An Unholy Trinity?

The "big three" journals, Nature, Science, and Cell, undoubtedly have some say in the development and perception of science. But what exactly is their impact? How long-lasting is it? Is it helpful or damaging? The story on page 59 of this issue considers how competition among these journals for high-profile breakthroughs may harm the scientific process, and another on page 76 profiles one of the architects of the current state of affairs. Is it now time, in the best interests of science, to d

Oct 14, 2002
Richard Gallagher

The "big three" journals, Nature, Science, and Cell, undoubtedly have some say in the development and perception of science. But what exactly is their impact? How long-lasting is it? Is it helpful or damaging?

The story on page 59 of this issue considers how competition among these journals for high-profile breakthroughs may harm the scientific process, and another on page 76 profiles one of the architects of the current state of affairs. Is it now time, in the best interests of science, to dismantle the hegemony? Here are my thoughts, but bear in mind that having spent the past decade at Science and Nature, I may be institutionalized.

Among the charges brought in our stories are that too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals; that these individuals, namely the editors, don't know what they are doing; or that they do know what they are doing, but operate on standards more akin to Hollywood casting than to standard peer review, giving preference to "star" names; and that they hold the media to ransom with ruthless embargo policies.

The main source of friction is the triage process whereby the huge numbers of manuscripts submitted are whittled down to a manageable quantity for peer review. Editors are looking for surprising, widely applicable, and generally interesting results. Researchers know this, and they know too that there is an element of subjectivity in the judgment. This gives the editors some power, but they must exercise it wisely and cautiously if they are to retain the confidence and custom of the research community. Despite the fact that the journals use different selection procedures, the end results are very similar.

What do researchers stand to gain from participating in this beauty contest? In a word, profile. Nature, Science, and Cell offer the best way of reaching a large research audience. The sheer enjoyment of receiving the accolades of ones' peers shouldn't be underestimated.

For the scientific enterprise too there is a benefit. Stories based on published papers feature weekly in print and broadcast media, contributing hugely to the profile and prestige of science.

Which brings me to the embargo system: the other controversy. On the one hand, the procedure removes temptation among reporters to beat the competition, allowing them time to produce better-written and researched stories that are instantly verifiable by reference to the published study; on the other hand, some researchers and journalists consider the system to be manipulative, stultifying, and self-serving. For now, the positives outweigh the negatives.

My conclusion is that, while there is always room for improvement, Nature, Science, and Cell provide a worthwhile net contribution. In particular, they play a constructive role as the showcase for the sciences.

Perhaps we (and they) should just take them a little less seriously. How about nicknames? I'll offer Erutan, Séance, and Sell. Erutan is reputed to be the biggest-selling laxative worldwide. The fact that it is Nature written backwards is purely coincidental. I don't want to suggest that dealing with Science approximates to contacting "the other side," or that the homonyms Cell and sell are anything other than happenstance.

Others may have better suggestions. But bear in mind that the bestowing of a nickname says more about the namer than the named. That's a worrying thought!

--Richard Gallagher, Editor (rgallagher@the-scientist.com)