Nobel Prize-winner Lambasts Nature and Science

Printer-friendly version
Section: 

For many years I have been criticising Nature and Science for their biased mis-reporting and distortion of the Origins-of-AIDS debate.

Now a leading scientist - the latest winner of the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, the US biologist Randy Schekman - has come out in public to criticise these journals for distorting the scientific process, and for representing a tyranny that needs to be broken.

Schekman has used the occasion of receiving his Nobel Prize in Stockholm today to write an article in The Guardian in which he announces that his lab will no longer be submitting research papers to three top-ranking journals - Nature, Cell and Science. In his article, and in a commentary by Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample, Schekman says that the editors of these "luxury journals" are not working scientists, but professionals who "emphasise novelty over solid work" and who tend to publish research that they believe will make headlines.

"We all know what distorting incentives has done to finance and banking", Schekman writes. "The incentives my colleagues face are not huge bonuses, but the professional rewards that accompany publication in prestigious journals - chiefly Nature, Cell and Science". He adds that the pressure to appear in such journals has "encouraged researchers to cut corners and pursue trendy fields of science".

Moreover, Schekman alleges that these journals restrict the number of papers they accept in order to build demand "like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags". They place great store on "impact factor", which is a measure of how often their papers are cited, and a factor which the journals later use for marketing purposes.

Schekman, in his bluntest criticism, says that these practices have a "toxic influence" on science, and that they have "introduced a distortion". He adds that "A paper can become highly cited because it is good science - or because it is eye-catching, provocative, or wrong."

Clearly Randy Schekman is not writing specifically about the origins-of-AIDS debate. But by using his "headline moment" to highlight the fact that the ambition and unscientific approaches of those who direct and edit Nature and Science leads directly to distortions, the sexing-up of subjects, and to erroneous science, Schekman has done a great service to all who are involved with the scientific process.

I believe that the origins-of-AIDS debate represents one of the worst examples of such excesses. Here, we see Nature and Science nakedly promoting a theory which claims an entirely fabricated date of origin (currently 1908) for the pandemic AIDS virus, HIV-1. This date is supported by an inadequate scientific model, but by not one single shred of hard data, yet this obvious flaw is never questioned by the headline-writers. Moreover, the alleged place of origin of HIV-1 in south-eastern Cameroon is supported by far less compelling evidence than has been claimed, and requires far more rigorous examination.

In turn, recent years have seen a stampede of microbiologists, anthropologists and medical historians, all eager to offer analysis which might support this version of how AIDS began, analysis which is inherently flawed because it relies on a false version of when and where the pandemic virus came into being. Such suspect research and analysis is heavily promoted in Nature and Science, sometimes with press conferences to attract further coverage. Alternative explanations (whether submitted as articles or as letters of 200 words, the maximum normally allowed) are persistently blocked. The Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) theory of origin is routinely described in the pages of these journals as "discredited" or "refuted", although such claims are completely false.

I welcome Professor Schekman's courageous intervention in the debate about whether the leading scientific journals are undermining the proper pursuit of science.

But I am making one additional accusation. In my opinion, the coverage of the origins-of-AIDS debate in Nature and Science is not only driven by ambitious editors who are more concerned with circulation figures than with impartial scientific coverage.

It is also heavily influenced by political interests, especially the interests of those nations which directly participated in the trials of experimental polio vaccines in Africa in the late 1950s. My own research findings strongly argue that these trials are directly linked both to the AIDS pandemic, and to the other minor outbreaks of AIDS that occurred in the latter half of the last century.

For Randy Schekman's original article in the Guardian, see:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/09/how-journals-nature-science-cell-damage-science

For analysis by the Guardian Science Correspondent, Ian Sample, see:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/09/nobel-winner-boycott-science-journals

Ed Hooper. December 10th, 2013