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The Black Hole

Reject the status quo – assess the research, not the journal


This month, Marian Joëls, Monica Di Luca, and Barry Everitt, who are the former president, current president, and president-elect, respectively, of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies, wrote an article in the European Journal of Neuroscience calling for the academic system to be reformed. They urge scientists to “stand up and organize an orchestrated rejection of the status quo” that they explain is counter-productive to scientific progress.

The article details concerns shared amongst scientists in many fields, which are particularly pressing to early-career scientists (graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and recently appointed and non-tenured faculty). The authors group the concerns and obstacles into two broad categories: the way research is funded and the way research is published. Together these contribute to what they label the “dark side” of academia.

It is no secret that acquiring research funding in most academic fields is becoming increasingly difficult, and success rates for several major granting agencies in the life sciences has dropped below 10%. Primarily resulting from the budget cuts in recent years, there are not enough resources for the growing number of researchers, making it particularly disadvantageous for early-career scientists. On average, this group is consequently forced to wait longer for their first substantial personal grant, a necessary step in gaining independence and job security in academia.

Rising competition for resources is damaging to the academic culture in many ways. Scientifically, the low success rates in grants drives the direction of research away from the most novel and risky projects. In the worst cases the desperation caused by such competition can lead to fraudulent work, as has been seen in some high profile examples (i.e., STAP cells). Moreover, activities that are central to educating and training (lecturing, collaborating, public outreach, contributing to national policy and/or the scientific community more broadly), are often neglected because of the increasing pressure for output in black and white. Because research funding is largely determined by publication record, it has created the “publish or perish” culture currently endemic to most academic fields.

Joëls, Di Luca, and Everitt describe this increasing pressure to publish and specifically to publish in “high impact journals,” such as Science and Nature, as the second main obstacle contributing to the “dark side” of academia. In the digital age, it seems logical that the journal in which you publish would matter less than it did when research was published solely in paper-based journals. However, the growing competition for funding and jobs, the prestige (i.e., impact factor) of where you publish your work rather appears to have gained an increasing importance.

If impact factor was a metric of the quality of science in a particular paper, then perhaps it could be justified, but it isn’t. Furthermore, impact factor simply measures the average number of citations from the papers published in a particular journal during the two previous years which makes public relations a main priority of an editor – the biggest immediate splash matters most. Impact factor does not reflect the long-term impact of the articles published in a particular journal, which arguably is a better indication of the importance and reproducibility of the work.

Despite being a problematic proxy of the quality of a particular paper, the authors suggest that it is the perception of early-career researchers that job prospects and funding are poor without a paper in a high impact journal. As an early-career scientist myself, I can confirm that my peers see this as the case. Some senior scientists claim this perspective is unfounded and that the impact factor of where you publish does not matter when applying for jobs; although, I should note that in my limited experience with peer-reviews conducted for fellowships and grants, reviewers often explicitly mention how good the journals are where papers were published, suggesting that it is indeed an important aspect considered.

In their call for reform, Joëls, Di Luca, and Everitt plead for scientists to tackle these challenges in funding and publishing and restore the criteria to be based around scientific rigor and methodological thoroughness. They urge scientists to value contributions to the community that go beyond citations and to support society journals and journals that are run by scientists, committed to improving the peer-review system (e.g., eLIfe).

Whatever you think about these particular ideas, it is very clear the academic system is not what it used to be, and I am grateful for the senior scientists who are speaking out and trying to change the values of the community and improve the way research is funded and published.

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.
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