Perils of the Pressures to Publish

The blogosphere has already given it a catchy name – the Schekman Maneuver. “It” being Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman’s announcement that his lab would be boycotting “luxury” journals because of the role they play in distorting academic science We will leave it to others to debate the pros and cons of Professor Schekman’s motivations, the possible impact, what it all means, and so on. At <i>Clothing the Emperor</I>, we are more concerned with whether or not this maneuvering provides an opportunity to open up the truthful and authentic discussions it is going to take to acknowledge the obvious and get our poor naked guy off the street. Somehow, the conversation thus far, and granted it is early days, feels more like offering him a bath towel to wrap around his waist. I guess when you’re out there parading before the crowd buck naked – getting some coverage is a start. What happens next – and how much clothes our emperor eventually acquires – is up to everyone who cares about the integrity of scholarship.

Are the distortions Shekman spotlights – the perils of the pressures to publish in the luxury brand journals – representative of symptoms or root causes? Publishing seems a bit too far down the road to be a root cause. Granted – we have heard the anecdotes of first year grad students asking if a project is going to get them a Science or Nature paper. Still, it is more likely root causes lie in the rewards and incentives structuring careers in academic science to seek projects garnering such publications – a value system that seems to have devolved as a result of the misguided attempt to create “stars” and the inability of institutions to either make or trust internal decisions about the importance of a researcher’s scholarship. An increased reliance on scientific judgment made by external parties such as editors and funders disproportionately rewards publication in high profile, high impact journals however defined.

The vicious circle goes round and round – these pubs need newsworthy science, scientists need to publish in these journals to succeed, and so they do the kind of trendy, newsie, flash in the pan science the journals want. Round and round we go where its stops nobody knows. Why take risks, give young researchers some time, and encourage science to tackle difficult and important problems? Why invest in scholarship when you can go for showmanship? Why nurture prominence while the notorious get all the attention?

It is unfortunate that publication, a tool for communicating and exchanging information with scientific peers, has morphed into something akin to a Bitcoin of the realm – counted, weighed, and bartered for promotions, space, fortune and fame. That said, we think there is something more rotten going on here.
Let us know what you think…


2 thoughts on “Perils of the Pressures to Publish

  1. Doug

    I agree, it is far more endemic in all aspects of the scientific enterprise than just the journals. I know many examples of Jr faculty who were told by their chair that the price for promotion was one or two papers in either Cell, Science, or Nature and that whatever else they accomplished did not really matter. This type of incentive-ization started at least 25 or 30 years ago so it is no surprise that science is being distorted now to emphasize high notoriety at the cost of quality and long term importance.

  2. loladze

    The luxury journals, i.e. Cell, Nature, and Science, are a symptom but not the root of the problem. Treating the symptom will not treat the disease and academics will continue to cherish the luxury journals. The root of the problem is that a Nature paper makes it easier to get federal funding.
    NIH and NSF review panels feel safer to give an award to a PI who has a Nature paper even if ultimately the results are not reproducible. Once a grant is awarded, there is no better justification for receiving it than to publish yet another paper in Nature or Science. This makes funders happy and the PI is on its way to get yet another grant. Deans and provosts promote those scientists who bring more grants. As the lab swells in numbers, the PI is under more pressure to bring even more grants. The rich labs getting richer.
    The pathological system of incentives turns scientists into grant writers, who when successful, become just middlemen between NIH & NSF and their postdocs and universities, being too busy administering and writing grants than doing genuine science. The incentive is to write a paper that will impress the editors at luxury journals and pass peer-review. Whether it is true science, whether it is reproducible science does not matter anymore.
    Only when funding agencies wake up and understand that they are supporting the vicious cycle, it can be broken. Until then, the majority of published research, including research published in luxury journals will be false and irreproducible as has been shown recently.

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