The Scientist Closes

25th anniversary issue of the venerable magazine will be the last

Having just published a special twenty-fifth anniversary issue in October, employees of the The Scientist, a venerable monthly magazine and website focused on the life sciences, learned Thursday that it would be their last.

[Update: Following a wave of concern generated by news of The Scientist closing, on October 14, LabX Media Group announced that it had signed a letter of intent to purchase the magazine from Science Navigation Group.]

The outlet’s publisher and the chief executive of its parent company, the London-based Science Navigation Group, paid a visit to The Scientist’s New York office to break the unfortunate news that production would cease immediately. In an e-mail to CJR, publisher Jane Hunter wrote:

Closing The Scientist was a very hard thing to do - we’d just reached our 25th anniversary, which was quite a milestone, and I personally feel that it was the best life-sciences magazine around. It was certainly the most beautiful.

We took this decision because we just could not make the numbers work. The Scientist depended almost completely on advertising revenues and - as I’m sure you know - the ad market is getting harder and harder to succeed in. The economics of the situation eventually gave us no choice but to close. The magazine was supported for many years by its founder, Eugene Garfield, and lately by its current owner, Vitek Tracz, and we were lucky to be able to keep going as long as we have.

It was a sad day yesterday for us all, and of course particularly for the staff - you could not hope ever to find a more talented and dedicated group of people.

Although the end came abruptly, staff members say, signs of stress began to emerge a few years ago. In 2009, the outlet went through a round of layoffs. Around the same time, Science Navigation Group merged The Scientist with Faculty of 1000, or F1000, a website that offers “post-publication peer review” and evaluation of leading articles in biology and medical research journals. It was an “unhappy marriage” that diluted the former’s brand and was quickly dissolved, Hunter said in an interview. The Scientist moved its US office from Philadelphia to New York last year, losing more staff in the process, but still couldn’t make ends meet.

Hunter and other staff members said that Science Navigation Group sought a buyer for The Scientist before deciding on closure, but they declined to say whether or not it received any offers, referring the question to Andrew Crompton, the group’s chief executive, who was returning from New York to London at press time. According to Hunter, the group did not pursue any funding from foundations or other nonprofit organizations.

Despite its popularity and high estimation within the life sciences community, the magazine was unprofitable during most of its twenty-five years, Hunter said. For Garfield, who left at the publication at the end of 2009, and Tracz, who owns Science Navigation Group, it was “a labor of love,” she added, and the two “spent a huge amount of money” to keep it going.

That much is reflected poignantly in the twenty-fifth anniversary issue, which featured a nostalgic reflection on the magazine’s history by Garfield, the founding editor. Under the retrospectively shortsighted headline, “Alive and Kicking—The publication I launched a quarter century ago has come further than anyone,” he wrote:

I am proud that the trade tabloid for the science professional that I founded 25 years ago is still around and still working to inform researchers on topics important to their careers and lives. I think that we’ve made an impact on the life science community and that we can continue to do so in the years to come. But like any sincere parent, I cannot look back and honestly say that all the hopes and dreams I had for The Scientist came true.

Indeed, it was always clear that the magazine was a risky venture, Garfield recalled:

In 1988, when I sold control of the Institute for Scientific Information to JPT Publishing, the deal included The Scientist. I was led to believe they would make an earnest effort to make it a success. Within a few months they reneged and gave me the opportunity to buy back The Scientist for $1. Again, financial advisors cautioned against keeping The Scientist alive; again, I chose to ignore them.

Although The Scientist never became “the researcher’s daily newspaper” that Garfield had dreamed of, he explained, it did go on to cover many “seminal events in the sciences: the rise of HIV, the completion of the Human Genome Project, the dawn of cloning and stem cell technologies.”

Garfield closed his rumination on a thought that now seems more poignant than was perhaps intended: “It’s not possible, however, 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 parental love.”

It was a love that others felt as well. Reuters Health executive editor and Retraction Watch co-founder Ivan Oransky, who was a senior editor at The Scientist from 2002 to 2008, said he was dismayed to be talking about his former employer in the past tense.

The Scientist was a terrific magazine,” he said. “It was a rare bird that combined hard-hitting reporting, a trade journalism sensibility and sense of responsibility to its community of readers, and a literary sensibility. It won all sorts of major awards and punched well above its weight, and it was also a great training ground for lots of outstanding science journalists who have gone on to very illustrious careers.”

“We are of all the work that we’ve done there,” said Bob Grant, who has been an associate editor at The Scientist since 2007. “In the most recent years, we really stayed true to Dr. Garfield’s vision for the magazine, and that was best illustrated by the fact that we were able to stay on top of cultural issues within the scientific community. By that I mean, funding issues, policy issues, misconduct cases, etc. If you followed our coverage, we really paid attention to what was going on within the community that affected scientists.”

The twenty-fifth anniversary issue was an especially gratifying accomplishment, according to Edyta Zielinska, who also worked as an associate editor at The Scientist since 2007.

“It’s so wonderful that we were able to put out that issue, with all of the big names coming out to write for us - Eric Kandel and E.O. Wilson, and all those great people. It was nice to be able to put that together before we shuttered,” she said. “We’re all broken up about this. It’s really hard to see this magazine go down. It’s something that we’ve all really believed in and felt had a very unique place in the scientific community, so it’s really sad to see it go.”

The outlet did fill a particular niche in the community. Mary Beth Aberlin, its editor-in-chief, who couldn’t be reached before press time, wrote in the editorial of the final issue: “we remain dedicated to spotlighting research news; publishing scientist-written articles that explain complex topics in jargon-free language; profiling both established and young researchers; covering innovative lab tools and the biotech industry; and addressing the issues faced by scientists over the course of their careers.”

The piece was headlined “… And Many Happy Returns.” In hindsight, it’s an unfortunate title, but nothing is so unfortunate as the loss of yet another top-tier publication in the world of science journalism.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.