Saving Science from the Scientists

Recently, I listened to a very interesting and relevant programme on BBC Radio 4 called “Saving Science from the Scientists” – which you can find here.

In it, science journalist Alok Jha explores whether scientific research is as rigorous and reliable as we all would hope and, as a chemist, I thought he raised some very important points.

Although the two-part series does focus a little on fraud in the publication of scientific papers, Alok also discusses how the pressure to publish, the instability of an academic career and the focus on Impact Factor are having a detrimental effect on science as  a whole. This is something both scientists and the general public need to be concerned about, because a loss of faith in scientific results would be disastrous.

I have particularly strong feelings about this topic, as I’m coming to the end of the PhD process myself, and have seen the toxic “publish or perish” atmosphere in academia at the moment. Although as a naive, bright-eyed Masters student you want to make new and exciting chemical discoveries and contribute to the knowledge in your field, you soon learn that your real goal is to crowbar your supervisor’s work into a “high impact” journal. And, should you fail, your academic career is almost certainly doomed.

It’s true that quality results being published in top journals may be achievable through hard work alone, but more often than not it’s down to luck – what project you’re given, which ligand/metal/substrate/molecule/etc you decide to work on first, what other people in your field happen to be working on, etc. There are many variables which are out of your control, and if you get stuck on a particularly tricky or fruitless project, it’s often too late to change your fate.

In an ideal world, a project that yielded negative or unexpectedly disappointing results would still be of value to the scientific community – after all, if you prove something doesn’t work, that’s still a result, right? Wrong! Most journals aren’t interested in negative or less interesting outcomes, and your work may consequently never get published – after all, your supervisor doesn’t want a poor quality journal on their record.

This gets me onto my biggest pet peeve of academic research. Scientists want a good track record. They want only top journals on their publication list, which is encouraged by systems such as the Research Excellence Framework, which awards chemistry departments lower ratings for publishing in lower impact journals. This leads to less interesting or ground-breaking research never being published, which doesn’t only leave PhD students disheartened (and worried about their career prospects) but your scientific field of choice is missing novel results which could advance in the area in the future. If no one knows your results, how will others know it’s not worth pursuing or, more importantly, figure out what to change to achieve better results next time? Knowledge is being kept under wraps simply because our academic system deems it unworthy of publication.

It’s good to see the media taking an active interest in these problems, and I sincerely hope that scientists, universities and publishing houses take a hard look at the downwards spiral this culture of research is creating. Research isn’t only about getting your name out there and advancing your personal career, it’s about growing your field, and putting knowledge into the public eye. It’s high time we all remembered that.