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Loss of a Resource for Applying Science to Public Policy

Posted on October 11, 2011

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The Scientist shutters after 25 years – October 07, 2011

The October issue of The Scientist arrived in my mailbox yesterday, and I was happy to see it celebrating its 25th anniversary with a montage of cover images, many of which appeared during my time at the publication (I was an editor there for six years from 2001-2007). Inside, I was excited to see a slew of top-name contributors including George Church, Craig Venter, and Edward O. Wilson – giants in their respective fields fulfilling the mission of an award winning magazine meant to expand horizons for researchers working in the life sciences. And I was touched by the heartfelt editorial by the magazine’s founder, Eugene Garfield, who had shown his faith in the publication by rescuing it from near death on several occasions.

All of which is why I was stunned by the news I received last night that The Scientist has folded. Staffers were brought into an all-hands-on-deck meeting at its offices in New York Thursday morning. There, publisher Jane Hunter and director Andrew Crompton announced that due to economic troubles, there would be no November issue, and no additions to the website save for an announcement of the magazine’s closure some time next week.

The magazine leaves behind a legacy of ambitious, highly-technical life science writing, innovative approaches to publishing and a litany of talented editors, writers and business people, many of whom cut their teeth at the hardscrabble publication.

“I’m saddened, but I can’t say that I’m shocked,” says Richard Gallagher, editor-in-chief and publisher of the magazine between 2005 and 2010. He was well aware of the financial challenges facing The Scientist, since its inception, but nevertheless helped transform it from a quirky biweekly tabloid to a stylish and engaging monthly magazine for the life sciences. He and many others described a hole that it has left in the science publishing world. “The Scientist was one of those places that gracefully and successfully helped people look beyond their immediate interests. They did it in an exciting and sometimes irreverent way.”

Eugene Russo, Careers editor at Nature, who worked at The Scientistfirst as an intern and later as an editor between 1997 and 2001, notes that it fulfilled a special niche for life science writers. It provided, he says, “a sort of a handbook for scientists that not only got at scientific issues but at career issues related to the workplace and policy issues that affected the day-to-day life of scientists – and biologists in particular. That’s why it had a good following.” It also made creative use of citation analysis, he adds. Inspired by the work of Garfield, who also founded the Science Citation Index, The Scientist would publish journalist-written articles that looked back at the most highly cited papers of the past two years, so called ‘Hot Papers’, and tell their stories, offering perspective on why, for better or worse, a particular paper, field or research group was attracting interest. “That’s something you don’t see so much in science coverage these days,” says Russo.

The Scientist was an early proponent of open access publishing, and in fact was one of the first publications to appear freely on a precursor to the Internet through the National Science Foundation’s Network in 1986. This stance sometimes clashed with the magazine’s own desire to charge subscribers for content, but it aligned well with that of Vitek Tracz, the founder of open access publisher BioMed Central. Tracz bought half of The Scientist in the early 2000s, and the rest of the company just a few years ago. Throughout much of this time The Scientist asserted its editorial independence, even publishing stories critical of its sister companies.

The Scientist turned a small profit last year, says Mary Beth Aberlin, the outgoing editor-in-chief. But advertising, the main way the magazine has generated revenue, has been an extremely tough market. “I think that the advertising situation was on the bleak side, and not getting any better.”

Aberlin learned of the news along with the rest of the staff, but she takes some solace in the fact that The Scientist goes out the door winning five awards from the publishing news organization Folio, which will be given out in November. And it won Magazine of the Year this year from the American Society of Business Publication Editors, a testament, says Aberlin, to the talented editorial and design staff that had reliably focused on engaging its readers. “I think Eugene Garfield put his finger on a big need when he started the magazine and a lot of others copied a lot of things from The Scientist.” In his 25th anniversary editorial, which made no mention that the magazine would close, Garfield noted that he wouldn’t choose to start a magazine like this in today’s climate. “It’s hard to put a statistical finger on just why I chose, at various points in The Scientist’s life, to keep on going. Just attribute it to parental love.”

Update: Text has been corrected to reflect that Gene Russo is the Careers editor at

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