The invisible hand of the science market – Marko Kovic, Adrian Rauchfleisch, Christian Caspar

The invisible hand of the science market – Marko Kovic, Adrian Rauchfleisch, Christian Caspar

Research is suffering because of disincentives that arise within science – and the grave consequences for science as a whole are already visible.

Science is generally doing well in the West. A broad societal consensus still holds that science should be publicly supported. That they should operate free from state control and censorship is self-evident in a democracy. That the national science system helps solve problems and improve our lives is empirically indisputable.

Yet something seems to be amiss. The so-called crisis of the sciences has been the subject of heated and vociferous debate for more than a decade; that is, an increasing number of scientific findings have been revealed, under closer scrutiny, to be exaggerated, distorted or even completely false. Sometimes, outside influences are responsible. For example, when private companies conduct research, the results of that research tend to align with the financial interests of the companies. However, the crisis in the sciences is, for the most part, not the result of distorting outside influences but rather the unintended consequence of distorting dynamics within the scientific system itself.

"Anyone who wants to pursue an academic career must do one thing above all else: publish. "

Anyone who wants to pursue an academic career must do one thing above all else: publish. Publishing research findings is, of course, fundamentally important and desirable; if researchers did not publish their findings, other researchers could not learn from them and build on them. Publishing is a basic activity in science. However, disseminating knowledge is not the only, and perhaps not even the primary, function of scientific publications. Publications are the main form of currency on the academic job market – researchers who do not publish enough are quickly sidelined. This dynamic, known widely as the publish or perish dilemma, stands in direct conflict with the actual idea of science which is based on making findings – findings of good, sound research – available to the public. In other words, the constant pressure to publish as much as possible creates the incentive to take the path of least resistance. This is problematic because the incentive to publish as much as possible makes scientists give in to another kind of pressure - the publication bias in scientific journals.

‘For researchers who labor under the pressure to publish or perish, this results in a gravely mistaken incentive to deliver correspondingly “exciting” findings.’

Academic journals have the valuable function of disseminating scientific knowledge, of cataloguing it and archiving it for posterity. Furthermore, thanks to the peer review process, these journals also take on the important role of quality assurance, whereby erroneous or unsound work is filtered out. But the journals themselves are anything but neutral. Practically all of them engage in some form of publication bias; that is, the tendency to selectively publish the most ‘exciting’ and ‘positive’ findings possible. For researchers who labor under publish-or-perish pressure, this results in a grave incentive to deliver correspondingly ‘exciting’ findings.

It is trivially easy to produce ‘exciting’ results, especially with quantitative research by means of practices such as p-hacking, data dredging, or HARKing (‘hypothesising after the results are known’). Of course, for the most part, the urge to produce ‘interesting’ and thus publishable results is not openly fraudulent; when researchers are socialised into a system shaped by the publish-or-perish mentality and the publication bias, producing ‘exciting’ results is simply the generally accepted norm of scientific work.

‘Why, even within the scientific community, is the crisis of the sciences dismissed as a niche topic?’

The interplay of publish-or-perish and the publication bias has serious consequences for both the scientific system and society as a whole. Science exists to enable epistemic progress – anything that slows this progress down is a problem. This is especially the case today, when – in the face of so many global challenges – scientific progress is more important than ever. Why, then, are the feuilletons not bursting with criticism and suggested solutions? Why is science not teeming with working groups out to study the crisis of the sciences? Why, even within the scientific community, is the crisis of the sciences dismissed as a niche topic?

Make no mistake, the publish or perish mentality and the publication bias are not external shocks or outside attacks. If, for example, any government tried to take measures to actively censor science, there would be an immediate and widespread public outcry. No, the systemic disincentives in the scientific system are a child of the system itself, one that does not threaten academic freedom from without, but rather erodes it from within. Accordingly, it is difficult for outsiders to fully comprehend what is really going on with this issue, which to them understandably seems so abstract. The decision makers in the sciences, on the other hand, tend to have a ‘status-quo bias’: why change something in a system that has allowed them to become successful?

In order to tackle the systemic disincentives in science, far-reaching structural changes are probably necessary. For example, the fact that the only academic career path for a scientist is increasingly limited to the position of professor is downright absurd (imagine if the only career path in private industry were to become CEO). More possibilities for academic careers outside of professorships would, at the very least, take some of the wind out of the sails of the bad incentives in the sciences. A second helpful measure would be to weigh something beyond publication history in the assessment of a researcher’s competence, such as mentorship or teaching.

Given the general apathy of politicians and the public on the one hand, and the status-quo bias of the intra-scientific stakeholders on the other, it will not be easy to get the ball rolling on possible reforms. Despite all this, however, it is necessary to try; freedom, including freedom within science, can never be taken for granted. It is an ideal – and one that requires constant and active work.

Marko Kovic is President of the Zurich Institute of Public Affairs Research (ZIPAR) and CEO of the consulting firm ars cognitionis. ZIPAR is a transdisciplinary think tank that deals with different social challenges.

Adrian Rauchfleisch is a Member of the Board of ZIPAR and an Assistant Professor in the Graduate Institute of Journalism at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

Christian Caspar a Member of the Board of ZIPAR und PhD candidate in political science at the University of Zurich.

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