Monday, January 18, 2016

Publication Pressure and Scientific Integrity

Research today sits on the cusp of an incredible era. The evolution of technology has created a plethora of tools capable of addressing nearly any scientific question from nearly any angle. Microscopy, nanoparticles, sequencing and hundreds of other fields have advanced wildly while at the same time becoming more affordable. This has made scientists more productive, more effective, and led to many more publications flooding the desks of editors of scientific journals. In order to keep up and to stay relevant, the best journals have become more selective. They expect in vivo observations, a biomedical context, and a complete and compelling story. Which is great. Except that such studies typically take years and years to complete without any publishable findings in the interim. With the current environment in academia, where “publish or perish” is a very real concern, this selectivity for the most compelling or unusual articles is frequently a death sentence for some of the best, brightest, and most principled investigators.
Cue PLoS One; one of many journals of its kind that hopes to allow for “a faster path to publishing in a high-quality peer-reviewed journal.” According to its website, “all work that reaches rigorous technical and ethical standards is published and freely and immediately available to everyone.” In my personal and completely unsubstantiated opinion, I think this is a great mission statement. I believe research happens in very small increments, and the ability to publish those increments gives scientists a way to mark their progress as they march toward a more complete understanding. These types of journals also provide an outlet for less-sensational follow up work or negative results, which at its best would debunk false results that are misguiding the efforts of the scientific community and at worst would save some poor graduate student from sweating over a hopeless project. Supposedly if these papers are deemed to meet “technical and ethical standards” they will be freely disseminated to the scientific community. The extent to which these journals serve this purpose in reality, however, is in dispute.
In an article in The Economist in 2013 titled “Trouble in the Lab,” the authors question the utility of these lower-tier journals. In regards to publishing negative results they write: “Journals, thirsty for novelty, show little interest in it; though minimum-threshold journals could change this, they have yet to do so in a big way.”
But the fault cannot be wholly placed on the shoulders on these publications. It is not exciting to try to replicate previously published results, or to write a manuscript centered on a null hypothesis. The authors acknowledge that “Most academic researchers would rather spend time on work that is more likely to enhance their careers. This is especially true of junior researchers, who are aware that overzealous replication can be seen as an implicit challenge to authority. Often, only people with an axe to grind pursue replications with vigour—a state of affairs which makes people wary of having their work replicated.” This is disconcerting for a profession that derives its relevance from a public perception of dogged adhesion to the search for truth and a strong personal sense of integrity.
With a wealth of technological tools and bright minds, scientific research finds itself in an exciting yet perilous position. Moving forward it will be critical to balance the thrill of scientific discovery with the necessity of healthy skepticism. I believe, unlike the author of the cited article, in the ability of the scientific community to police itself. If academic research is to stay relevant, however, we need to acknowledge the importance of negative and mundane results in a more systematic fashion.

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