When the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Science simply become the Corrupted.
This post is a cautionary one to budding scientists, a ‘you are not alone’ post to those in opposition to the thrall of it all and an article to create public awareness about the sickness inflicting our global scientific communities. Science, especially in Academia, is just as susceptible to disease as any living organism, since it is based on human behaviour. The sickness that plaques science is known as “Publish or Perish Syndrome” (PPS) caused by Academic Institutes and Journals who promise promotion and prestige to budding and established scientists. In an attempt to remove the Bad and the Ugly from scientific results and only preserving the Good; afflicted individuals readily manipulate results in order to satisfy their idea of what they want the science to represent. Often afflicted individuals can be identified by their statements of justification, such as “Selective Omission” or “Clever Interpretation” of not only their own data, but other scientists’ as well. Their Ego has become more important than the honesty, integrity and trust in science and they become fooled by illusions that they’ve created themselves. Their ability to see beyond their own lies falls away as Third Eye center closes to the truth and the Throat center regularly communicates falsehoods. Science becomes a practice of betrayal, deceit and self-delusion where half-truths become all-encompassing.
“Scientists, publishers, and granting agencies need to take some responsibility, too, for creating incentives for researchers and their employers to exaggerate the significance of preliminary and isolated results.” – Oransky 2015
If criminalists were to ‘selectively omit’ or ‘cleverly interpret’ evidence or autopsy results, they will be prosecuted for tampering with evidence. So why to PPS individuals essentially get away with fraud and general research misconduct? Because the institutions and journals have a blind-spot, which facilitates the manipulation of data, but this is a delicate balance. Too much manipulation, then perpetrators will be caught out, embarrassed, debarred or fired. Too little and the ego remains unsatisfied when the impact on promotion and prestige remain low. The Goldilocks principle applies, just enough tweaking to affect the desired outcome without setting off any alarm bells. The best lies are those with a modicum of truth and PPS afflicted individuals have mastered this technique. Some become so entrenched in their own lies that they start to believe themselves as good and accomplished scientists.
“Despite their vital importance in conveying accurate science, top-tier journals possess a limited number of publication slots and are thus overwhelmingly weighed towards publishing only novel or significant results. Despite the fact that null results and replications are important scientific contributions, the reality is that journals do not much care for these findings. Researchers are not rewarded for submitting these findings nor for correcting the scientific record, as high-profile examples attest [15,16]. This pressure to produce positive results may function as a perverse incentive. Edwards and Roy  argue that such incentives encourage a cascade of questionable findings and false positives. Heightened pressure on academics has created an environment where “Work must be rushed out to minimize the danger of being scooped” . The range of questionable behavior itself is wide . Classic ‘fraud’ (falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism (FFP) ) may be far less important than more subtle questionable research practices.” – Grimes et. al. 2017
I have heard and read of several afflicted individuals who vehemently defend the lie they are living (and publishing) through statements such as “This is always how it has been done!”, “Welcome to the real world!” and “Get over it – Publish early, publish often!”… They readily force their afflictions upon others through coercion, bullying and emotional terrorism, especially of MSc and PhD students. Some non-afflicted individuals soon become victims of the Publish or Perish Syndrome and go on to perpetuate its life cycle. Those who resist are in conflict with the system and experience psychological warfare with afflicted individuals, who use subterfuge and abuse of authority (especially in the sick and unbalanced power relationship between students and supervisors) to get their way. Yet, nothing is done about it. Should any resisting individuals complain or not toe the line, they are painted as ‘trouble-makers’, ‘non-team players’ or simply told that they will not get their degrees until every part of the supervisors (the departments’ and institutions’) whims and demands are met. It creates a system of convert to PPS or commit career-suicide when you attempt to go against the system. When students fail to produce, publish or graduate on time in such a poisonous and mismanaged environment the supervisors blame the students. Subsequently, the students are the ones who suffer the financial, professional and personal consequences, since there are no checks and balances, no protection and no accountability on part of the supervisor(s), research group, department or institution. Thus, individuals who resist PPS likely despair as their work becomes corrupted and they attempt to survive until they find a way of getting out somewhat intact, but often students leave without obtaining the degree they have already made so many sacrifices for, again with no compensation.
“Research policy observers are increasingly concerned about the potential impact of current academic working conditions on mental health, particularly in PhD students. The aim of the current study is threefold. First, we assess the prevalence of mental health problems in a representative sample of PhD students in Flanders, Belgium (N = 3659). Second, we compare PhD students to three other samples: (1) highly educated in the general population (N = 769); (2) highly educated employees (N = 592); and (3) higher education students (N = 333). Third, we assess those organizational factors relating to the role of PhD students that predict mental health status. Results based on 12 mental health symptoms (GHQ-12) showed that 32% of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder, especially depression. This estimate was significantly higher than those obtained in the comparison groups. Organizational policies were significantly associated with the prevalence of mental health problems. Especially work-family interface, job demands and job control, the supervisor’s leadership style, team decision-making culture, and perception of a career outside academia are linked to mental health problems.” – Abstract from Levecquea et. al. 2017
Individuals who emerge from Academia (without contracting PPS) once they have received their degrees, likely feel that their entire education (and associated publications) has been built upon lies as the work had become completely corrupted in the end. All they could do was watch as it happened or perish. Therefore, I believe that PhD and MSc degrees are not truly a reflection of scientific competence but rather a reflection of the person’s ability to either become afflicted with PPS and conform, or to survive the mental and emotional anguish. It is a repulsive side-effect of PPS, since those who make it out and remain non-afflicted suffer the most.
“The basic ethical principles of every scientist are intellectual honesty, which must be present in all stages of scientific work: From a hypothesis, through the appropriate choice of research methodology, analysis and interpretation of the results, including their publication.[9,10]” – Rawat and Meena, 2014.
“Publishing is not intrinsically flawed, and conversely complete, unbiased publication is essential for scientific progress. We need a better understanding of the factors driving publication and productivity-related behaviors. This is key not only to appreciating the exceptional pressures wrought upon researchers by a strict publish-or-perish imposition, but to improving science itself. This would not only benefit those working in the field, but is crucial if public trust in science is to be maintained.” – Grimes et.al. 2017
A potential solution to PPS? How about rewarding judicious and robust scientific data? Opt for quality not quantity. Science is challenging enough that we do not need to compound the problem by loosing trust in our results and faith in our own judgement. To continue perpetuating the Publish or Perish syndrome is to ultimately lose ourselves. I do believe that honest science is to put it all out there, let the results speak for themselves and to learn from it – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
References (& Recommended Reading):
- Coolidge HJ, editor. United States: Books for Libraries; 1932. Archibald Cary Coolidge: Life and Letters; p. 308. First use of Publish or Perish
- Rawat S., Meena S. Publish or perish: Where are we heading? Journal of Research in Medical Sciences : The Official Journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences. 2014;19(2):87-89.
- Oransky I. How Publish or Perish Promotes Inaccuracy in Science—and Journalism. AMA Journal of Ethics. 2015; 17 (12): 1172-1175.
- Grimes D. A., Bauch C. T., Ioannidis J. P. A. Modeling Science Trustworthiness Under Publish Or Perish Pressure. bioRxiv. 2017; 139063.
- Chris Woolston. Degree and depression. NATURE JOBS BLOG, 30 March 2017
- Levecquea K, Anseel F, De Beuckelaer A, Van der Heyden J, Gislef L. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy. 2017; 46:868–879.
- Piers Larcombe and Peter Ridd. The need for a formalised system of Quality Control for environmental policy-science. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 2018; 126: 449-461.
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