There are probably few careers which have been so romanticised by the entertainment industry as that of scientists. Wild haired avuncular lunatics in white coats work ceaselessly to prevent the destruction of the earth by asteroids, virii or the occasional zombie outbreak, or tirelessly spend long hours in spotless labs finding cures for every disease imaginable. They all have one thing in common; an altruistic and self-sacrificing drive for solving problems for the collective good. Their results are their own rewards.
Many postgraduate students experience a similar feeling of moral purpose. After all, it is a field where hard work returns results, and there is satisfaction in understanding how the world around us works in every minute detail. An advancement in a field, if strictly verified and repeated by the shared language of the scientific method, is a permanent achievement even if not entirely correct.
Now, if you were in Darwin’s shoes, backed by an ample family fortune and a very patient wife, you would be free to pursue your passion for science over the course of decades before finally publishing the Origin of Species. The immediate economic benefits of his work can be argued, but at the time there were few applications which would result in tangible financial gain compared to the work of Edison and Tesla, whose work was driven directly by investors who expected real products in return for their support. For Darwin, the fruits of his labour was more on a personal satisfaction level rather than financial gain.
The main problem with academia today is the primary goal of scientific investigation is something different from the Teslas and Darwins of previous years. The central theme of modern science is funding. Without it, nothing can or will be done. A researcher will receive funding by convincing a board of more senior scientists that her work is important. The primary way to prove your value is through your publications. Essentially, a project is started with a publication in mind. Often, this is already drafted out before experiments even begin, and as results come in, conclusions are updated and a target journal is decided. The choice of journal is also critical; a publication in a journal which is by consensus deemed to be high level, for instance Nature or Science, is considered to have higher impact than articles in other journals. You would maybe need several articles in lower impact journals to equal one article in Nature. When a journal is agreed on, then the authors must carefully select reviewers from their peers. The combined impact of all your publications will then strongly influence your ability to draw in funding from the granting authority.
Academic institutes will be more inclined to host scientists who receive ample funding, thereby improving their standing and also getting a substantial cut of the grant money. Successful researchers will be able to hire more PhD students to labor nights and weekends in order to produce more publications, and the carousel spins on. The science Ponzi scheme rolls on until all funds are spent.
It should come as no great surprise that this system of artificial success and consensus policy creates plenty of opportunities for abuse. Since the most important goal of a publication is to be published, there is a temptation for researchers to exaggerate their findings and downplay drawbacks of their methodology. After all, if their professional career relies on their work being recognised, who can blame them? Even worse, data is sometimes found to be false and unrepeatable, figures manipulated and conclusions misleading. In 2016, over 650 published articles were retracted either due to sloppiness or fraud. It is, for obvious reasons, difficult to estimate the degree of fraud in publications, and even more difficult to distinguish human error from a conscious attempt to mislead. However, a recent study of roughly 20,000 papers revealed that 3.8% of them contain images that were either duplicated or manipulated. Since these cases only comprise a small subset of the information contained in a publication, it is fairly safe to assume that the actual degree of error is much higher.
Another way to improve the chances of publication is to choose reviewers carefully based on their attitude towards you and your work. Benevolent reviewers can fast-track you to a successful publication, while reviewers who compete with you are given the power to delay, derail or even in some cases steal your work. The potential for political cabals of researchers reviewing each other is immense. Again, the currency of publications corrupts the end goal, which is to judge science solely by its end result, and not who the researcher happens to socialise at conferences with.
Alternatively, if you are not lucky enough to be involved in a network of allies, you can always create your own. In 2015, 64 papers were retracted when it was discovered that one researcher had created fake reviewers, along with emails, and in effect reviewed their own papers. At least no one can claim that intense pressure to publish stifles creativity. The discovery of similar schemes resulted in 250 retractions in 2015, and has been been described as a trend.
These are just a few examples of how the academic system is fundamentally broken. There are without a doubt still scientists who, as Tesla did, work diligently towards advancements that would result in concrete rewards in a market economy, and there are assuredly still the Darwins who dedicate their life to their passion to understand nature and the universe. It is unlikely however that either would thrive in the academic environment of today. Darwin would not see much funding, based on his rather terse publication record, and Tesla would not have the political skill to survive in the modern cutthroat publication industry that public science has become.
Let’s do ourselves a favour and end this charade. It is a waste of both financial and human resources. It has even claimed lives, and shortened many others, all under the grand deception of ‘altruism’. In the next article, I will explain what we must do to once again shape a new golden era of science from the ashes of corruption and fraud.
Note. See Retraction Watch for continuous updates of academic fraud.