Progress or Perish

As I stand back and look at the trends and behaviors that exist in academic publishing in the science I’m both discouraged and a little saddened by my prospects of success in the academic world. It stands to reason as to whether this  is a reflection of my own poor performance or if it is just that I’m perhaps one of a growing number of junior researchers that that can’t progress further due to the inconsistencies in perceptions of academic worth, ethical and professional behavior most of which concern models for funding.

During my time in the lab, I used to conceptualised science’s main focus as rational problem solving developing of principles to ensure that under controlled experimental conditions we reduce error and discern expected signals from background noise. It later became inherently obvious that academic worth is judged more on the ideas you’ve contributed to your field. I am troubled that this is often times at odds with my initial concept of science when you consider that most breakthroughs and innovative ideas are largely brought about when one makes mistakes. All the while scientists do not intend to make mistakes and if mistakes are made we’re almost inclined to conceal or not admitted to them. There isn’t even a way we can document our mistakes or stand to be credited with making mistakes so that others don’t follow the same course. So in a sense; science merely strives for validity over novelty through inductive reasoning on consistent, sensible data.

Throughout scientific history, most ‘false positives’ are looked upon as misleading – that necessitates a persecution and mistrust of the researchers that worked to validate those old hypotheses. The virtuous image of moving through classical notions of hypothesis, selected method presented results and conclusions is a total misrepresentation. We only stand to determine that nature is not what we expect through a raw, unplanned process of poorly executed hypothesis, method and interpenetration of results an inconsistency serves to highlight. Despite this, papers are mechanistically constructed around a rigid objective framework that presents the idea as completely independent of the actual process that led to the discovery. An interesting post once cited that the Biosciences owed their exceptional progress in recent decades in part to spurious results… Why is this surprising?

The ‘Data age’ promises to move away from this traditional academic model of putting putative experts in charge of the publishing process. Tim Berners Lee rejects this ideology and demands a system of linked data that allows a multidimensional interpretation and utility of the data. The internet is already the right environment to foster the growth and dissemination of metadata. However, to most academics this may sound absurd, terribly idealistic and  myopic. This may be a reasonable stance to take if you consider that it would be the equivalent of asking researchers to relegate their obligations to a system which they’ve use to build a reputation and career upon. Great resistance also surrounds government research decisions to incorporate open-access to data and open-access publishing of academic literature. Underwhelming impact factors and instances of fringe worthy online journals have served to exacerbate the debate around the needs and virtues of being ‘open’.

Another source of frustration among academics stems from their inadequate funding for academic activities. Much of their work is either done on a low salary or entirely ‘pro-bono’. Consultations with students, the media, and professionals outside their field are not billed. Fulfilling a review on a paper this may also take up to 3-4 hours of careful consideration of the evidence, arguments, quality and quantity of work. Honest reviews are hard to come by and often the party who lodged the paper are met with unnecessary demands for extra work or extraneous cross-references. These unpaid hours that go in to reviewing or preparing an article for review go unrecognised by the university/research institutions. Once a paper is in press, academic researchers (either side of the peer review process) don’t see any proportion of the profits despite extra-ordinate profits incurred by paywalls upon the published works.

These widely held expectations, perspectives and the pressures underlying the ‘publish or perish’ mantra culminate in making public funding and academic employment for junior researchers improbable. Without junior researchers being funded, there will be a severe loss in the legitimacy of academic institutions. Senior researchers ought to recognise that the unsustainable growth of current research may also be a result of their own success. Progressive academics will be fostered by the internet to grow independent of the traditional academic and publishing systems. I see this as a ressolve to my dissillusionment with the academic life. In the public domain we ought to evolve new ways to merrit academic success, encourage the documentation of error, accident and mistakes, and demonstrate how data can be repurposed to generate new ideas.


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