College of Science; Research

Clemson workshop puts rigors of scientific publishing in perspective


Randy Schekman is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his role in revealing the machinery that regulates the transport and secretion of proteins in our cells.
Randy Schekman is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and is co-recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

CLEMSON, South Carolina – About 100 young scientists strode into a Clemson University workshop on Jan. 25 in search of valuable advice.

What they learned could benefit them for the rest of their careers.

Four prominent editors of influential journals shared their expertise on the challenges of publishing scientific advancements during the daylong workshop titled “Successful Scientific Publishing.” The event at the Madren Conference Center was sponsored by the College of Science and was open to faculty, postdoctoral fellows and students from Clemson and other universities in the Upstate and beyond.

The first speaker was Randy Schekman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and co-recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his role in revealing the machinery that regulates the transport and secretion of proteins in human cells. Schekman spoke about the pressures placed on researchers to publish in high-impact journals and how this can often lead to unintended consequences.

Science progresses by an iterative process whereby discoveries build upon a foundation of established facts and principles,” said Schekman, who is former editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and founding editor of eLife. “The integrity of the advancement of knowledge depends crucially on the reliability and reproducibility of our published results. Although mistakes and falsification of results have always been an unfortunate part of the process, most view scientific research as self-correcting, with incorrect results and conclusions eventually challenged and replaced with more reliable information. But what happens if the process is corrupted by systematic errors due in part to the pressure to publish in the most selective venues?”

Schekman said that authoritative reports have suggested that there is also pressure to publish “flashy, positive results.” He added that these reports suggest that as much as three-fourths of the key experiments of highly cited papers cannot be replicated under rigorous conditions in independent laboratories.

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“Self-correction of these errors might work in the long run, but short-term, we have a problem with the acceptance of science by a public that might not appreciate the scientific method,” Schekman said. “And equally important, we rely on the federal government for the support of our work, and key legislative leaders might wonder whether the enormous public investment in biomedical science is wasted on sloppy or fraudulent work. One of my missions is to discuss simple reforms that could help journals to influence the attitudes of scholars and also the editors who serve as the gatekeepers of our creative enterprise.”

Up next was Gregory P. Copenhaver, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one of two editors-in-chief of PLOS Genetics, a peer-reviewed open-access journal. Copenhaver said that most modern science is executed in the context of a social contract.

“The public provides enormous amounts of funding for researchers and also grants scientists social standing as trusted, authoritative figures,” Copenhaver said. “In return, scientists are expected to conduct research that yields societal benefits like curing diseases, inventing new technologies, improving crops and understanding ecosystems and the environment. Unfortunately, until recently, there was a critical gap in that virtuous cycle. Access to most scientific literature was sequestered behind paywalls that made it inaccessible to the vast majority of the public.”

Copenhaver explained that PLOS Genetics and the entire family of PLOS journals are pioneers in creating a solution to this problem by sparking the movement called “open access,” the free online availability of research articles combined with the rights to use the articles in the digital environment. PLOS Genetics publishes leading genetics research and makes it accessible to everyone.

“We’re now focused on a second wave of access innovations, including open data policies and promotion of preprint archives that bring the latest results to the public with unparalleled speed,” Copenhaver said. “We’re committed to bringing the best science to everyone, everywhere without barriers – and we’d love to have you join us as a reader, reviewer or author.”

The third speaker was Jake Yeston, an editor who oversees physical sciences research at Science, the peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and one of the world’s top academic journals. Yeston said that Science’s mission is to give researchers an opportunity to share their most exciting work with colleagues in many other fields of study and conversely to encourage those scientists as readers to venture outside their comfort zones.

From left, Randy Schekman, Madhusree Mukerjee, Gregory Copenhaver and Jake Yeston pose with their new Clemson caps.
From left, Randy Schekman, Madhusree Mukerjee, Gregory Copenhaver and Jake Yeston pose with their new Clemson caps.

“We want physicists to have a look at immunology, field biologists to consider recent breakthroughs in astronomy. Our hope is to inspire collaborative thinking across the boundaries of modern research,” Yeston said. “We work hard to evaluate the research carefully by coordinating rigorous peer review and then to help authors communicate it as clearly as possible through detailed editing. Science also publishes an award-winning news section, and an excellent Insights section in which perspective commentaries by fellow scientists help explain the complex concepts in recent papers to readers outside those papers’ fields of focus.”

The final speaker was Madhusree Mukerjee, senior editor at Scientific American, the longest continuously published magazine in the United States. Mukerjee said that Scientific American has a well-deserved reputation for credibility, serving as a bridge between scientists and the public.

“We are one of the rare magazines that enable scientists to explain their research, in their own words, to the reader,” Mukerjee said. “We translate scientific concepts and jargon into everyday language, without dumbing things down. We’re also not afraid to delve deeply into scientific controversies. In this day and age, when it is so difficult for most everyone to distinguish between what is real and what is fake, we can be counted on for accuracy, precision and integrity while also being, if I may say so myself, really interesting and lively to read. Everyone I know at Scientific American is driven by a passion to make a difference.”

During the question-and-answer panel session at the conclusion of the workshop, Schekman was asked this question: “While we all recognize the challenge of impact factor, how should junior faculty address this when impact factors are specifically requested by chairs and administration for evaluating purposes?”

“Well, have them contact me,” Schekman responded, eliciting an explosion of laughter.

Robert Anholt, director of faculty excellence initiatives for the College of Science, arranged the event with the aim of having a positive educational impact on young scientists.

“This workshop provided a unique opportunity for our young scientists to hear some of the most influential editors in the scientific publishing world,” Anholt concluded. “What they learned at the workshop may help them better understand how to navigate the submission and review process of their papers.”

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