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.