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The Academy's Journal Becomes Less Friendly to the Academy Members

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences will discontinue a submission option for members that, at its best, repeatedly put prestigious scientists in awkward situations and, at its worst, critics alleged, allowed scientists to ease their way through the peer-review process.

The submission option, called Track One, allowed Academy members to “communicate” papers written by non-members and help usher their colleagues’ work through the editorial process. In contrast to traditional peer review, members had the autonomy to select the reviewing editors for the work, which increased the chance of a favorable reception. Some recent papers "communicated" to PNAS include work on the effect of testosterone on financial decisions by men and women; on the proper DNA "barcode" for identifying plants; and a cover story on the separation and divergence of different lineages of the coast horned lizard. Of the 3133 papers published by PNAS in 2009, around 390 came in via Track One submissions.

But as of 1 July next year, PNAS  will force all non-members to submit to the journal directly for blind peer review.

Non-members opted for this route before, but most scientists felt they had a better shot at publication with a member’s endorsement. This put many members in a tight spot, since they say they often were asked to push substandard work by friends. The changes will not affect the privilege of Academy members to submit their own work to PNAS via a different process.

Randy Schekman, a biologist and editor-in-chief of PNAS, told ScienceInsider that most editorial board members strongly favored the change. So did Academy members, over 80% of whom voted to eliminate Track One this summer. Schekman adds that a “determined minority” opposed the move because they felt the option offered a publication route for innovative and idiosyncratic papers. Schekman argues that another mechanism—the ability of authors, when they submit, to suggest who should review their paper as editors—ensures that such work will be judged fairly.

Sam Kean

Sam Kean is a science journalist in Washington, D.C.