Has the scientific research system become dysfunctional?

The pressure to be the first with a new discovery is resulting in an increasing number of authors rushing to print with results that later turn out to be not true. In most cases, this is due to cutting corners, sloppiness, or not exercising sufficient skepticism about one’s own work. In a few cases, it is because of outright fraud.

In any event, this is resulting in a rash of retractions by journals of articles that they have published. As this article says:

In the past decade the number of retraction notices for scientific journals has increased more than 10-fold while the number of journals articles published has only increased by 44%. While retractions still represent a very small percentage of the total, the increase is still disturbing because it undermines society’s confidence in scientific results and on public policy decisions that are based on those results, says Casadevall. Some of the retractions are due to simple error but many are a result of misconduct including falsification of data and plagiarism.

More concerning, say the editors, is that this trend may be a symptom of a growing dysfunction in the biomedical sciences, one that needs to be addressed soon. At the heart of the problem is an economic incentive system fueling a hypercompetitive environment that is fostering poor scientific practices, including frank misconduct.

The root of the problem is a lack of sufficient resources to sustain the current enterprise. Too many researchers are competing for too little funding, creating a survival-of-the-fittest, winner-take-all environment where researchers increasingly feel pressure to publish, especially in high-prestige journals.

I have long been concerned with the health of scientific research. My job at a leading research university brings me into contact with young professors in the sciences and I see first hand the stress they are constantly under during their pre-tenure period to get grants and publications. They are spending most of their time writing grant proposals and worrying about whether the proposals will be funded. They work long hours and sacrifice their family life and mental and physical health to do so. Furthermore, they are forced to choose research projects that are fundable and hence conform to current fashions rather than ones that they think are important. Thus they avoid things that are offbeat, and possibly miss those low-probability, high-payoff topics that might truly revolutionize knowledge. This is not the way to get the best out of these highly gifted people at the peak of their creativity and energy.

Long gone are the days when the young Albert Einstein could work in his patent office, and have the luxury of thinking through fundamental questions without worrying about his paycheck or seeking grants. Those days are never going to return. I read how Einstein, after he came to the US, would be approached by young scientists seeking academic jobs. For the ones he thought had promise, he would try to find them jobs in smaller colleges that emphasized teaching so that their jobs would be secure and they could then have time to freely think about things that they considered important. But now there is an increasing trend to demand that faculty in even small liberal arts colleges should get grants, so Einstein would have been stymied.

Richard Feynman (who worked at Caltech, a top flight research institution) said that he enjoyed having to teach because he felt that doing so earned him his salary and thus freed him to think about scientific ideas on ‘his own time’ with a more playful attitude. He said that he would have hated to work at a pure research institution because then he would have felt pressure to always think of new ideas to justify his keep, and this would have been unbearable. He worked at such a research institution (Los Alamos National Laboratory) during the Second World War on the Manhattan project and thus knew what he was talking about. I too worked at LANL for a couple of years early in my career and can understand what he meant.

I think we would be better served if promising new assistant professors were actually prohibited from seeking grants until after they received tenure. Instead they would be given a fixed amount of guaranteed research funding during their pre-tenure period and told to do whatever they think is important and make a name for themselves by discovering something really novel or useful or exciting, unburdened by trying to conform to current fashions in government policy or funding agencies. If they succeed, they get tenure and get onto the normal funding stream. If they fail, at least they have the satisfaction of knowing that they gave it their best shot and can move on to other things.

I am seriously worried that the current system is not conducive to getting the best research. In my view, science research in the US is even more fundamentally dysfunctional than the symptoms pointed to in the article linked to above indicate. The real problem is not that pressure to publish is producing too many articles that need to be retracted. It is that pressure to publish and get grants may be causing us to miss doing important research altogether.


  1. slc1 says

    Unfortunately, at least at state universities, research grants are a necessity to pay part of an assistant professor’s salary because of cutbacks in funding from state governments. As a former colleague once stated, it used to be publish or perish. Now it’s publish and parish.

  2. jamessweet says

    From an outsider’s perspective, my impression is that the increase in retractions as of late has actually been a positive development — that flawed papers which in the past would have nonetheless have stood due to simple lack of time to pursue every angle, these are now getting shredded by the blogosphere, instant feedback, etc. That of course is a separate issue from the publish-or-perish gotta-secure-a-grant mindset which is indubitably a problem…

  3. Mano Singham says

    That is a positive way of looking at it. It would be interesting if some sociologists of science investigated to see which is the dominant cause of this effect.

  4. Zugswang says

    I think it’s good that we still have strong systems in place to refute and publicly acknowledge errors and scientific misconduct, but it’s still disconcerting that what we are likely seeing are researchers with relaxed ethical standards, and this isn’t something we want to spread, because that kind of corruption also tends to be upwardly mobile, and the deeper it goes, the more difficult it becomes to remove.

  5. Zugswang says

    I would also add that, even with cuts to education and research, there are other significant problems that will only exacerbate this down the road. I also think that educational institutions have expanded too quickly; new schools are being founded, and established schools are adding or expanding different programs in an attempt to remain competitive or add new revenue streams. At the same time, I don’t see accreditation standards being adjusted enough to account for this growth, so schools that wish to retain accreditation still need to award (x) number of master, doctoral, and professional degrees at regular intervals.

    We’ve already seen something like this in law schools, where new graduates can’t find jobs, because the market is over-saturated. But we’re also seeing the problem occur much earlier with psychology PhD candidates. During this last round of matching for internships (a requirement of graduation in nearly all accredited programs), 1/3 of all applicants did not match at all because there simply weren’t enough internships. Many of them have completed every other requirement for graduation, but now they have to wait for another year to reapply before they can receive their degree.

    A lot of students enter graduate school unaware of their employment prospects upon graduation. I was lucky enough to leave my PhD program with a masters when I realized that I’d be spending the next 15 years of my life in post-docs, if I was that lucky. I’m currently working on my PharmD at Ohio State, but even at this very respected program, the whispers of the soon-to-be saturated job market (if it hasn’t already happened) loom heavily on many of us.

  6. Henry Gale says

    Any problem with the current system is many researchers chase the dollar. Instead of asking interesting questions, they are asking questions that can get funding.

  7. mnb0 says

    You should read the Dutch paperback from Frank van Kolfschooten, called False Progress (Valse Vooruitgang) from 20 years ago. I have no idea if it’s translated in English. It gave me the impression that the problem is quite old.
    Here are more Dutchmen worried about the health of scientific research:


    There are many more articles by Lendering on this subject, but alas for you they are in Dutch.

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