Opinion: Accomplishments Over Accolades

Award-seeking and career-building behavior is contributing to the rise of bad science. 

By | August 11, 2014

WIKIMEDIA, WARBURGThe more that scientists focus on awards and advertise career-building, the more that we, as a community, attract people seeking prizes and glamorous careers, and the bigger the burden on the peer review system. The independent and critical assessment of data and of analysis is at the core of our profession. Yet, the rapid growth of the scientific enterprise and the explosion of the scientific literature have made it all but impossible to read, think deeply, and assess independently even the subset of all published papers that is relevant to one’s research. This is alarming.

Here I suggest an approach to alleviating the problem, starting with two related questions: Why is low-quality “science” written up and submitted for publication, and what can we do to curb such submissions? These questions touch on the difficult-to-quantify subject of human motivation. Scientists have a complex set of incentives that include understanding nature, developing innovating solutions to important problems, and aspirations of heightened social status, prestige, and successful careers. These incentives have always existed and always will.

Scientific culture can powerfully affect the incentives of scientists and in the process harness the independent thought of the individual scientists—not only the external reviewers—in raising the standards and rigors of their work. I see a culture focused on prizes and career-building as inimical to science. If the efforts of bright young people are focused on building careers, they will find ways to game the system. Many already have.

As long as the motivation of some scientists is dominated by factors other than meeting one’s own high standards of scientific rigor, finding the results worthy of our attention will remain a challenge even with the best heuristics of ranking research papers. However, to use Richard Feynman’s memorable words, if “the pleasure of finding things out” is a dominant incentive, the reward cannot be achieved unless one can convince oneself of the veracity of the findings. The higher the prominence of this reward intrinsic to scientific discovery is, the lower the tendency to game the system and the need for external peer review. A scientific culture that emphasizes the research results—not their external reflections in prizes and career advancement—is likely to diminish the tendency to use publishing as a means of career advancement, and thus enrich the scientific literature of papers worthy our attention.

A great place to begin is by replacing the headlines focused on distinctions and building careers with headlines focused on facts. For example, the “awards” section in CVs, faculty profiles, and grant or faculty-position applications could easily be replaced by a “discoveries” section that outlines significant research findings. Similarly, great scientists should be introduced at public meetings based on their significant contributions rather than with long lists of prizes and grants they received.

Focusing on scientists’ work and not their accolades would hardly diminish their importance. Indeed, the Nobel Prize derives its prestige from scientists like Einstein and Feynman and not the other way around. A prize may or may not reflect significant contributions to science, and we should be given the opportunity to independently evaluate the researcher’s contributions. Only such a culture of independent assessment can give the most promising ideas a chance to prevail over the most popular ones.

The next time you have a chance to introduce an accomplished colleague, respect their contributions with an explicit reference to their work, not their prizes. With this act you will help realign our scientific culture with its North Star: the independent and critical evaluation of experiments, data, ideas, and conceptual contributions.

Nikolai Slavov is a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, where his focus is on the quantitative exploration of cellular metabolism and protein synthesis via direct precision measurements and modeling.

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Posts: 1

August 12, 2014

Nikolai:

Thank you for writing this article. I enjoyed reading it because it resonated with my personal views on the current trend in our scientific community. And, I am a big fan of Feynman.

I commend your courage for telling the truth !

Best,

Yogendra Shrestha

Postdoc, NIDDK, NIH 

 

August 12, 2014

Thank you for writing this article. I agree with all you said, but frankly I think US science is in even worse shape than you suggest and fir even more reasons. It both saddens me deeple and worries me. Allow me to list a few of my thoughts:

 The corrosiveness of the "publish-or-perish" culture is a major culprit.  It is not merely awards and fame that motivates hasty publication of large quantities of low-quality research, but a more basic desire for job stability. Job retention is usually based on performance evaluations which put greatest weight on grant pocurement and number of publications; grant procurement itself is heavily influenced by numbers of publications. This leads to publication of shoddy hasty work.

"Publish-or-perish" also has a corrosive effect on graduate student training, as well as pot-doctoral training. Mentors all too often use the trainees as technical assistants. As a result, the students do NOT learn proper science, they do not get training in scientific criticsl thinking or analytical skills (let aline creativity), nor do they become exposed to scientific breadth.  This not only perpetuates a bad situation, but over time exacerbates it, as these trainees assume independent career positions of their own. At this point in time, I believe that we have a cadre of practicing "scientists" who simply do not know any better. They do not know what it is that they have never learned, they belueve themselves in good faith to be real scientists, and they not only apply for grant support for their "research" but also serve as peer reviewers. I realize that I am making a rather devastating comment on the current state of research today. I speak from the perspective of biological (and biomedical) basic science, having personally observed this trend for nearly three decades before my retirement. 

i dearly hope that we are not beyond the "point of no return" but I am deeply worried that perhaps we are. There are still high-quality scientists in the US, and some of these are funded sufficiently to be able to host graduate students, and those students are being trained to be "real scientists." But these high-quality scientists are decreasing in number and are training fewer and fewer new high-quality young scientists; they are already outnumbered and I fear for the survival of this precious sub-population. 

I apologize for the pessimism, but I felt compelled to spell out my concerns.

August 12, 2014

 

 

Thank you for writing this article. I agree with all you said, but frankly I think US science is in even worse shape than you suggest and fir even more reasons. It both saddens me deeple and worries me. Allow me to list a few of my thoughts:

 

 

 

 The corrosiveness of the "publish-or-perish" culture is a major culprit.  It is not merely awards and fame that motivates hasty publication of large quantities of low-quality research, but a more basic desire for job stability. Job retention is usually based on performance evaluations which put greatest weight on grant pocurement and number of publications; grant procurement itself is heavily influenced by numbers of publications. This leads to publication of shoddy hasty work.

 

 

 

"Publish-or-perish" also has a corrosive effect on graduate student training, as well as pot-doctoral training. Mentors all too often use the trainees as technical assistants. As a result, the students do NOT learn proper science, they do not get training in scientific criticsl thinking or analytical skills (let aline creativity), nor do they become exposed to scientific breadth.  This not only perpetuates a bad situation, but over time exacerbates it, as these trainees assume independent career positions of their own. At this point in time, I believe that we have a cadre of practicing "scientists" who simply do not know any better. They do not know what it is that they have never learned, they belueve themselves in good faith to be real scientists, and they not only apply for grant support for their "research" but also serve as peer reviewers. I realize that I am making a rather devastating comment on the current state of research today. I speak from the perspective of biological (and biomedical) basic science, having personally observed this trend for nearly three decades before my retirement. 

 

 

 

i dearly hope that we are not beyond the "point of no return" but I am deeply worried that perhaps we are. There are still high-quality scientists in the US, and some of these are funded sufficiently to be able to host graduate students, and those students are being trained to be "real scientists." But these high-quality scientists are decreasing in number and are training fewer and fewer new high-quality young scientists; they are already outnumbered and I fear for the survival of this precious sub-population. 

 

 

 

I apologize for the pessimism, but I felt compelled to spell out my concerns.

 

 

 

Please forgive my typographical errors. I wrote this on an 4" iPod with one finger!

 

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Posts: 2

August 12, 2014

No, wrong, but perhaps being at Harvard puts you too close to the problem. Why "The Scientist" thinks this is a good idea though totally escapes me.  It has belatedly become widely recognized, and even acknowledged by some leaders like Francis Collins, that what biomed research suffers from is not an overabundance of researchers seeking the Nobel prize, but too many PhDs and MD researchers that naturally result from a reliance on an army of cheap labor at the bench and the proliferation of grad schools and visas that provide that cheap labor.  This Malthusian nightmare doesn't just produce overburdened peer review but also fraud, low moral, loss of desirability of a research career, loss of respect for the research community, and the kind of competition only encountered elsewhere in an overcrowded rat cage. There are still plenty of shysters out there who profit from the overabundance of candidates and dedicate themselves to obfuscating the obvious.  "The Scientist" shouldn't be so naive as to contribute to the obfuscation in the same way they did with the evolution/creationist controversy.  How about staying within established reality and giving us some articles on reforming the practical aspects of research, limiting the number of graduate schools, or cutting back on the number of research visas?

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Posts: 2

August 12, 2014

Articles on reform of peer review would also be to the point.

Avatar of: PastToTheFuture

PastToTheFuture

Posts: 29

August 12, 2014

Isn't this obvious? Come on, you hang out with a lot of smart people. How many of them qualify as "destroyed by ego"? You either are about science or you are about yourself or money or whatever, but if you are not about science, you will not make good science. It simply works that way.

I claim to have created some great science... or maybe philosophy as until it is accepted by the scientific establishment it is philosophy rather than science. I devoted my life to it. Not for the money, not for the fame, not even for the truth of it. I did it because of the inspiration and later because it is knowledge humanity needs. Science is personal. Do it for love or inspiration and you will do well. Do it to produce a product and it will be missing the essential element.

Avatar of: Jessica Polka

Jessica Polka

Posts: 2

August 13, 2014

This is an interesting perspective - thank you, Nikolai!

However, I optimistically disagree that "these incentives have always existed and always will." My sense is that in our current system, the bulk of the extrinsic pressure on "bright young people" is not coming from a shot at the nobel prize, but rather finding a way to stay in science in the face of fierce competition for jobs and grants (as an anonymous commenter wrote below). I'd argue that the only way to discourage careerist behavior is to make careers more stable.

If you are in town on Oct 2-3, it would be great to discuss these ideas in person at futureofresearch.org.

Take care,

Jessica

Avatar of: nslavov

nslavov

Posts: 2

Replied to a comment from Jessica Polka made on August 13, 2014

August 18, 2014

Thanks for your comment Jessica!

 

I agree with you and with the anonymous comment that for most people the competition is for jobs and grant money. The fact is that not everybody who would like a research position and money for research can have them and in my opinion not everybody should have them. We need to have a healthy competition based on the scientific results and contributions not on their secondary and external reflections. This is widely acknowledged and discussed in the context of peer review of papers (which I pointed out in a sentence removed by the editors, perhaps because it is so obvious). However, I have not seen it discussed in the context of using prizes and grants and various other career achievements as metrics in the "competition", as factors deciding who can have the limited jobs and money. That is why I thought it is worth starting a discussion on this topic, particularly since there are some simple practical steps that we can take in that direction. 

 

I look forward to attending the meeting on Oct 2-3.  

 

Nikolai

Avatar of:

Posts: 1

Replied to a comment from RetiredInBoyntonBeach made on August 12, 2014

August 24, 2014

I find your point of view really relevant. It makes all kinds of sense. Science is crumbling but most people on the inside are not even noticing 'cause they hadnever really being exposed to science before. It's horrifying.

Thanks for giving shape to the doom and despair I've been feeling for years (20 in biomedical research, gave up academic career a year ago for a shot a translational research, where there's hope we could set new rules and standards).

Maybe it'll take us one generation of reinventing/rediscovering the game. We can only hope. 

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