Publish or Perish: what happens when funding drives science

Lydia Marcus- Staff Writer

Science is the systematic study of the created world through observation and experiment. Scientists seek to discover objective truths about the world around us, and they use various safeguards (such as repeatable experiments and peer review) to encourage objectivity.

However, not all science meets this standard of objectivity; some science is, in fact, bad science.

For example, science is conducted by people, and people can be swayed by external forces—such as the promise of success in their field or the threat of unemployment—when deciding how to do their research.

According to a recent Science News article titled “Blame Bad Incentives for Bad Science,” the emphasis that scientists have placed on research publications is partly responsible for the sloppy science currently troubling the scientific field.

For scientists, job security and success are somewhat dependent on getting their research published in prestigious scientific journals. When scientists win awards or get articles published in journals, they will likely be able to find grant funding for future scientific study. But without publications and awards, scientists have a difficult time doing science; science is expensive, and the grants brought in by published research are invaluable.

In recent years, grants have tended to give more money to fewer people. This trend has caused trouble for the research process, explains Dordt Biology Professor Jeff Ploegstra. Fewer people with the funding necessary to do research means that there are fewer people available and qualified to peer review a paper who aren’t involved in that particular research team.

“[In other words] There are fewer people to be skeptical of your claims,” said Ploegstra.

In addition, tight funding makes merely replicating someone else’s experiment—which is unlikely to result in laurels or additional funding—unappealing and impractical for most labs. Funding impacts the safeguards that scientists have set in place to hold themselves accountable. The competition encouraged by limited funds is, perhaps, detrimental to the study of science.

The pressure to publish has caused some scientists, in their desperation for employment and success, to intentionally publish falsified data.

“In some journals, about 10% of the articles contain falsified science,” estimates Chemistry professor Darren Stoub. “It is a serious problem.”

“There is no doubt an issue with ‘false positive’ findings being more easily published than true negative findings leading to publication bias, etc. That said, I’m not as pessimistic as some,” says Director of Research and Scholarship Nathan Tintle. “As with many things, in theory, good science is good science— true, not everyone practices it, but the reality is [that] it’s more about implementation than anything else.”

“At its most basic, I hope that our research is driven by curiosity,” said Ploegstra. “It should push the limits of what we understand about the world. Also, research should help us help people to flourish.” Research that does not address either aim should re-examine its motives.

“What are we doing to make sure people are driven by good motives? That’s assumed to happen throughout people’s education,” said Ploegstra. “And, as with most things, change has got to start with the individual.”

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