This paper is right, and it says things that need to be said. I wonder, though, if saying them will do any good. Let me explain what the heck I’m talking about! The paper is titled “Blocking the Hype-Hypocrisy-Falsification-Fakery Pathway is Needed to Safeguard Science“, and I don’t see how anyone can really disagree.
When do the exuberant joy human beings naturally feel in a discovery, and the elation they experience in communicating it to others, overstep the boundaries of acceptability and transmute into falsification of process, evidence or conclusions? How can hypocrisy by scientists and their key institutions be exposed and discouraged, to prevent degeneration of the entire system into fakery? Finally, who can and should take responsibility for ensuring probity in behaviour? These questions concern the foundations of trust that are essential to the pursuit of science and to sustaining the support and attention that society gives to scientists, their work and findings.
Tough questions. My own take is that one could start by targeting the worst excesses, and then work down to the borderline cases. The worst behavior, to me, is deliberate, conscious hype: doing it when you know that you’re coming close to the line or stepping over it. Exuberance is one thing: excitement and pride in your own work can cause you to say things about it that can’t be backed up. But that’s different from sitting down and saying “All right, how can we generate the biggest headlines?” Because that leads to headlines about how you’ve cured Alzheimer’s disease, and believe me, you probably haven’t.
You see this sort of publicity-mongering from all players, academia and industry. University press offices are notorious, not least because the people writing the press releases sometimes have only a vague idea of what they’re writing about or its context. “Whassamatta U. Scientists Announce Breakthrough” is the usual headline form, and the usual reaction is “Yeah, right”. But God knows there’s a geyser of hype coming from industrial sources as well. Small biopharma companies basically live off it, because they’re competing for funding in a crowded, noisy environment and all feel like they have to shout and jump up and down in order to be noticed at all. Larger companies are not immune, either.
The intersection of this problem with scientific publishing is perhaps the most glaring example, though:
This pressure was building throughout the 20th century as science expanded, became better funded and increasingly competitive at all levels. It was boosted by the advent of the digital age and by the growing influence of commercial publishers, with intensifying competition among commercial and learned society publishers for a share of the lucrative, expanding market for science journals. Further pressure came from increasing competition between academic centres to enhance their reputations and income by efforts to recruit and retain leading scientists. As discussed in a recent analysis, the intersection of the science advancement system (via publications), the career reward system (status, promotions, grants and prizes) and the financial system (large profits from publishing journals) has created perverse incentives for authors, publishers (both commercial and learned societies) and institutions to game the publishing system to their own advantage.
And that one, unfortunately, is mostly an academic problem, because industrial scientists generally don’t care as much about publications. Some companies add in publication as an ingredient in performance reviews, but even then it tends to be a minor one. But in academia, it is the undisputed coin of the realm and the competition is fearsome. Generating papers and getting them into the best journals possible is what many academic scientists would describe (for better or worse) as their job or a large part of it, if they are required to be honest about the situation.
The authors of the current paper go into a number of aspects of the problem – from catchy but uninformative cartoon graphical abstracts, through over-claiming generality of methods in papers, to breathless press releases and on down to the darkness of predatory journals and outright fakery. It’s not a pretty sight – I’ve written many blog posts about these issues and others, and I think every single working scientist immediately recognizes the problems. (The authors mention this as well:
In personal conversations with colleagues, a majority agree strongly with this criticism, but there is general unwillingness to complain loudly for fear of being penalised. In the past, key actors in the science system, including the publishers, the funders and the numerous committees involved in evaluations for grants, promotions, university rankings and prizes, have either remained indifferent or acquiesced in silence and often contributed to weakening the restraints.
“Weakening the restraints” is a general criticism of the current era, if you ask me, but let’s not get into that. Let’s start, then, by continuing to acknowledge that the current system of science has problems, that those problems have become worse with time, and that this has happened because of incentives for it to happen. And then let’s look at those incentives, shall we? Because that’s where change will come from. Telling people not to act in what they see as their self-interest is largely futile. Changing their minds about what their self-interest should be is very much a long-term project. But making it less easy to do the wrong thing, while sometimes a dangerous expedient if taken too far, is often a more immediately available solution and is still the place to start. . .