Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Academic science researchers and economics

This article in the NY Times is rather provocative in several ways. First, it raises the question of whether there is a dramatic rise taking place in the number of journal article retractions (spread across all disciplines). The answer is, it's really not clear, given the enormous increase in the number of published articles. Moreover, it's certainly much easier for people to find, read, and compare articles than ever before. Google Scholar, for example, can see through most pay-walls enough to search for words and phrases, making it far easier than ever before to test for plagiarism. Moving on, the article then looks at whether the culture of academic science research is, for lack of a better word, ailing. There are some choice quotes:
[L]abs continue to have an incentive to take on lots of graduate students to produce more research. “I refer to it as a pyramid scheme,” said Paula Stephan, a Georgia State University economist and author of “How Economics Shapes Science,” published in January by Harvard University Press.

In such an environment, a high-profile paper can mean the difference between a career in science or leaving the field. “It’s becoming the price of admission,” Dr. Fang said.

The scramble isn’t over once young scientists get a job. “Everyone feels nervous even when they’re successful,” he continued. “They ask, ‘Will this be the beginning of the decline?’ ”

...

“What people do is they count papers, and they look at the prestige of the journal in which the research is published, and they see how many grant dollars scientists have, and if they don’t have funding, they don’t get promoted,” Dr. Fang said. “It’s not about the quality of the research.”

Dr. Ness likens scientists today to small-business owners, rather than people trying to satisfy their curiosity about how the world works. “You’re marketing and selling to other scientists,” she said. “To the degree you can market and sell your products better, you’re creating the revenue stream to fund your enterprise.”
I don't want to quote any more for fear of running afoul of fair use. Read the article. This does hit some of the insecurities felt by any reasonable US faculty science or engineering researcher. I would dispute the pyramid scheme comment because it's based on a false premise, that every doctoral student is looking to become a professor and is crushed if they don't get a faculty position. The prestige paper comments are more worrisomely accurate.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if the bonuses given for high profile journal publications is an open policy at some departments? If so I would advocate for journals to not accept submissions from those departments. Sounds extreme, but desperate times call for desperate measures!

Doug Natelson said...

Anon, I can get behind that. The publishing landscape has incentives that are skewed enough as it is without direct financial bounties being in the mix.

Schlupp said...

I am not sure I believe that the "pyramid" nature of the game is directly behind the cheating. There have been several cases involving people who did no longer have much to fear. If being a tenured professor is "too insecure employment prospects" then cheating should practically be fair game everywhere outside the public sector.

The only connection I could see would be if the harsh competition selected for people with a tendency to cheating, that might be..... That said, the most common alternative to considering publication records for hiring and promotion is to rely on the judgment of a few senior scientists, which has its own potential for less-than-great science. Moreover, "wanting to impress the great master" could *also* tempt people to push their results in one direction rather than the other.