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Kennedy sees rising challenges for science journals
The cover of the 14 May 2004 issue of Science looks more like a Miro painting than a battle between the immune cells of a mouse and yeast. In an austere Swiss Embassy room built of brick, wood and glass, Science Editor-in-Chief Donald Kennedy fans through the magazine's original research section and reads off names of countries.
"U.S., Danish and German authors." He flips to the next paper. "Japanese authors." He goes on with the scientific world tour until he looks up and says: "Papers with strictly U.S. authors are a distinct minority."
"There is nothing more global than the activity of science," Kennedy said at an Embassy speech in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday 18 May.
Before an international audience including scientists and embassy officials, Kennedy used the latest issue of Science to highlight the global nature of the journal. And that was a point of departure for a candid discussion of the journalistic, business and ethical challenges that are emerging in the once-staid world of science publishing.
In her introductory remarks, Flavia Schlegel, Counselor for Science & Technology at the Swiss Embassy, expressed gratitude for Science's consistently independent and international voice, especially now, in the United States' politically charged and somewhat insular post-9/11 era.
"Don's editorials point out that science can be independent and that this independence does not have to be in contradiction to security," Schlegel said.
Kennedy is president emeritus of Stanford University and a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A biologist by training, Dr. Kennedy's research has focused on exploring how the natural and social sciences can contribute to improving environmental practices and institutions. He has served as editor-in-chief of Science, the international weekly journal published by AAAS, since June 1, 2000.
Kennedy's talk moved from the international science community to the all-encompassing "astronomy to zoology" nature of research topics appearing the magazine.
He outlined the peer review process and described the value-added benefits that Science brings to its readers and to scientists published in its pages, including anonymous comments from peer reviewers and expert editing and graphic treatment. In some cases, the research generates additional coverage through "Perspective" articles written by experts or coverage by Science's news section.
But times have changed for Science and other journals that have long been prominent. Competition is more intense. The economics are shifting. The risk of ethical lapses seems greater than ever. Even the peer-review process, long considered a bedrock of informed, objective analysis, has come under suspicion.
"Could a scientist invent data or falsely represent science?" Kennedy asked. "Yes. Very serious and well thought-of papers have turned out to be fraudulent."
J. Hendrik Schön's papers from Bell Labs provide a recent example. Journals including Science, Nature and Physical Review Letters retracted papers from Schön after it became clear that he faked results from experiments investigating how electrical charges move through crystals of organic semiconductors.
"But science can turn out to be wrong in lots of ways," Kennedy continued, noting that new experimental approaches can make past studies look much less convincing.
From hundreds of submissions, the editors at Science look for papers on important issues whose conclusions are adequately supported by the data in the paper. Given the high bar Science sets for the research it publishes, a German member of the audience asked, "How you do find the wonderful, eccentric ideas that are not yet established?"
Kennedy explained that the editors pay close attention to interesting and high-risk papers. And occasionally, he said, we have to tell ourselves: "'Don't be so risk-averse.'"
Beyond editorial decisions, journal publishing is a risky business these days. At AAAS, the online version and paper versions of Science compete for subscriptions. And as internet readership rises, that phenomenon will become more common.
Meanwhile, journals that use alternative business models are competing against the established journals. For instance, "open access" journals ask scientists to pay the publishing costs up front; the articles are then available to everyone to read, download and redistribute, free of charge.
Science and its publisher, AAAS, have been tracking early open-access efforts to determine the viability of this business model. They also are seeking to make peer-reviewed scientific information as broadly accessible as possible, by providing free access to scientists in the world's poorest countries through the Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative (HINARI) and Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture (AGORA), for example, and through such public resources as the EurekAlert! Web site and the Association's freely available Healthy People booklets.
Despite the challenges, Kennedy said, it is a fascinating time for science journalism, as crucial public and political debates often revolve around scientific issues. Stem cell research, climate change, patents, the politics of making appointments to scientific posts, and the visa challenges facing scientists attempting to come to the United States are among the dialogues that Science and AAAS are participating in.
Kennedy's presentation was part of a series of Swiss Science Community Meetings organized by the Swiss Embassy's Office for Science and Technology. The goal of the series is to create an exchange on current issues in science, engineering and information and communication technology that have an international impact.
Over the last two years, the Swiss Embassy's Office for Science and Technology has hosted talks on smallpox vaccination, the fight against Guinea worm disease, the future of human space flight after the Columbia space shuttle disaster, and the Union of Concerned Scientist's report "Scientific Integrity in Policymaking."
26 May 2004