In a February 2011 interview with Lab Times, Cambridge scientist Peter Lawrence1 reflects on his own career and complains that “the heart of research is sick” as he charts the changes in the way in which science is pursued. Briefly, he cites impact factors and the increased need to assign metrics to scientists (# of publications, H-index, etc) as main drivers of producing low quality research and unfairly squeezing out some good scientists who do not publish simply for the sake of publishing. Impact factor fever runs deep throughout laboratories but, most damagingly, exists at the funding agency and university administrative level as well.
A very telling anecdote that he shares concerns the content of our favourite journal Nature which he claims has shifted from producing generally interesting and generally understandable findings to a mishmash of data that is generally incomprehensible to a general audience. This is mostly due to the pressure on high profile scientists to put out papers in high impact journals and the concomitant pressure on those journals to publish big name scientists. The result is that even if the scientific story isn’t of general interest, it gets forced into the high impact journal because grants and careers rely on it.2
The whole interview is a long but is an excellent read, but for now, I want to pick up on and develop two points:
- How do we identify “good scientists”?
- Scientific ombudsman to police unethical behaviour
1. How do we identify “good scientists”
Lawrence argues that instead of giving scientists grants on the basis of what they plan to do they should instead be evaluated by what they have already accomplished, because the former is too heavily invested in good grantsmanship as opposed to good science. Interestingly, in agreement with Lawrence, a recent study in PLoS ONE identifies the most effective way to keep a lab funded in times of low total funding:
Once available funding falls below 10–15% in our model, however, submitting many proposals, despite the tax that this represents on both individuals and their scientific communities, appears to be the only recourse if the goal is to maintain research funding.
Together, these arguments suggest that scientists should focus less on their science and more on their salesmanship – both in terms of writing grants and selling ideas/papers. To combat this, Peter Lawrence suggests that we:
…have to gamble with research. You have to give somebody enough money and enough peace of mind to get on with it. If at the end of five years they haven’t done much, then you end the grant. That’s the way to do it. To look backwards, to see what they’ve achieved and not worry about what they say they’re going to achieve because it is all fiction anyway.
Sounds perfect right? The big issue here though is how we go about identifying the people who should “get the chance”. Lawrence was lucky enough to avoid writing grants because he worked as a staff scientist with the UK Medical Research Council – but how does that selection process work in today’s world of science where thousands more trainees are being pushed out every year. For established scientists, you can perhaps make the argument that this type of funding would work because the ability to judge prior work is present. But for those at the beginning of their careers, the uncertainty is much greater. So Lawrence’s system might have some merit for senior scientists, but it will not solve the problem of PhDs and Postdoctoral fellows in every lab across the world feeling the pressure to get their big paper in order to establish themselves.
In fact, a big reason that the impact factor is so revered these days is that it offers an easy way to bin applicants (grant or job) into categories without having to assess each candidate intensively. This is especially useful in a world where applicants are as varied as one can imagine in terms of background and research topic.((if a university in the USA gets an application from a scientist in Europe for a position and that applicant is published in many high impact journals, then that application probably gets assessed – and in theory, this is a good thing for opening up the world of science)) However, as Lawrence correctly identifies, these absolutely should not be the only metric used to judge a scientist’s worth. We’ve written before on alternative metrics here and here, but these are not the only solutions and it will be up to us to address the problem of the “big paper” meaning more than the science inside of it.
2. Scientific ombudsman to police unethical behaviour
Beth has recently posted on the Canadian Medical Association Journal’s call for academic integrity and the website Retraction Watch which highlight instances of poor scientific conduct. An excellent suggestion buried in this interview is to create some sort of scientific ombudsman to enforce regulations that are designed to crack down on scientists with few scruples. One of the things Lawrence noted in his preparation for grant writing was the advice to avoid giving away your best ideas because the grant reviewers might simply steal them. This, combined with many scientists’ habit of not sharing data until it is nearly published is exactly what we should NOT be doing with public research dollars (I’ve discussed a shining example of this before). Surely individual careers are not worth sacrificing scientific integrity… right? Yet we have seen evidence of multiple studies about a novel finding being released within months of each other, we have witnessed full fledged scientific fraud, and we have all seen those people who take pictures at poster sessions – who can we complain to?
Currently the answer is nobody, unless you stumble upon a very honourable and just journal editor, university administrator, or granting agency. As Lawrence correctly points out – there are few teeth in any of the suggested guidelines that funding bodies put forward for scientific conduct. A powerful deterrent, he suggests, is shame – and online is the place to do it. I would wholeheartedly support his idea to have an office to report such instances (potentially anonymously) and to investigate the claims and then post the evidence of misconduct online. In order for these practices to stop, there must be some repercussion for those who steal ideas and purposefully scoop others. As of now, they are simply rewarded with high impact papers and a career boost.
Finally I’ll leave you with two fundamental questions that we will try to address in future blog entries that run as a subtext to these issues above:
- Is grant writing good for science? Does it stimulate better ideas than would otherwise have been generated?
- How can individual researchers help maximise the ethical behaviour of those around them?
Another great read from the opining Peter Lawrence is Real Lives and White Lies where he describes the plight of a junior group leader with three years worth of funding and the harsh realities that set in when new money needs to be obtained.
- thanks to Dean G for forwarding these articles and follow-up discussions [↩]
- Interestingly, Lawrence also notes that “before” a scientist would submit a short letter to Nature and follow up that interesting tidbit with a full article in a more specialised journal, allowing for full explication of the data. This rarely, if ever, happens these days [↩]