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The Black Hole

Is the academy worse than the fashion industry for “following the leader”?


I hate to admit this, but I find an incredible number of scientific papers really boring. It seems that more and more, research papers are using the same sets of sexy and expensive tools without actually answering the question they set out to explore and overload their readers with “big data”. It further appears that this is the primary formula for getting published in big journals – and the nasty part of that whole business is that publishing big is controlled by an ever-diminishing fraction of the world’s scientists.

Remember when you were in high school, and there were popular ways to dress and popular places to be? It was difficult for some kids to afford to keep up while other non-conformists simply opted out of “being popular”. Eventually, we look back fondly at these people who didn’t follow along – many of them had a much better sense of self and preferences.  No matter how much the popular groups or trends pushed, some people just didn’t buckle and emerged many years later as cool people with novel ideas.

My fear is that the academy is subject to the same primitive bullying techniques resulting in social exclusion as a consequence of breaking rank. The system (unknowingly?) props up the careers of a cadre of researchers who are just really good at following along. The really sad corollary to this in the age of tight funding is that we lose the non-conformist kids who have the creative ideas of today and tomorrow. Surely universities are the place that should foster new and alternative ideas and approaches and be immune to such behaviour. Academic bullying is a problem and it’s squeezing the creativity and lifeblood out of science.

Let me explain how I see this operating. The three things that matter most to a scientist’s career progression are publications, grants, and personal reputation (e.g., the ability to attract the best PhDs and postdocs). All three are determined by a frighteningly small number of people who have the power to socially exclude for their own benefit (e.g., keep an idea out of the mainstream, promote the careers of the people they like, etc, etc). While they don’t necessarily do this, the power is theirs to wield.

How might this manifest itself? One example is that the experiments requested by reviewers are often expensive and technology-laden, only really performable at the top-flight institutions in the world (kinda like that new watch that everyone “must have”). Dan Tenen, a professor at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute jokingly refers to these as “Figure 5 – the experiments that the reviewer requested and never mean anything, but had to be done to get published”. While Dan’s lab is in the position to do the experiments and poke the fun at the process, this is sadly not the case for the vast majority of research labs. Not only does this process slow down science, but it also makes non-privileged scientists collaborate with the top dogs, thus reinforcing the circle. If the experiment addresses a fundamental flaw in the paper, fine – but I worry that this is not often the case.

Moreover, granting and funding agencies have “go to” people for peer review and one of the worst things they’ve done recently is made these panels public before applications are submitted. The “followers” will study these panels, look for what they’ve published and how they think and write their application to meet these criteria. Some people call this good strategic planning, I call it a unfortunate side effect of the need to survive. Again, we risk squeezing out the good novel ideas.

The challenge going forward must therefore be to create a scientific research environment where the pressure to publish falls a distant second to new idea generation and development of the human capital. At this juncture though, careers depend on papers, so scientists will do what it takes to get published…  sadly this all too often means towing the party line and not really exploring new ideas.

There are some interesting models out there for how to tackle this and I’ll be exploring those in future articles – for now though, ask yourself how representative our current system is when we often rely on the judgment of two to three experts chosen by a single journal editor or funding agency…

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. SC / August 20, 2014 at 13:07

    My suggestions:
    1. Publish in open access journals like Plos ONE
    2. Share technologies within the research group/dept/ university
    3. Read creative and intelligent (but often low budget) papers coming out of Brazil, Spain, Italy etc instead of Ivy League and Japan

  2. P / August 20, 2014 at 13:15

    Surprisingly, and sadly, publication in non-experimental disciplines is governed by similar rules. Cliques, fashion, and a feudalist hierarchy. Peer review, which is supposed to be one the pillars of the academe, has degenerated to a mechanism for preserving the existing power structure. And, as is typical in such cases, those who have the power to effect a change have no interest in doing so.

    For example, despite documented bias against female researchers, young faculty, or researchers from developing countries, it is scandalous how the double-blind review system is always assessed as non-beneficial and dismissed on the basis of studies that contradict common knowledge and experience. The arguments are often laughable and rely on the premise that knowing the identity of the authors only helps the (supposedly qualified) reviewers do a better job. Then, the reviews should be completely open with the identities of both sides known so that both sides share the same benefits.

    Thank you for the courageous article.

  3. Carla Taban / August 25, 2014 at 18:53

    Dear David Kent:

    Yours is a very welcome perspective which I fully endorse. ‘Breaking rank’ is discouraged and penalised in academia just as it is in other social fields. Uniformity of opinion and ‘manufactured consent’ seem to prevail everywhere, at least in the public discourse. (That is, we may disagree at home but we keep our disagreement private for fear of likely consequences.)

    It is this situation which prompts me to go on a hunger strike on 31st August 2014, after 18 months of unemployment and more than 500 failed job applications. I suspect that my outspokenness, i.e. the information documented on my blog especially in the ‘Failing’ section, has much to do with my inability to find work in or outside academia. In the absence of a like-minded community, ‘rank breakers’ remain only powerless and lonely voices.

    Carla Taban

  4. BS / September 5, 2014 at 16:23

    In Neuroscience/Biophysics the sexy tool that distracts from the science is called optogenetics! Don’t get me wrong there are ways this technology can advance understanding and pose new and exciting questions, but does this happen? Sometimes. Other times, “we must get the grant renewed, quick think of something with opto”!

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