Monday, January 16, 2017

Publish or Perish: A Slippery Slope

While scientists have been conventionally relied upon for their extensive knowledge and ethical approach to the acquisition of such knowledge, they now face increasing scrutiny and doubt from both the American political system and the public. A number of articles touting widespread issues of irreproducibility and bias have invited even more speculation about the value of scientific research. So what can be done to bolster a loss of faith in the scientific process? First, we must address how the current research environment promotes bias and irreproducibility. Only then can we begin to discuss and implement changes that will help scientists make more meaningful and valid discoveries.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that today’s scientists face is pressure to publish often and in high-impact journals. This pressure is dangerous because it encourages scientists to over-interpret their findings in the hope of getting published. We all know that no amount of contemplation and brilliant study design can accurately and completely encompass the complexity that underlies the chemical, physical, and behavioral phenomena occurring in the world around us. At best, positive scientific results should be submitted to journals as mere support for a proposed mechanism. Unfortunately, the current hypercompetitive funding climate does not allow scientists to be so humble. Securing funding is highly influenced by how many papers an investigator has published. But in order to publish often and in high-impact journals, scientists must convince reviewers that their work is absolutely groundbreaking, even when it is not. This relationship between financial security and publication records pressures scientists to sometimes overreach when it comes to interpreting their work.

Not only does pressure to publish encourage exaggerated conclusions, but it also facilitates issues of irreproducibility and bias. Scientists may become less considerate of their own biases and unconsciously less rigorous in how they evaluate their data, inviting the possibility that one of these factors has contributed to seemingly publishable findings. This point is expanded upon in Dan Ariely’s TED Talk “Beware Conflicts of Interest”. Questionable interpretations of scientific data are then incorporated into manuscripts reviewed by other financially-pressed scientists who, in an effort to focus on their own work, may not review the manuscript comprehensively enough to catch its inaccuracies or shortcomings. A recent Vox article by Julia Belluz points out the failure of the traditional peer-review process to fulfill this important purpose. Furthermore, she exposes the negative consequences that can befall well-intentioned scientists who make efforts to critique faulty scientific papers. 

If we are to improve the relationship between the scientific community and the public, we must first be willing to air the inadequacies of this pervasive “publish or perish” mentality. Once we acknowledge the shortcomings of this system, perhaps scientists can perform science and publish findings in ways that do not encourage skepticism from the American public, an audience that scientists must continue to engage.

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