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Scientists Discover Way To Increase Publication Count

publish.perishAnybody who has spent any time in a university library amidst the papers of his specialty knows that the absolute last thing which is needed is more of them. Journals abound and apparently breed—asexually, by dividing—when librarians turn their heads.

The reason is obvious: academics must publish whether they want to or not, whether or not they have anything useful to say, and whether or not anybody reads what they write.

The glut appears across all areas of knowledge, but the effects are different in the humanities and sciences. In the former, the world would be a far better place had many of its practitioners obeyed the ancient truism that silence is golden. Over-supply in the sciences is less troublesome because poor and inconsequential works are ignored. The presence of this chaff only makes it difficult to discover the wheat.

In the humanities (which I take to incorporate the gooier sciences, like education) one can say anything, the more outré the better. Not so in the hard sciences where at least some passing resemblance to the truth is expected.

Too much resemblance, as a matter of fact. Editors, reviews, and authors follow a rigid positivistic philosophy: only good news shall find its way into print! Papers with “statistically significant” effects are vastly likelier to be published than are works which admit there’s nothing to see. Failures with billets are as rare as Republicans in English departments.

Then because traditional statistical methods used are fertile in labeling results positive, even when they are not, there exists a tremendous publication bias. Many false things are believed true.

All this is known and of concern to the seventy-plus signatories to the article Trust in science would be improved by study pre-registration in The Guardian. This open letter proclaims “We must encourage scientific journals to accept studies before the results are in.”

The eminences lament publish and perish and say the “publishing culture is toxic to science.”

Recent studies have shown how intense career pressures encourage life scientists to engage in a range of questionable practices to generate publications — behaviours such as cherry-picking data or analyses that allow clear narratives to be presented, reinventing the aims of a study after it has finished to “predict” unexpected findings, and failing to ensure adequate statistical power. These are not the actions of a small minority; they are common, and result from the environment and incentive structures that most scientists work within.

It’s worse than just that. “[J]ournals incentivise bad practice by favouring the publication of results that are considered to be positive, novel, neat and eye-catching.” Although there is no conceivable universe where the string of letters which comprise “incentivise” should be used when ladies are present, we cannot help but agree that the situation is grim.

The “file-drawer” problem adds to the misery. This is when a study which is not a success or isn’t sexy or part of the consensus rests in a lonely file in the forgotten reaches of a scientist’s computer. Lack of negative results in print gives an over-optimistic picture of scientific progress.

The solution the Guardian writers have is to publish “pre-registration” papers, outlines of the studies which are not yet conducted. Journal which air these outlines must agree to publish the eventual results whatever they may be. Thus “questionable practices to increase ‘publishability'” will be “greatly reduced.”

I doubt it. Authors will still aim for high “impact factor” journals for their “pre-registrations.” The “impact factor”, incidentally, is an “arguably meaningless as an indicator of scientific quality”, though always a matter of bragging rights.

There will be a minor flood of papers pre-registering sketchy theories, and these will be all that is remembered. Some authors will publish their negative results, but many will forget them and move on to more fertile grounds. The bulk of these maybe-so works will be taken as positive evidence even if positive effects are never found or if negative effects are published.

Journalists, by nature not very inquisitive, will tout “If these promised results hold…”, and again these reports will be all that is remembered. Retractions will never appear. What’s to retract?

And worst of all will be the huge increase in papers that must be navigated to get to the good stuff. Pre-registration papers will only be “read”—i.e. their abstracts will be glanced at on PubMed—by other authors looking to pad their bibliographies.

No. The real solution is to judge a fellow by the quality and promise of his work, not by its quantity, and not by even a hint of a numerical rating.


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Thanks to Bryan Davies for pointing us to this.

18 thoughts on “Scientists Discover Way To Increase Publication Count Leave a comment

  1. Did you really need to throw in the comment about ladies? Poor form in an otherwise fine post.

  2. I think you are missing grant funding. While the mantra might be publish or perish, every must get paid.

    The researcher looks for a research topic that looks interesting.
    Applies for a grant to fund his research.
    receives funding.
    Conducts research.
    Publishes results.
    Affirms that more research is needed.
    Applies for more money.

    And, there is no money in null results. If you get a null result, then more research is not necessary, and how do you use that to get more money?
    There is no money available to reproduce the work of other scientists. Why do the funders want to pay for that?

  3. There are a number of challenges for academics. The open discussion about these topics is encouraging.

    (disclosure: we are creating a new tool for scientists: bohr.launchrock.com)

  4. This is a good summary of an important issue.

    But, like Grayson, I also cringed at the “ladies” comment. It doesn’t seem appropriate to stress traditional gender roles in an article on science publishing.

  5. Igor,

    I have it! My long association with medicine has allowed me to diagnose how you could turn a simple (yet tolerably amusing) joke about an abuse of the English language into a misogynistic observation about women scientists. You suffer from an over-exposure to academia, for which I prescribe one PG Wodehouse novel and a drink in a bar in which nobody working in education would appear.

    If your symptoms persist after two weeks we might have to put you on some Mark Twain.

  6. Please remember the Guardian is written by scum
    This is a naked power grab by the left merely to choose which studies get pre-registered and which then get published and reported.

  7. The line about ladies is a joke. It used to be common not to use bad language when ladies were present, hence Briggs’ comment.

  8. Dear Briggs,

    The medical condition that your accusers suffer from is called moral posturing and is often associated with a stiff neck. Its purpose is to signal to those around you that you are a member of the enlightened ones by called out miscreants. It is a progressive (pun) disorder that requires increasingly shrill complaints about increasingly minor points. No doubt these posts are being e-mailed or twittered to like minded friends and colleagues as we speak (write). After all, what is the good of moral posturing if no one notices?

  9. I’m a lady and appreciate the courtesy 🙂
    Courtesy is not politically correct anymore.

  10. Yes it has. Many times the ladies use it themselves, the politically correct seem to agree with spouting filth, but disagree with manners. Hence the shrill silliness above.

  11. Andy,

    Now, now. There wasn’t any “shrillness.” Just a standard, by now unconscious suspicion that anything that doesn’t outright argue for “gender” “equality” is therefore against it.

  12. Good manners and courtesy see no gender as my politician Grandpa would’ve told you. Isn’t it simply correct, politically or not, to be courteous?

    I don’ think the mantra “publish and perish” encourages life scientists to engage in a range of questionable practices to generate publications… as if all of them are not tenured. Cherry-picking, employing poor statistical methodologies, and making bad prediction accordingly have a lot to do with one’s academic ability and integrity, imo.

    If you were an academic statistician working at a research institution, it would be considered a foulup (the letters that comprise this word are just dandy, though none of them are among the most frequently used five letters in the English alphabet) for a young faculty to think that your colleagues can’t judge the quality of your publications and that quantity can substitute quality!

  13. One of the most famous “negative” results tests is Michaelson & Moreley’s attempt to measure the speed of earth through the “aether”

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