Randy Schekmann

Speaking from the soapbox

Brisk and sometimes bracing walks from his flat to and from the Biozentrum - this is the first thing that comes to mind to the famous Californian. In the early 1980ies the Nobel Prize Laureate Prof. Randy Schekman spent a sabbatical year working in the lab of Prof. em. Gottfried Schatz. In AlumniNews he shares his memories from that time, tells us how “the” one phone call has changed his life and why he is actively engaged in changing the publishing landscape. 

How did you get to work at the Biozentrum? 

My best friend Bill Wickner and I were out to dinner with our wives. We both had a sabbatical year coming up and talked about where to go with our young families and we decided it would be great fun to work together again as we had in Arthur Kornberg’s lab at Stanford. Bill and I were both most impressed with the Biozentrum, and particularly with Jeff Schatz’ groundbreaking work on the import of proteins into mitochondria. I had just earned tenure in my appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, and hoped that a sabbatical in his lab and his perspective would provide more inspiration to return to Berkeley and tackle a biochemical dissection of vesicular traffic in yeast. So we wrote to Jeff and he immediately and graciously agreed to host us.

What has remained vivid in your memory from your time in Basel?

Our family time and the trips around Europe including driving around Switzerland, skiing in Austria and a train trip to Venice. My daughter Lauren was born in the women’s hospital in Basel, just two months after we arrived. It was a tough year because we didn’t get much sleep! And then in an arduous trip back to the states we arrived in New York to discover that the airline had just gone bankrupt and our flight to San Francisco would not be honored by any other airline. In a panic, I purchased tickets on another airline but as we were about to board, the plane had only room for three of us. My wife handed me a toothbrush and I said I would get out as soon as possible. Fortunately, one passenger didn’t show up!

You were a member of the Biozentrum Scientific Advisory Board. What were your tasks?

I enjoyed several years on the Biozentrum Advisory Board and helped to evaluate some of the members who were being reviewed for reappointment and to provide general advice, such as in the administration of the PhD training program and on transitions in the leadership of the Biozentrum.  And every year I visited, I made a stop at a store near the hotel to purchase the typical local biscuits, the Basler Läckerli!

Last year you received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. How did you react when you were informed?

The call came at 1:20 am.  A call in the middle of the night usually delivers bad news but I knew going to sleep that night that Nobel season was imminent and just in case I tried to forget, a news article from Stockholm announced “Five discoveries that have not yet won the Nobel Prize”. One was for the work of Rothman and Schekman I assured my wife that this was meaningless speculation but still found it a bit unsettling. Fortunately, I had just returned from Frankfurt that evening so I was tired and jet lagged and I fell asleep at 9 pm, aided, I admit, by a sleeping pill. I was so deeply asleep that at first I didn’t hear the phone ring but my wife did and she blurted out “this is it!”. Somehow I stumbled to the phone and was instantly reassured and simultaneously elated by soft words spoken with an unmistakable Swedish accent. It was Goran Hansson, Secretary of the Physiology or Medicine committee, who congratulated me on winning the prize. He next reassured me this wasn’t a hoax, but I wasn’t concerned because I recognized his voice. And after so many years of being told this could happen, the first inelegant words that I uttered were “oh my god, oh my god”.

How has this prize changed your life?

I travel too much and give too many interviews!  But on the positive side, I do have a soapbox from which to speak out on issues on which I feel particularly strong. My three principle issues are the importance of public higher education and of public support for basic science in the face of excessive pressure to spend precious resources on “translational” science as well as the pernicious influence of “impact factor” in the evaluation of what we publish and the journals in which we chose to publish.

For some time now, you have refused to publish in top journals such as Cell, Science and Nature. Why?

I believe that the pressure to publish in just a few select venues has distorted our value system in the assessment of scholarly achievement.  The journals Cell, Nature and Science (CNS), and their spin-off journals, have shamelessly exploited our desire for exclusivity in their business plan to sell magazines. These journals artificially limit the number of papers they accept, typically to fewer than ten percent, simply to exploit that human weakness. The CNS journals employ professional editors rather than active scientists to decide which papers will make the cut, because they can be counted on to base their decisions to an alarming extent on which papers will generate “buzz” in the form of more citations to feed a quest for ever higher “impact factors”. I’ve compared this business plan to the women’s haut couture industry, which is built on the allure of exclusivity. We must return the control of our academic decisions to active scientists who care more about fundamental discoveries than buzz. 

Could your refusal cost the career of your PhDs und Postdocs?

No, I will help my students and fellows find appropriate positions as I always have done.  And I will continue to promote the careers of my former colleagues even if they succumb to the pressure to publish in a CNS journal.

You are the Editor-in-Chief of the still young journal eLife. What’s the difference to the established journals and what’s your vision?

First of all, eLife is supported by three of the most important scientific funding agencies in the world:  HHMI, the Wellcome Trust and the Max Planck Society. They initiated this effort because they saw the distorting influence of those journals that base decisions on market values. Investigators funded by these agencies were increasingly having important work delayed and incurring excess expense in chasing endless additional experiments in a quest for the elusive goal of a CNS paper.  eLife started with the assumption that all journals should be open access and in our case there was no question that we would employ the most liberal standard. Our journal launched with a commitment to review work based on scientific values and not potential citations. Therefore, we have developed a unique, open review format where the referees and an editor confer in an online consultation session to decide if a paper merits publication.  Our turn time from submission to acceptance for those papers that fare well, currently around 20 percent acceptance, runs around 100 days, considerably better than the turn time at most selective journals. At eLife, we particularly wish to encourage young scholars because we know that the most important thing in the launch of a career is the speedy publication of ones most important work.

Finally, who is the private Randy Schekman?

I’ve changed over many years. As a young man I was more private, insecure and not particularly introspective. Later, I found more pleasure in helping others achieve their goals and in helping the scientific and academic community. Now, for the most part, I am quite open about my views and feelings and with age I have developed greater security and knowledge of my limits. I love my family, my friends and life. My favorite movie is “A wonderful life” because it quite neatly expresses my views on loyalty and commitment to the public good. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling life than that of the scholar uncovering the secrets of the natural world.

Randy Schekman is Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He studied Molecular Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, and received his PhD from Stanford University in 1975. In 1981 he was promoted to Associate Professor and to Full Professor in 1984. Randy Schekman has received numerous honors and awards including the Albert Lasker Award and the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize. In 2013 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on elucidating the components and mechanisms of the secretory pathway. Currently he is Editor-in-Chief of the open access journal eLife.