Three Nobels and a Symposium

UNC’s Oliver Smithies and Aziz Sancar welcomed University of California’s Randy Schekman, pioneer of protein secretion and champion of open-access scientific publishing.

Three Nobels and a Symposium click to enlarge Oliver Smithies, PhD; Randy Schekman, PhD; Aziz Sancar, MD, PhD
Three Nobels and a Symposium click to enlarge Randy Schekman, PhD, speaks at the 5th Annual Oliver Smithies Nobel Symposium

By Mark Derewicz

There stood Linus Pauling, future winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the Nobel Peace Prize, when a young Oliver Smithies, an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1940s, became so enamored with the presentation that he decided then and there to dedicate his life to biomedical science. Nearly seventy years later, when Oliver Smithies won his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his prize money – fund an annual symposium to bring Nobel laureates to UNC to inspire students.

At this year’s fifth annual Oliver Smithies Nobel Symposium, the 90-year-old Weatherspoon Eminent Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, welcomed UNC’s most recent Nobel laureate winner Aziz Sancar, MD, PhD, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on DNA repair. Smithies and UNC School of Medicine Dean William L. Roper, MD, also welcomed keynote speaker Randy Schekman, PhD, professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of California, Berkeley and winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Schekman’s science involves understanding the minutiae of protein secretion, work that led to successful biotech breakthroughs in the production of insulin and human growth hormone. His current work focuses on large particles and microRNA, which some scientists consider to be the vanguard of future drug development.

But Schekman wasn’t invited to this year’s symposium just for his 2013 Nobel Prize and his scientific discoveries, but what he did immediately after getting the call that he had won the Nobel Prize – he issued a rebuke of the scientific publishing process. During his visit to Chapel Hill this week, Schekman was part of a panel discussion on open-access publishing, during which he posed the problem and part of a solution.

“Many prominent scientific publications have a firewall that prevents them from being available unless you have access to a site license,” Schekman said. “If you go online to access the article it will cost you something like $30 dollars. And these are articles that, for the most part, represent science supported through tax payer funds.”

Most universities pay for access to journals such as Science, Nature, Cell, and many others so that students and faculty have full access.

Scientific articles are notoriously dense, and Schekman knows that most people are okay with finding out about scientific discoveries through the media, but reporters and doctors who pursue knowledge on latest biomedical breakthroughs need access, too. And sometimes, scientific papers are of wide interest; they’re not just for specialists in a particular field.

Last month, news broke of researchers finding bones from a completely new hominid lineage in South Africa dating back nearly 2 million years. The scientists published their findings in eLife, an open-access journal Schekman co-founded to help alleviate the problems he sees in publishing.  The model is simple: instead of the reader submitting a fee to read the article, authors submit a fee if the paper is accepted for publication.

“One reason the author of the new hominid paper came to us is that he wanted the work to be publically available,” Schekman said. “He did three-dimensional photographic renderings of all the bones and put them online for all to see. Had Nature published it, you’d be able to read about it in the newspaper, but you wouldn’t have had open access to the original article.” And images not in the New York Times would not have been available for viewing.

That’s just one side of the issue. At the Nobel symposium, Schekman detailed another problem important for aspiring scientists.

“These journals have so successfully branded themselves that many universities and administrators rely on the names of the journals and their impact factors as measures of scholarship,” he said. But, Schekman added, impact factor was never intended to have anything to do with the merit of someone’s research or level of scholarship.

“As a result of this,” Schekman warned, “graduate students and postdocs feel like if they don’t publish in these journals, they’re toast. This creates a feeding frenzy that I believe results in the misrepresentation of science because scientists feel like they have to gin up their stories in order to get their work in one of these journals. And that’s not good science. In fact, it’s antithetical to good science.”

Schekman didn’t make much of a fuss about these issues until he won the Nobel Prize. That day, he sent out a press release about problems in publishing. Shortly after, he co-founded eLife and remains editor-in-chief.

The aftermath wasn’t pretty. He withstood criticism for tearing down the publishing process that helped make his career a success; Schekman had published many times in top journals, including in Science the same year he won the Nobel Prize. Also, what is an assistant professor of biochemistry supposed to do? Not shoot for Nature or Science or Cell? These journals and others are considered the best for more reasons than tradition or good branding.

But the problems Schekman points to are very real, and he says he is doing what he can to remedy the problem.

“I’ve had these attitudes for some time now, but who would’ve listened to me?” he said. “With the Nobel, I had a soapbox, and so I spoke out.”

Schekman no longer publishes his work in commercial journals, and he has called on others to join his cause. Many have, and open-access publishing has blossomed over the past 15 years. But it remains unclear whether open-access publishing will have a significant impact on the traditional publishing model.

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