Boston Blog

Harold Varmus on how to change the culture of publishing in biomedicine

In the ongoing debate about open-access publishing, one issue that I feel doesn’t get discussed enough is why more biomedical scientists don’t submit to open-access journals like Public Library of Science Biology. I think many can agree, out of pure principle, that making research results freely available is a good thing (business model issues aside). But as any young biologist concerned about his/her career will tell you, biologists need to get published in top-tier journals (Cell, Nature, Science) in order to be recognized, get ahead and secure that next job in academia.

This was very aptly called “CNS disease” (you can guess what that stands for) by Harold Varmus, cofounder and chair of the board of the Public Library of Science, during his keynote address at the Publishing in the New Millennium conference conference on Friday at Harvard Medical School. The room was packed with almost 200 people (my estimate) who came to listen to the Nobel Laureate, former head of the NIH, and current president of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center talk about the benefits and challenges of open-access publishing.

Towards the end of his talk, he addressed how the scientific community needs to change the way it evaluates research and careers and gave an example from his own institution of how to ‘treat’ CNS disease. (Incidentally, many will argue that CNS disease is a problem in biomedical research regardless of the open-access debate—too much emphasis placed on publishing lots of papers in too few journals, resulting in hyper-competitiveness and a tendency to evaluate scientific work based on where it’s published rather than its actual merits).

Varmus talked about how people at Sloan-Kettering who are up for tenure must name their top 5 most important papers and explain why they are important and what came of them. Tenure committees are asked to then read those papers and judge their value based on the science, not on the journals they were published in. An interesting idea.

During the break, I asked Varmus how that system was going. He admitted that tenure committee members don’t always read the papers. For example, if it’s so clear to everyone that the candidate is a star and deserving, then the papers probably go unread. I asked what happens during the hiring process. He said that when doing the initial screen of hundreds of applicants, journal titles probably do come into play like they always has.

I suppose that humans, when forced to select one thing about of many and not having a lot of time, will inevitably rely on proxies (ie brand names) to estimate their value. This applies not just to scientific publications, but also to schools (a CV with “Harvard” on it will likely attract more eyeballs then one with some no-name college no one’s heard of), cars (I’ll buy a Toyota over a GM any day) and any number of other consumer items. Sad to say, brand names really do count for a lot, even in scientific publishing.

Have a look at what other bloggers are saying about the conference. Alex Palazzo, a Harvard postdoc, has some “thoughts”: on the economics of open-access publishing and talks about his conversation with the editor-in-chief of Cell Press. “Kaitlin”: of “Science Commons”: has posted “notes”: from the talks. And “John Wilbanks”:, one of the panelists and also of Science Commons, has “blogged”: here on NNB about the need to make the Web work better for research and science, using things like Semantic web technologies.

“Anna”:, one of the student co-organizers as of yet hasn’t posted…she’s probably still recovering from the conference. It probably was not an easy thing to organize, but I must congratulate her and her colleagues (“Kishore”:, “Zeba”:, “Praveen”: and a few others) for a job very well done.

_(Disclaimer: These are my personal opinions as someone who is interested in scientific career issues. These don’t represent Nature Publishing Group’s opinions or policies.)_


  1. Report this comment

    Graham Steel said:

    Dear Cori,

    Many thanks for this rather interesting blog. Bora Zirkovic aka Coturnix was another ScienceBlogs blogger who blogged about CNS disease.

    Whilst I wasn’t at the Conference, well done indeed to the student co-organizers.

    Without question the times area changin’ with regards to STM publication models and I commend the co-organizers for bringing these issues to a head and inviting a great blend of speakers.

    Kind regards,

    Graham Steel

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