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Opinion: Academic Waste

From funding to publishing, academic research needlessly burns through time and money.

By | October 17, 2013

FLICKR, JAMESZI have spent the last 10 years in biomedical research in both Ireland and the United States, and during this time I have become increasingly concerned by the wasteful state of academia. In particular, I have serious concerns regarding the publication process, which is intricately linked to the acquisition of funding.

Firstly, it is almost impossible to publish “negative data.” There are a few journals such as the Journal of Negative Results that are willing to publish such findings, but leading scientists don’t publish in this journal. There is neither obligation nor incentive for researchers to publish negative data so it goes into a drawer and never again sees the light of day. This is highly unethical on a number of levels. It leads to duplication after duplication of experiments that many researchers know don't work. It delays research, as scientists inevitably go down extraneous paths before finding the one that may lead to some fruitful data. This is not only a waste of tax payers’ money, but I am appalled to think of all the animals that have been needlessly sacrificed because of this unspoken policy. It should be mandatory to publish negative data; this should be a prerequisite for being funded. Most importantly, we need the senior scientists of the world to lead by example.

Furthermore, in the West, we now insist on only hiring scientists who have published in top-tier journals. If you suggest to any of the top institutions that this policy is in place they will vehemently deny it, even though the publication history of their recent hires suggests otherwise. This is also a highly unethical practice as it pretty much excludes most of the world from participating in research at this level. Indeed, according to a conversation I had with the PI of a very well-funded lab in the U.S., to produce enough data to publish in these journals can cost well over $1 million dollars per paper. This is an elitist sport now. “We are an equal opportunity employer” no longer applies. “We employ people who have a science lineage only” seems more appropriate. By that I mean those who have come from wealthy labs who could afford to publish in the journals that are deemed acceptable.

In addition to money, it takes time and an inordinate amount of data to publish in these journals. This presents another ethical issue, which is that this data could be disseminated in significantly less time if it was published in bite-size chunks. Moreover, even once a manuscript is submitted, it can take journals up to a year to make a decision to publish it. During this time, the reviewers, who are experts in the field, have been known to sit on their review while they steal ideas and progress them to a point where they will be ahead of the submitting author for the next paper, as some of my peers have experienced.

Finally, the funding bodies, many of which are publicly funded, only award grants to scientists with top-tier publications, further perpetuating the problem: they too are excluding the vast majority of the world from scientific endeavor. Furthermore, they are allowing journals—for-profit business entities—dictate the future of research, as well as who may participate.

Curiosity and science go hand-in-hand. Maybe it’s time we became a little more curious about how we have evolved from science-for-the-benefit-of-humanity to science-for-the-benefit-of-relatively-few.

Linda Feighery spent 10 years in biomedical research in Ireland and the U.S. and is currently working as a medical writer in London.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Feighery’s friend and mentor Graham Neale, most recently a visiting professor at Imperial College London, who passed away this month (October 5).

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Avatar of: GB

GB

Posts: 1

October 17, 2013

I too have spent ten years in biomedical research.  In that time, I have observed some of these issues as well as many others.  I agree with everything the author has written, but I am highly doubtful that any of it will change, and have basically accepted that it won't (which is why I have left academia for industry).

I think that many of the problems with academia stem from how competitive it has become.  Although the number of faculty is slowly growing, it has not kept up with the growth in the number of Ph.D.s being produced, and the pool of money available for research has not grown at the pace of growth in faculty.  So, there is a problem of scarcity, and it is only going to get worse.

In this hyper-competitive environment, funding agencies will fund the projects that have the highest chance of success and have the greatest impact.  Universities depend on their faculty bringing in money from the funding agencies, so they are incentivized to hire faculty who have an established track-record of high impact publications...and as the author noted, publishing negative results would not have the impact needed for consideration (it may even negatively affect the chances of being hired).

Another reason why it is unlikely that publishing negative results will become commonplace, is that publishing negative results increases the likelihood of being scooped by ones competitors.  Publishing is also extremely time-consuming and publishing negative results takes energy away from pursuing research that may be successful.

The only way I see to solve many of the problems in academia is for the entire academic culture to shift from highly competitive to highly collaborative.  Unfortunately, the only way I see for this to happen is for there to be an abundance of science funding available.  If the current political climate in the US is any indication, this is highly unlikely to happen.

Avatar of: Ken Pimple

Ken Pimple

Posts: 23

October 17, 2013

I agree with Linda Feighery and GB, but not quite completely.   

I am convinced that the incentive structure of global science must change. GB is probably right that it isn’t going to happen. But I do not believe we have to wait, or agitate. for GB’s “abundance of science funding.”  

Change can begin at the roots - the academic lab, department, college, and university. The incentives for tenure and promotion could begin focusing on quality of work, as judged by peers in the department and the field, rather than quantity of publications with quality measured by impact factors. Perhaps for once the dominoes could topple upward, departments influencing higher administration, in turn influencing funding agencies.  

Racing at full speed is not sustainable for science in the long run. A slightly more relaxed and cooperative atmosphere would be best for scientists and, perhaps more importantly, for science.  

I am convinced, contra GB, that pouring more funding into science will only perpetuate the arms race. I feel certain that it is more likely that change will come from below than that science funding will increase dramatically and continually for the rest of time. All it would take for the changes to begin is one courageous department with a strong commitment to true excellence in science and a college or university willing to take a risk.  

Edited to correct paragraph breaks - KDP

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