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The Scientific Literature

Publish and Prosper

What do you get if you publish a paper in a highly-ranked journal? Some prestige, certainly. If you’re in academia, it certainly helps your application for tenure, and it’s no bad thing come grant renewal time. Looks good on your CV if you’re applying for another job, no doubt. But how about a big pile of cash?

That is apparently just what you get in some organizations and in some countries. This collaboration between Science and Retraction Watch has the numbers, although I wish that there were more information. For example, the top payout found in each country is listed, but I would also be interested in the median, and in the total number of institutions that offer such bonuses. No countries in continental Europe appear, so the practice seems unknown (or at least uncommon) there. The UK and the US both show up, though, with similar top payouts (in the $6000 range), but again, I’d like to know more about just how widespread this is. To give you an idea, the only two US examples actually given in the paper are the $10 that Oakwood University (Huntsville, AL) gives anyone whose published work gets cited, and the Miller College of Business (Muncie, IN), which pays $2000 for publication in a list of approved business journals. Those would make it seem like direct pay-to-publish is not quite in the mainstream of US academia, but it’s hard to say.

On the other hand, an average payout is calculated for publishing a Science or Nature paper from China: $43,000. The highest bounty offered in that case is an attention-getting $165,000. Other countries where this technique seems to be popular are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Malaysia, and Taiwan. It would appear that these countries (most especially China) are providing money at real incentive levels, while some of the others on the list are giving out “Nice job” awards and pats on the back, on average. One important thing to mention is that the authors of this piece only searched for English-language mentions of such payouts, so there are surely many that have been overlooked.

The next question is whether there’s anything wrong with this idea, and if so, what. It makes me uncomfortable, but that’s not the appropriate measure. As long as the journals themselves keep up their editorial standards, the main effect would seem to be that their editorial staffs must get an awful lot of China-derived manuscripts whose authors are hoping to get lucky. But that would surely be the case even without the incentive payments; those probably just amplify things. There’s a possibility of corruption, if an author were to propose splitting a publication bounty with someone who could influence an editorial decision, but there’s no evidence that this is happening (or has happened).

Otherwise, this seems just to be an overt version of what goes on anyway – if you manage to publish a lot, especially in good journals, you get rewarded. It may well seem vulgar to provide some of those rewards in wads of cash, whose amounts are posted up on the wall, but the more I think about it, the more it feels to me like a difference of degree and not of kind. And if it feels vaguely wrong, somehow, then the rest of the publish-or-perish setup that we’ve been living with should feel that way, too.

Note: I would assume that these bounties are largely an academic phenomenon. Industry has its own incentives, and its own attitudes towards publication in the open literature, making the connections much more direct in a university setting. I’d be glad to get more data on that part of the story, too, though.

55 comments on “Publish and Prosper”

  1. anon says:

    I work in Big Pharma, and I’m not aware of explicit bonuses/awards for scientific publications in our industry. My impression is that giving awards for generating IP is pretty common though. My outfit gives a low 4 figure award for the first filing of a patent application, with a subsequent somewhat larger award for the actual issued US patent.

    1. Ex-BIG Pharma says:

      Wow. I wish that were standard. I’m spent a decade in big pharma and never saw a dime for patent issuances, let alone applications (even for now approved drugs)

    2. Ex-BIG Pharma says:

      I spent a decade in big pharma (2 different companies)and never saw cash rewards for either publications or IP. Too bad. One had a huge distaste for publications, generally. The other would only publish dead programs.

    3. GladToMoveToProcess says:

      At one company, we got a silver dollar when the patent was issued. Better than nothing!

    4. Some idiot says:

      I’m in middle-big pharm, and my contract explicitly states that I am paid to make inventions, and that therefore my salary covers any remuneration for patents filed/granted, and that the company owns any inventions I make (unless they are in a totally and utterly different area to what I work in). Therefore I have (unsurprisingly) not received any direct remuneration for any of the (very many) patents I am on, and I do not expect to, either.

    5. Dogbertd says:

      I used to work in BIG pharma and, like the others here, never got paid for publication. But on the other hand the company did pay for “page charges” and the other mysterious fees that journals charge, so I didn’t feel let down. You take big pharma’s dollar, you live by their rules, I say.

    6. lfert says:

      I worked for a large petrochemical company and we would get a crisp dollar bill in a new envelope for each patent application filed and a plaque when it was issued. We called them “cheese boards”.

  2. Isidore says:

    Having worked in industry in the US, in smaller biotech companies as well as in larger pharma companies, for a couple of decades, I have not encountered cash rewards offered for publications, although publishing in a prestigious journal or presenting at some major conference can certainly be helpful with regard to one’s raise and promotion (but always in a “supporting role”, one’s contributions, real or perceived, to the company being the critical factor). Generating IP usually results in a small cash reward (range from high three figures to low four figures).

  3. DCRogers says:

    My previous company had a three-digit award for any publication: split among the authors, which means the typical Science paper with 20 authors would provide each with enough cash for a blow-out visit to Shake Shack.

    Anyhow it was a pretty feeble nod towards scientists, as every other work incentive exerted great pressure to stop wasting your time on writing papers and just get on with your *real* job.

  4. As a rooky post-doc I asked the entrepreneur who had funded my work about the “fairness” of rewarding an inventor. His reply: “I paid him to invent that”… so there you go. At least it shut me up…

  5. Anon says:

    I am flustered by an article that says good cholesterol is actually bad!
    Comes from Nordic studies and is reliable.

  6. Incentivized says:

    I find this similar to the idea some parents reward their children with money for getting”A” grades. It’s always been a foreign concept when I was a child and now that I have my own children but I can’t really argue for or against it strongly. I think it comes down to whether you believe obtaining the results (Nature pub or $ for grade) is enough of its own reward.

    1. Hap says:

      I assume that the assumption is that kids will do what they get paid for rather than doing the behavior for its own sake (or for praise or respect). Whether it’s a good idea would depend on whether kids learn to do the behavior when they don’t get explicitly paid for it or whether they learn to do what gets them rewarded – they won’t always get paid for doing the right thing, and so tying their behavior to getting paid will eventually pose a problem (though it does for other kinds of incentives, as well).

    2. Denis says:

      As a family therapist I found this approach problematic, because often it masks parent’s inability to positively approve kid’s efforts and help him/her with such. Same goes for family chores – in this case kid starts thinking, that he/she must be paid or rewarded in other way for the things his future partner may consider routine maintenance. This creates all manners of problems in relationships.

      Maybe it works the same way in science – I don’t have enough data.

      1. NJBiologist says:

        Denis, your first point is an excellent one, and I hadn’t heard it before.

        Your second point lines up nicely with the concept of “effort justification”–the idea that one will look for a justification for their effort. Broadly, data from a variety of make-undergrads-do-things studies suggests that increasing monetary reward reduces internal attributions.

  7. Glen Weaver says:

    Financial rewards are probably more useful to the recipient than recognition within the company. It also seems a much more open way to reward than some sort of nebulous bonus points in the internal salary and status system.

    If done openly, it also gives a good indicator of how much different companies value serious publication.

  8. johnnyboy says:

    On the first point: this is an unequivocally terrible, awful, destructive practice. Offering sums that can amount to multiples of a yearly salary in these developing countries is basically a forceful invitation to fabricate, and nothing else. I am stunned that you would be wishy-washy about it.
    I work at a pharma that highly encourages publication, but we don’t get a dime for it, just a pat on the back. And that’s the way it should be.

    1. John says:

      We could call research a product that we sell to the highest bidder.

      As a broke researcher that sounds good for me.

      I know it isn’t exactly in the spirit of science but aside from that what’s the downside?

    2. tangent says:

      That, and I would add one point on: this is avoidable.

      Yes, there is inevitably some personal career benefit to the academic from getting work published, it’s the nature of the beast. This gives incentives that don’t necessarily align with “do accurate work”; a non-zero amount of misalignment is unavoidable.

      But this payout is highly avoidable, and it’s a bad idea to add on to the problem. “We already have some of this problem, so it would be hypocritical to avoid more” is not good thinking.

  9. Eric says:

    I’ve worked at Big Pharma and in small biotech and I’ve never seen any reward for publication. It looks good on the resume but otherwise has minimal impact.

    It does raise an issue that irks me at conferences. Every presentation from industry includes the mandatory disclosures about conflict of interest while academic scientists stand up and say ‘I have no conflicts of interest’ and present their wholesome, unbiased research. Who’s career depends on publishing in top journals? Who apparently gets paid when they publish in top journals? It isn’t the industry scientists.

    1. Karen says:

      Totally agree. At a minimum they should provide their grant support and/or other sources of support for the research they are about to present.

      1. CR says:

        I can’t remember seeing a talk where the grant or monetary support was not stated.

  10. AC says:

    When the cash incentive is high enough, the main motivation may become the cash and not the science. Scientists motivated by prestige are probably less likely (more risk averse) to fabricate data because the cost of being found-out would directly harm their prestige compared to those motivated by money (they could cash-out on their reputation).

    Although I’m sure there are many “true-believers” among charlatans, people like Andrew Wakefield and Dr. Oz can continue to sell-out their reputation because they don’t care about the scientific/medical community’s perception of them.

    Editorial standards are not set-up to detect fabricated data, so there is an opportunity for those willing to exploit the assumption of scientific integrity.

  11. For what it's worth says:

    Here’s a scenario that supports publishing in a second tier journal. As evidenced by citations and practical utility, our academic lab made an important discovery some years ago. After a provisional was filed we flirted with the idea of going for a submission to Science. Knowing how long it took to get something through the process, we decided that submission to a second tier journal as a short communication would increase our chances of not being scooped. This strategy was not only helpful financially (e.g. subsequent royalty payments), it did not hurt us getting our grants renewed.

  12. Neo says:

    Cash incentives are fine on my view. The problem is giving it for publishing in a glamorous journal, instead of the work itself. It assumes that those professional editors can correctly identify innovation and “non-reproducible” research. If the goal is incentivise better science, then looking at article metrics would be much better, yet not perfect.

  13. SuperScienceGrl says:

    Ha! When I published my first paper, my mum asked me whether I’d get paid for it. Bless her. But, she followed it up with “well, [family friend in education research at a UK institution] got GBP100 for hers”.

    I don’t know where that payment came from, though.

    1. Andrew says:

      I have been paid very modest honoraria for reviews, and contributions to multi author encylopeadia such as EROS. These are publications as such, but clearly not in the same sense as an article.

  14. Real news says:

    Athletes, musicians, business executives and company employees are all rewarded financially through various mechanisms. You may argue these are unfair or whatever. But incentive is what drives people.

    I don’t see how getting tenure is any different in the concept of an incentive. Publish well and prosper by getting tenure. Have you seen the salaries of professors at universities these days? Combine that with defined benefit pensions and job security through tenure, that is just another form of a cash hand-out amortized over their lifetime. Work out the math and the financial return is much more than $43,000 one time payment or even a $160,000 one time payment, which is not something those authors get every few months or even every year.

  15. MoBio says:

    Here at a major US medical school there are no monetary incentives for anything.

    Cost-of-living raises are non-existent; the only way to obtain a raise is to get promoted (e.g. Assistant –> Associate; Associate–>Full).

    There are no merit-based bonus and certainly nothing tangible for papers published in Science/Nature/Cell.

    For patents, we sign away all our rights for, theoretically, $1.00 although I’ve had dozens of patents and never received the $1.00 payout. There is a fairly generous sharing of royalties from inventions which are licensed out and is essentially standard based on comparisons with other major medical schools.

    If you do not get your grants renewed, you will eventually be asked to leave–even if you have tenure.

    Despite all this it is a pretty good gig!

    1. DanielT says:

      I have always thought not paying the $1 was incredibly stupid from a legal perspective because a contract without consideration is not valid. Signing over your invention for a dollar and not getting the dollar would allow you to challenge the assignment if it turns out to be valuable.

      Looking into the case law on consideration it appears that some courts have ruled the $1 is sham and have invalidated contracts on this basis. I guess the lesson is pay something more than $1 and actually pay it.

    2. Bagger Vance says:

      That’s strange, at a medical school of my acquaintance there’s a percentage kick-back from funded grants to the PIs. Get a couple of R01s and your pay is increased significantly.

  16. Why would an “A” journal need to offer financial incentives?

    1. MoBio says:

      The journal doesn’t offer incentives. What the article states is that the institution rewards researchers who publish in ‘A’ journals.

  17. Havermeyer17 says:

    My big pharma employer includes publications in quality journals as factor in annual performance rankings across all dept. employees. It’s called pay for performance. Supervisor told me that high quality publication would directly result in higher merit pay increase. On a related note: quality ranking of proposed journal for publication is also a factor in management decision as to whether or not disclosure (e.g. publication) would be allowed.

  18. Bryan Lanning says:

    Big Pharma has minimal understansing of the publication process generally and its importance. I once did a ton of stuff for pfizer as part of a collaborative effort with academia ( including give them compounds and perform experiments on their site for them ). Later, when i asked to look at the data for the paper, they cut me out, and threatened my employer with a lawsuit if i didnt let it go.

    1. Chlorotrityl says:

      As an academic, recently graduated PhD here, I published a number of papers with Pfizer as a precompetitive collaborator. With the exception of one scientist who was uninterested in sharing raw data, they were great to work with and facilitated at least 3 publications I was a first or co-author on. It seems to be heavily dependent on the individual or division at the company. We’ve had more hit or miss luck with Lilly, though they also facilitated a publication. Of my 10 or so authorships, mostly co-author, during my PhD at least half had Pharma contacts as authors, from at least 3 or 4 different companies.

      Just to give an alternative anecdote.

  19. John says:

    Is it ok for non-Chinese to publish in Chinese journals?

  20. AQR says:

    When I filed for my first patent with a major pharmaceutical company, I also had to sign an assignment of my patent rights to the company for “one dollar and other good and valuable considerations.” I asked the lawyer what these “other good and valuable considerations” were. He replied, “Your continued employment with the company.”
    It sounded fair to me – I signed.

  21. Anon says:

    I used to work in big pharma and when I was at dinner inverviewing for the job the VP said that a publication was required to be promoted above the entry PhD level.

    However, at some point this went away and it never seemed important when I was working. But when you are looking for a job you sure wish you had them.

  22. J. Peterson says:

    The tech firm I work for (software applications, not chemistry) offers a mid-thousands bonus for every patent successfully filed. This is pretty common in the tech business. Idea disclosures have to pass fairly strict internal review before filing, so it’s not unlike passing an editorial board.

    They used to aware separate bonuses for patent filing and issue, but with the USPTO is taking years to issue patents now, asking people to wait 2-4 years wasn’t reasonable.

    1. eyesoars says:

      The no-longer-extant high-tech company I worked for a decade ago did the same thing. A mid-four-digit bonus was provided to patent filers, split 1/3 each between completing an initial review filing, acceptance of the filing, and final patent grant, each to be split between the patentees still employed there.

      Given the round-robin nature of employment, this could be interesting, For one patent, my co-inventor and I split the first award, the second he got (I’d been RIF’d), the third I got (the company had bought my new employer, and my co-inventor had left).

      I suppose this made up for the annoyance some years later when it was the subject of a patent suit between the company that bought my employer and another company, and we were both deposed for the suit (eventually settled out of court), which took a day or so of testimony, and a bit of transcript editing.

    2. Anonymous says:

      J. Peterson: Do you mean filed or approved? Some companies are patent mills that file every incremental thing. But fast forwarding to biotech … Some companies have been known to file garbage in order to be able to pad their public image with “so many patents pending!” That also works to placate their investors with patent smoke and mirrors to obscure the fact that the promised research results are fershtunk. For a few thousand $, you can file a purely “prophetic patent” to keep the wolves at the gate. It will never be approved but management will be off to Riviera and new CEOships by then.

      1. William Aitken says:

        My tech industry experience was (1) that filing was the main reward step [although I vaguely remember getting a small award on a grant too] (2) and that the amount of the award was highly dependent on how much effort you put into the application itself.

  23. milkshaken says:

    I think the real danger is that the authors in hope of collecting the cash award would exaggerate their results, “clean up” their gels and fabricate few extra data points etc to make their claims sexy enough for a publication in Nature. These things are happening even without the incentives but when you are offering the lead researchers a cash bonus equal to more than a year of their salary (in mainland China for example) you are asking for trouble and you create conditions for all kinds of abuse of scientific process to happen.

    {I can give you similar example when incentives created a conflict of interest: Scripps used to have a fairly generous patent royalty scheme: 50% of all patent-related income would go back to the inventors 25% as a hard cash and 25% as unrestricted internal research grant. The first director of medchem at Scripps Florida was trying to start private companies that would license his groups research from Scripps. And surprise – he put himself as the sole inventor on the first seven medchem patents from his group even though as a computer modeler he wouldn’t know how to make methyl benzoate in the lab}

  24. Anon says:

    Next time I’m about to publish in Science or Nature, remind me to call a random Chinese academic to become an author and split the prize.

    1. milkshaken says:

      This is pure genius! The problem is maybe they give it on the first-author basis only. You would have to do quite a few machinations to convince your research group that they should sign over the credit for their results to the Key Laboratory in Liuzhou for USD 50k

    2. Anon says:

      Given that there must be thousands of Chinese academics wanting a Science or Nature publication, you could probably find one that would be willing to give you the entire prize (100%), or at least 90%.

  25. RBW says:

    ALL academics live under ‘publish and prosper’. Only a minority may receive cash directly per publication. But undoubtedly the quantity and quality of publications influences the standing of all academics with their employer. It determines if you’ll be promoted (= cash) and can protect you from being fired if you’re incompetent in other aspects of the job. Publications directly affect your ability to raise funding and hence produce more publications.
    Hopefully the review process maintains the quality level. What it will not catch, whether cash is involved or not, is who did what. The trend now in the high impact journals is to see a long list of authors from multiple institutions and it’s difficult to know if all had a significant impact upon the science.

  26. Morten G says:

    Hmm, don’t know about the “no continental Europe”-thing. I at least heard a story at my alma mater ten years ago that psychology students got a bonus of about 800 dollars for first author publishing. But their papers were about 40 pages each and it’s not like their supervisor wrote the papers for them. I guess it was because students do heaps of research for their thesis but most of them want to go clinical so academic publishing doesn’t have any intrinsic value to them.

  27. DCRogers says:

    An incentive might not be a bad idea for incentivizing scientists to submit work for a patent, as the disincentive to volunteer and forgo useful research time to spend with corporate lawyers is strong.

  28. Denis says:

    One prominent University in Russia offers 150 000 roubles (around 2500 USD) for a paper in biomedical journal with impact-factor above 2,5. It really helps with publishing in Open Access, since grants sometimes prohibit such allocation of research funds. In other U’s (less prominent and a bit scarcely funded) this may be 100 000 (about 1700 USD). Since until recently a researcher could easily have a salary of around hundred bucks per month (with living prices matching european standards, except tax) this kind of incentive was powerful. It, however, did not result in a major breakthrough, because the majority of soviet-russian scientists (I can say for biomedical branch) simply lack skills to create and publish a paper in a good foreign peer-reviewed journal. Another factor is a rather poor level of administration. In one institution I know about administration can’t tell the difference between WoS and Scopus, and in another dean arranged mass purges of researchers, because they failed to publish enough WoS papers per researcher per year. Who will publish after the purge is a matter of heated debates in dean’s office. After all these metrics define whether the institutions will stay near the gov’t feeder.

  29. Vader says:

    Why, yes, Publish or perish is a bad thing. I wish there was some way to reward researchers who refrain from publishing trivial or dubious results that could have padded their resume.

    But then, I wish I had a million dollars, that my wife looked like Jennifer Aniston, and that none of the candidates in the last presidential election had made it onto the ballot.

  30. Ian Malone says:

    Has anyone else encountered offers for payment for use of tools in a high impact journal? I’ve seen emails from lab supplies companies doing this. (Don’t work in a wet lab, so not very well targeted…) That seems more dubious than this rewards for publications practice.

    1. SedatedFMS says:

      Not seen offers of payment for use of tools but seen plenty of emails saying use our stuff, credit us in your paper and we’ll provide it to you f.o.c. for subsequent work.

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