Skip navigation
The Black Hole

Publishing pressures taking away the joys of science


Editor’s note: Today, we are very happy to welcome Brianne Kent, a Gates Cambridge scholar originally from Vancouver to the Black Hole blogging community. As always, readers interested in blogging about issues they are passionate about are encouraged to email us at [email protected] with their pitch.

Earlier this year, the Cambridge University graduate school of life sciences GRAduate Student and Postdoc forum (GRASP) ran a panel discussion on the current “Publishing Culture.” During the discussion, Professor Peter Lawrence, who has previously written on the subject, told a room full of young scientists that the publishing culture in science “has changed enormously.” The first 80 papers he submitted to journals were accepted where they were sent. That just does not happen anymore.

To play the game, researchers submit their research to journals with the highest impact factor, often leading to submissions to multiple journals and additional experiments being requested by reviewers that are often deemed unnecessary or uninteresting by the authors. The time and resources spent trying to publish experiments are not trivial (not to mention writing lengthy rebuttal letters), and it is time that would be more appropriately spent on research. Professor Gillian Griffiths, lamented that “[these] changing pressures are taking away the joys of science.”

There is a movement in the scientific community calling for changes in the way science is published. Nobel laureates such as Sydney Brenner, Peter Higgs, and Randy Schekman have all openly discussed the problems with the current publishing culture and how it may be hindering the discovery process.

Dr. John Stockley, a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge, said that the “pressure is so intense to publish in high impact journals, that sometimes you see scientific integrity slipping. There is increasing evidence of data manipulation in order to publish in the high impact journals.” The recently publicized case of a Japanese scientist falsifying data in Nature, is just one example of this.

The current system requires structural reform. The peer review process was developed prior to the Internet. In this digital age, we should reconsider the evaluation of science and scientists. Most scientists would agree that we need a more transparent system of review and evaluation. Dr. David Kent, a postdoctoral researcher, strongly questions whether the current review process actually improves papers.  He asked, “Why don’t we put the data out there are soon as we are confident that it is true – that’s what the public who has paid for it deserves?”

The life sciences could follow fields such as physics and mathematics, and submit papers to online archives, such as Submitting research to an online platform makes the data freely available immediately and open to critique from other scientists. Using an archive system would employ a post-publication peer review process, which Dr. Nikolaus Kriegeskorte, scientist and associate editor of Frontiers Journal, urges the life sciences community to embrace. He says we need to  “Publish first, evaluate after.” We need a system that rewards sound research methodology and keeps time and resources focused on scientific discoveries, instead of on publishing.

If scientists continue to rely on a pre-publication peer review system, then we simply must improve the reviewing process. Writing reviews is time consuming and done on a voluntary basis. Professor Griffiths suggests that “we acknowledge and reward this time more effectively, to encourage good reviews and reviewers.”

The focus of the panel at the University of Cambridge was to discuss ways that young researchers can encourage positive change. The panellists, representing a broad range of academic careers, suggested several ways:

First, when choosing where to publish your research, pick journals that have the principles you support. Look for open-access journals and journals with explicit policies to accept both statistically significant and “null” results, to reduce publication biases.

For example, eLife is a scientist-driven not-for-profit journal that is focused on promoting the best quality science. Randy Schekman, Nobel Laureate and editor-in-chief of eLife has said “It’s no longer necessary to endure endless cycles of revision and requests for new experiments. eLife editors, who are all working scientists, commit to providing clear and constructive feedback quickly”. Policies such as these are needed to ensure scientists are spending their time and resources focused on discoveries and not on trying to get their research published.

The second suggestion from the panel was to push the adoption of pre-registering experiments, similar to clinical trial registries used in medical research. By submitting experimental design and hypotheses to a central database prior to collecting data, it increases transparency and safeguards against selective reporting.

The third and most important message from the panel was to get young scientists involved in the dialogue. We need researchers from all stages of academia to speak more openly about changes that should be made. The panel encouraged scientists to blog, tweet and write letters to funding agencies to encourage changes to the way science is evaluated and rewarded. We need to get scientists talking about improving the system to focus on the joy of discovery.

Brianne Kent
Brianne Kent is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia. Her research examines the changes in sleep and circadian rhythms associated with Alzheimer's disease. Follow her on Twitter: @Brianne_Kent.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Ryan J. Mailloux / April 24, 2014 at 06:34

    Your article ties in nicely with the Publish in Nature policies being utilized for hiring at a lot of institutions. Indeed, there is an immense pressure to publish in the top-tier journals because Publish in Nature policies are being utilized routinely by various Faculties at Universities. This pressure also comes from supervisors that want the prestige of a Nature publication – I have personally been prevented from teaching to supplement my income because my supervisor indicated it would stunt my productivity in the lab. We have definitely been led astray, fear and greed have poisoned the soul of academia.

  2. Brett / April 26, 2014 at 11:35

    Great article. Aside from the extreme imbalance in the economics of research (i.e. to many trainees and not enough jobs) this is certainly the second biggest issue, and of course, the two are related. I work on structure/function of ion channels and although I enjoy this field very much it is quite difficult to publish higher than 4-6 IF unless you tie in many different techniques in different cell systems. In short, the 3-5 years of work it takes on one project to have a chance at publishing in Nature journals is just is not worth it. Of course the the only way to get a job is to publish in Nature, and the only way to publish in Nature is to dedicate ones entire post-doc to one project, which will likely be rejected anyways! Oh boy, science is hurting.

Click to fill out a quick survey