science is broken, long live science

Over-quantification and commodification of research is encouraging bad behavior and slowing down scientists.

ruined lab
Illustration from Far Cry 3

About a month ago, health and science journalist Christie Aschwanden took on the tough job of explaining why, despite a recent rash of peer review scandals, science isn’t broken by showing how media hype and researchers’ need to keep on publishing make it seem as if today’s study investigating something of general interest will be contradicted by tomorrow’s, if not shown as a complete and utter fraud. It’s nothing you really haven’t heard before if you follow a steady diet of popular science and tech blogs, although her prescription for dealing with whiplash inducing headlines from the world of science is very different from that of most science bloggers. As she puts it, we should simply expect that what we see isn’t necessarily the whole story and carefully consider that the scientists who found a positive result were out to prove something and might be wrong not because they’re clueless or manipulative, but because they’re only human.

Now, while this is all true, it’s extremely difficult not to notice that in today’s academic climate of obscenely overpaid college bureaucrats publishing scientists to publish countless papers just to be considered for a chance to keep working in their scientific fields after their early 40s, there’s incessant pressure to churn out a lot of low quality papers, then promote them as significant for anyone to cite them. Even if you published a very vague, tenuous hypothesis-fishing expedition just to pad your CV and hit the right number to keep the funding to your lab going, there’s plenty of pressure to drum up media attention by writers guaranteed to oversell it because if you don’t promote it, it will get lost among a flood of similar papers and no one will cite it, meaning that an extra publication won’t help you as much when the tenure committee decides your fate because its low quality will be evident by the complete lack of attention and citations. Long gone are days of scientists routinely taking time to let ideas mature into significant papers, and that’s awful.

Instead of realizing that science is a creative process which needs time and plenty of slack as it often bumps into dead ends in search of important knowledge, colleges have commoditized the whole endeavor into a publication factory and judge researchers on how they’re meeting quotas rather than the overall impact their ideas have on the world around them. Sure, they measure if the papers have been cited, but as we’ve seen, it’s an easily gamed metric. In fact, every single measure of a scientist’s success today can be manipulated so good scientists have to publish a lot of junk just to stay employed, and bad scientists can churn out fraudulent, meaningless work to remain budgetary parasites on their institutions. Quantity has won over quality, and being the generally very intelligent people that they are, scientists have adapted. Science is not broken in the sense that we can no longer trust it to correct itself and discover new things. But it has been broken the way it’s practiced day to day, and it will not be fixed until we go back to the day when the scope and ambition of the research is what mattered, rather than the number of papers.

# science // peer review / scientific publications / scientific research

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