N is for New Ideas

Four interesting articles crossed my (virtual) desk today. Each dealt with a different aspect of science in particular and/or academia in general, but together they built a sad picture of the current state of academic science. Taken as a whole, the articles point to a coming crisis in science. Although sometimes I think ‘crisis’ may be too dramatic of a word, and ‘tipping point’ or ‘threshold’ may be more appropriate. What was most exciting to me was to see all these ideas laid out so coherently and reasonably, as my own attempts to organize my thoughts on these topics have been somewhat haphazard (see my first four blog posts).

The first article was in PNAS and discussed that perennial thorn in our side: impact factors. Instead of detailing the ways in which they can be manipulated and/or misused, the authors address the potential long-term effects on science. Their premise is that young scientists aim to publish only in high impact journals, but can waste months submitting and revising papers to journals in order of decreasing impact. It’s a bit of a catch-22, because we’re also being evaluated and judged based on the impact of the journals we publish in – which the authors suggest can increase the temptation to falsify data.

This leads to Carl Zimmer’s latest article in the New York Times, which delves into the increasing rate of paper retraction from high impact journals. The retraction rate seems to bear out the concerns of the PNAS paper authors regarding falsification of data. Indeed, the researchers Carl talks to in his article come to a similar conclusion. An economist likens the high impact journal publication process as a pyramid scheme, while a public health dean suggests that scientists are now more like small business owners. In the end it comes down to marketing science to colleagues and funding agencies – similar to the promotional science communication I discussed in this post. One key comment in the article really stands out: “All the scientists I know are so anxious about their funding that they don’t make inspiring role models…my own kids say ‘You know, we see you, and you don’t look very happy.’”

Which brings us to an article in The Chronicle, which can always be counted on to publish thought-provoking articles on academia and academic culture. In this op-ed, mathematician Robert Talbert deals with the increasingly prevalent idea that “the idealised academic has no ties or responsibilities to limit their capacity to work; ‘to be a successful academic is to be unencumbered by caring’ ” (see my related post on the subject here). Talbert suggests that this philosophy is driving a potential sea change in the halls of academia. The workload is becoming so demanding that many are quitting, leaving behind those who are either completely overwhelmed and thus ineffective, or those who’ve found teaching shortcuts that do little for students in the long run. Plus there will be few PhDs to fill those vacant positions, as younger people realize they don’t want to choose between life or a career (similar conclusion to researchers interviewed in Zimmer’s article).

This feeds into our final article, a post by Kate Forbes on the feminist blog Shakesville about why she left academia. Many of the themes introduced above come up again in her story. Increasing student enrollments combined with static faculty numbers, necessarily leads to a heavily increased workload. As a personal account it’s not overly objective, but it ties in with the above issues and brings up many of the same comments and concerns seen in post-academic blogs around the web.

So where does this leave us? Looking for some new ideas! The scientists in Zimmer’s article suggest a few ways to address these problems. These include capping grants to specific research labs to avoid the ‘winner take all’ mentality in the granting system, and evaluating faculty on more than just impact factors. But it will take more than just ideas to fix what ails us – it will take a change in mentality in all sectors of science. This includes us and our colleagues, but also granting agencies, award boards, and university administrators. Where should we start?

Another good one from phdcomics.com

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