Students stand up for science

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On Wednesday June 26th, a diverse group of students working towards postgraduate degrees at the University of Cambridge started an open discussion about the current science culture. Students from Asia, Europe and North America, working in fields such as nanotechnology, chemistry and genetics discussed how the dominant incentive structures and intense career pressures to generate publications are not creating an ideal environment for scientific discovery. Many scientists agree that the system requires structural reform, but the real challenge is deciding what changes should be made and how to implement them. The aim of the discussion group was to: (1) identify the major shortfalls in the way science is currently practised (2) debate the primary causes and (3) brainstorm practical solutions. Although it was an ambitious task for the 90-minute discussion, we hope that as a group of passionate young scientists we can carry forward the momentum to eventually stimulate real positive changes.

1. The problem

Although we created a long-list of frustrations, the fundamental issue is that there is a “publish or perish” culture in science that is biased towards selectively reporting positive results and undervalues the importance of replications and negative results.  Because of these publication biases, many findings go unreported and data gets stored away and ignored in a hypothetical file-drawer.  Not only does this put unhelpful pressure on scientists to get positive results, it also undoubtedly causes wasted time and resources when others unknowingly repeat unsuccessful experiments that have not been published.

An extremely important caveat when illuminating flaws in the current state of science is that there is still brilliant, groundbreaking and life-saving research going on. In no way is this critical discussion of science intended to devalue the importance or quality of the scientific discovery currently taking place. This discussion is only to acknowledge that, as with any industry, changes should be made to keep up with advances in society and science is no exception. As the next generation of scientists, we need to take a stand and change the game to encourage and reward good science, and not just positive results and publications.

2. The cause

We are all to blame: poor decisions made by individual scientists, inadequate training provided by research institutions, publication biases in the journals and failings of the peer-review process. However, as we discussed the various causes of shortcomings in science, we kept coming back to competition over funding as the root of the problem. Publications are the main currency used to determine who deserves funding, which has created the “publish or perish” culture. The funding bodies determine the criteria which scientists work towards meeting so for change to be possible we must get the funding bodies on board.

3. The action

As a group we agreed that a few ideas could be implemented to encourage positive changes in the current scientific system. These are not novel ideas, but they are ideas worth sharing.

  • – Establish a pre-publication archive database for all research: positive results, negative results and replications. Fields such as mathematics, physics and astronomy use these types of archives which some researchers respect almost as much as traditional peer-reviewed journals. They allow all research to be freely available and provide a more transparent and complete picture of data in its entirety because all data is welcome regardless of the results.
  • – Use online registries similar to those required for clinical trials, which have researchers identify their hypothesis and methodology prior to data collection. The scientific method was developed to be hypothesis-driven and pre-registering experiments is one way to make sure this approach is maintained.
  • – Institutions should have archives for raw data that become openly available after an experiment has been published. This will hopefully increase transparency and encourage collaboration.
  • – All students and scientists should be required to take research ethics and research methodology seminars. At the end of the day, the responsibility lies with the individual researcher to make unbiased and ethical decisions. Open discussion of these issues can only help the scientific community.

These are not easy changes to make, but the first step is to begin the conversation. Students at the University of Cambridge are getting involved in the discussion and we encourage all scientists, journal editors and grant reviewers to join us in trying to improve the current state of science.

*Brianne Kent [2011] is doing a PhD in Experimental Psychology. Picture credit: jscreationzs and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

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2 responses to “Students stand up for science

  1. Very interesting post and suggestions for change. I am a doctoral student in sociology and my object of study is… journal peer review. Thought you might be interested in a few preprints on the topic:

    Investigating journal peer review as scientific object of study (Gaudet, 2014) – http://www.ruor.uottawa.ca/en/handle/10393/31161

    How pre-publication journal peer review (re)produces ignorance at scientific and medical journals: a case study (Gaudet, 2014) – http://www.ruor.uottawa.ca/en/handle/10393/31198

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