What do you call a system in which the primary producers resent their product, the purveyors of that product, and the system itself?
That, in a nutshell, would be science and its demand to publish and keep publishing … or perish.
According to a new survey of Dutch biomedical researchers which appears in BMJ Open, scientists have deep misgivings about the current system, which, they feel, does not accurately measure productivity or the societal value of their work and crowds out more useful pursuits like caring for patients. Rather, scientists reported feeling that the white-knuckled quest for grant money — which mostly depends on the publishing record of the grant seeker — trumps all. It forces them to write worthless papers, avoid articles describing negative results, prostrate themselves to big-named researchers to gain cachet on an author list, even commit misconduct to generate sexy data.
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One researcher quoted in the article compared a citation in a prestigious journal to a drug: “scientists can get high on a high-impact paper.” And perhaps most alarming, cynicism about the publishing process grows throughout one’s career. Graduate students have “rather naïve opinions about contemporary publication culture,” the authors wrote. “They argue that science should be a genuine quest for truth and see scientists as truth-seekers who focus on scientific quality.” But by the time they are postdoctoral fellows, scientists “hold more realistic or perhaps even slightly cynical views about the publication culture and are more sympathetic to the somewhat dubious elements in the scientific process.”
The survey is only the latest to find that competition has “profound effects” on the way science is performed in many countries across the globe. Making publishing an objective in itself creates a powerful, and powerfully perverse, incentive to cut corners, to fabricate data, to rush unverified results into print, to screw over one’s colleagues — to do, in short, all the things that unscrupulous researchers now do to get and stay ahead of each other.
The new survey, of 79 PhD students, postdocs, and full faculty members in the Netherlands makes all those points and more. “You get grants because of friends and luck,” one respondent said. “Grants are no measure of ability but of who is who, who do you know, and how you present it.”
The consequences of publish-or-perish remain easy to see. As one survey respondent put it, “If the pressure on the number of publications decreases, the quality of the publications will increase.” And darker: Publication pressure “is the reason that fraud exists because without positive results I can forget about my career.”
Now, some have argued that publish-or-perish has no effect on scientific integrity. We respectfully disagree, as do others who argue that it’s time for science to move away from the paradigm that prizes the highly visible paper above all else.
The latest survey indicates that most scientists would be willing to get off the carousel if they could. In fact, many do. Academic “quitlit” has become its own genre. But our future full professors need help if they’re going to stay in science. No one would suggest that science and academia do away with metrics for evaluating the work of researchers. And a track record of articles selected by estimable editors that pass the muster of the peer-review process (as flawed as it may be) certainly is one element of performance. Yet it can’t continue to be the be-all, end-all yardstick of success. It’s time to start saying “No” to the impact-factor rush.