Sydney Brenner, CH FRS (born 13 January 1927) is a biologist and a 2002 Nobel prize laureate, shared with H. Robert Horvitz and John Sulston. Brenner made significant contributions to work on the genetic code, and other areas of molecular biology at the Medical Research Council Unit in Cambridge, England.
A fascinating interview with Professor Sydney Brenner by Elizabeth Dzeng in the Kings Review.
I find his comments on Academia and publishing and peer review particularly apposite. Peer review – especially where cliques of “peers” determine “correct thinking” – can not provide sufficient room for the dissenting view, for the challenging of orthodoxy. Orthodox but incorrect views thus persist for much longer than they should. Completely new avenues are effectively blocked and ideas are still-born.
Some extracts here but the whole conversation is well worth a read.
How Academia and Publishing are Destroying Scientific Innovation: A Conversation with Sydney Brenner
by Elizabeth Dzeng, February 24th
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Professor Sydney Brenner, a professor of Genetic medicine at the University of Cambridge and Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. ….
SB: Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.
The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship. I think you can only foster that by having sort of deviant studies. ……..
…… I think I’ve often divided people into two classes: Catholics and Methodists. Catholics are people who sit on committees and devise huge schemes in order to try to change things, but nothing’s happened. Nothing happens because the committee is a regression to the mean, and the mean is mediocre. Now what you’ve got to do is good works in your own parish. That’s a Methodist.
ED: …….. It is alarming that so many Nobel Prize recipients have lamented that they would never have survived this current academic environment. What is the implication of this on the discovery of future scientific paradigm shifts and scientific inquiry in general? I asked Professor Brenner to elaborate.
SB: He wouldn’t have survived. It is just the fact that he wouldn’t get a grant today because somebody on the committee would say, oh those were very interesting experiments, but they’ve never been repeated. And then someone else would say, yes and he did it a long time ago, what’s he done recently? And a third would say, to top it all, he published it all in an un-refereed journal.
So you know we now have these performance criteria, which I think are just ridiculous in many ways. But of course this money has to be apportioned, and our administrators love having numbers like impact factors or scores. ….
……. And of course all the academics say we’ve got to have peer review. But I don’t believe in peer review because I think it’s very distorted and as I’ve said, it’s simply a regression to the mean.
I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists. There are universities in America, and I’ve heard from many committees, that we won’t consider people’s publications in low impact factor journals.
Now I mean, people are trying to do something, but I think it’s not publish or perish, it’s publish in the okay places [or perish]. And this has assembled a most ridiculous group of people.
…….. I think there was a time, and I’m trying to trace the history when the rights to publish, the copyright, was owned jointly by the authors and the journal. Somehow that’s why the journals insist they will not publish your paper unless you sign that copyright over. It is never stated in the invitation, but that’s what you sell in order to publish. And everybody works for these journals for nothing. There’s no compensation. There’s nothing. They get everything free. They just have to employ a lot of failed scientists, editors who are just like the people at Homeland Security, little power grabbers in their own sphere.
If you send a PDF of your own paper to a friend, then you are committing an infringement. Of course they can’t police it, and many of my colleagues just slap all their papers online. I think you’re only allowed to make a few copies for your own purposes. It seems to me to be absolutely criminal. When I write for these papers, I don’t give them the copyright. I keep it myself. That’s another point of publishing, don’t sign any copyright agreement. That’s my advice. I think it’s now become such a giant operation. I think it is impossible to try to get control over it back again. …….. Recently there has been an open access movement and it’s beginning to change. I think that even Nature, Science and Cell are going to have to begin to bow. I mean in America we’ve got old George Bush who made an executive order that everybody in America is entitled to read anything printed with federal funds, tax payers’ money, so they have to allow access to this. But they don’t allow you access to the published paper. They allow you I think what looks like a proof, which you can then display.
Elizabeth Dzeng is a PhD candidate conducting research at the intersection of medical sociology, clinical medicine and medical ethics at the University of Cambridge. She is also a practising doctor and a fellow in General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.