholarly groups are incapable of or unwilling to, read the articles of young academics and gauge for themselves the quality of a scientist’s work.

The above reality has corrupted the truth and beauty that is supposedly at the core of scientific publication. Most troublingly, in (seemingly) rare cases unscrupulous academics will of course stop at nothing to publish in luxury journals, even if it means scientific fraud. Can the madness spawned around prestige journals, some of which are nearly two centuries old, be reversed? Fortunately yes. The move towards publishing in online open access journals is gradually shaking up the antiquated and counterproductive world of publishing. When reading open access journals, the reader is compelled to judge for themselves the quality of the science being presented. From many vantage points, but especially because of its unique crowd sourcing tool (SIQ), a measure of paper quality, almost no journal is better positioned than Cureus to fix the very broken world of scientific publishing.

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