10 February 2010

Science Losing Its Credit Over Money

In Tarnishing Science, I said "That scientists are human and are susceptible to ordinary persuasions like power, prestige, or money, isn't news."  What is news is just how widespread some of the problems are becoming, due to money, money, and more money.

Previously, I've offered my views on how scientific credibility could be enhanced through using open sourcing the scientific methodologies and allowing the free and open source distribution and use of the scientific data.

When it comes to the influence of money though, that's probably not enough.

Case in point, industry-sponsored medical science studies (see Med schools not responding to ghostwriting scandals). What can be done about the billions of dollars in biomedical research? All the money flowing into that research is a great thing, but even without maliciously cheating in the scientific process, the money can be targeted into research programs that are inherently biased in favour of the company bankrolling it. In Economics, this would be called voting with your wallet.

What do you think could help mitigate this problem? It's certainly a complex issue I'd need to think more carefully about. Sorry, I don't even have a first approximation to a solution this time, but it's important to see clearly where the problem is.

Another growing flash point is in journal publications. When a researcher's rice bowl is directly tied to his career, and his career directly tied to how published he is, it should come as no surprise that some people would prefer publishing by any means rather than perishing (see Publish or perish in China [1]). It's a natural consequence of having employment, promotions, and funding be awarded based primarily on the number of publications one has.

The unfortunate part of the story is that it's happening not just in China, but in other parts of the world as well, including North America, in varying degrees and kinds. For example, I know of researchers who would teach a course in university for graduate students in which the students would, as part of their assessment, write a paper that would be submitted to conferences or journals. If it gets published, both the student and the researcher gets an extra publication added to their C.V.

It's a mutually parasitic symbiotic relationship. Yet it leaves me, as a professional educator, feeling unclean for some reason. Maybe it's because it leaves me with the feeling that someone(s) is just out "pub bagging" (cf, Peak bagging).

The traditionalist in me would argue that, like peak bagging, publication bagging devalues the educational and research experience in favour of achieving an arbitrary goal of getting published. Unlike peak bagging, however, money in the form of career growth and research funding has unfortunately incentivized pub bagging behaviour.

As another example, there are researchers who take their own published papers and modify it slightly to have it published again in other journals. Of course, the modification may include some extra experimental results or data, so what constitutes "slightly" is certainly relative.

Clearly, these two examples are not morally wrong depending on the specifics of the situation, including the researcher's intent. It still, however, leaves me with a sense of uncleanliness, as though it's near an imaginary line in the sand but it's hard to tell how close or far the line is.

The fact that there is money there to incentivize people to move closer and closer to that line is certainly problematic, and yet research cannot be conducted without money. It's certainly a complicated problem that requires more careful thought.

[1] Full text of article seems to be available at pubget.com, at least for now.

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