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Benjamin Lewin

Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Lewin Canadian researcher Tak Wah Mak enjoys the distinction of codiscovering T-cell receptors. But, when he submitted a paper to the journal Cell, the editors treated him like a postdoc: They asked him to go back to the lab and perform one more experiment on a mouse. "I called back and said, 'Do you know how long it takes me to do this experiment? Two or three years!'" he relates. "It's tough to get things published in Cell. They make you jump over the hoops five t

By | October 14, 2002

Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Lewin

Canadian researcher Tak Wah Mak enjoys the distinction of codiscovering T-cell receptors. But, when he submitted a paper to the journal Cell, the editors treated him like a postdoc: They asked him to go back to the lab and perform one more experiment on a mouse. "I called back and said, 'Do you know how long it takes me to do this experiment? Two or three years!'" he relates. "It's tough to get things published in Cell. They make you jump over the hoops five times."

Such is the legacy of Benjamin Lewin, who founded Cell in 1972 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and with unprecedented speed, built a collection of science journals that rival--and many say outperform--heavyweights Nature and Science. Vowing to reduce time between submission and publication and to present groundbreaking papers only when the data has been substantiated to his satisfaction, Lewin created a cutting-edge journal by asserting his own assessments of scientific discoveries without relying solely on his referees. One referee, William Brinkley, says he found his work at Cell untaxing. "I think I was on the editorial board for two cycles and did not receive a lot of papers to review," says Brinkley, distinguished service professor and vice president and dean, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Baylor College of Medicine. "In those days, the editor himself handled a lot of stuff."

But despite Lewin's success, many scientists now hold him responsible for heightening the competition among journals, which, they say, has led to the rapid publication of work that may be 'sexy,' but is sometimes poorly substantiated--and in too many cases, simply wrong. "The whole apparatus of publishing, grant giving--all the things that are peripheral to solving scientific problems--has created a new set of values, if one can call them that, in science which deter collaboration and the free exchange of ideas. This has been very corrupting," says Sydney Brenner, now a distinguished professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. "Anyway, ... was all this caused by Ben or did history select him as the right agent?"

Lewin agrees that the pressure to publish quickly erodes the value of scientific papers. "It is a fair criticism, and a real problem ... exacerbated by the journals, but I don't think Cell is one," Lewin says. "I don't think Cell created [the competition]. It is the scientists who are competitive with one another." Unlike other journals, Cell publishes no short papers or letters. He notes, "The ethos of Cell was, 'there's no need to publish a quickie. Why don't you wait to do it right?'"

That ethos and Lewin's decision to infuse the journal with the production values of a major Madison Avenue magazine--using costly paper, reproducing flawless images--made him a figure of admiration and condemnation among scientists. "I'm sure he impressed [other scientists] as arrogant and high-handed," says Mark Ptashne, Ludwig Professor of Molecular Biology at Sloan-Kettering Institute, whose book on gene expression, A Genetic Switch, Lewin edited. "Sometimes he was arrogant ... but I don't think that is the main thing. He injected his personality so he opened himself up to criticism."

Lewin sold Cell Press for an undisclosed sum to London-based Elsevier Science in 1999, and the following year launched his latest venture, Virtual Text, a Web-based textbook company with modular, hyperlinked content that can be constantly updated (www.ergito.com). "Suppose we didn't have textbooks as the historical way we educate students, how would we do it?" he asks, rhetorically. "What about a large body of information, where you could move seamlessly from topic to topic, migrate to greater levels of exposition.... When you start asking yourself how would you accomplish that ... it works extremely well with the way a Web site works."

Lewin has used the new Web site to publish his own textbook, Genes, as well as essays by scientists who have performed key experiments. For some people, this represents a regression for a publisher who once defined the cutting edge of a new discipline. Others are not so sure. "He absolutely knows what he's doing," says Miranda Robertson, managing director of New Science Press (whose parent company, Current Science, is a sister company of The Scientist). Robertson worked with Lewin at Nature New Biology before that journal was closed in the late 1960s. "And what he's doing is what he's interested in. He's not playing [the game of] Monopoly, ... he's not a business man first. In a sense he's a professional academic."

Lewin's academic bent--his ability to zero into the heart of an argument--provided an intellectual reward for publishing in Cell, Tak Mak says, and that, he sometimes misses. "There's no question in my mind Lewin was a brilliant guy," says Mak says. "He could relate to and identify what is important...in the area of molecular biology...and subsequently in many other areas."

Certain he did not want to focus his research solely on a single cell, model system, or organism, Lewin became editor of Nature New Biology after completing a tutorial fellowship (a step above postdoctoral fellow) at the University of Sussex. He left for a two-year stint at the National Institutes of Health, where he told other scientists about his vision of a comprehensive biology journal. "In the American entrepreneurial spirit, people said, 'Well, it's a good idea, let's do it,'" he recounts. "It happened out of discussions with individual scientists.... MIT carried [Cell] until it broke even, and then there weren't any funding issues, of course."

Lewin funds the new venture, Virtual Text, himself. He's building it from scratch for the Web. But he won't stop at building textbooks, for just as he saw problems in science publishing in the 1970s, in 2002, he sees problems with science publishing on the Web. "I'm not convinced that the publishers of scientific journals have really thought through what the Web means," he says. "And I'm wondering whether we should go into the journal arena to do what needs to be done."

Paula Park can be reached at ppark@the-scientist.com.

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