02 January 2013

Changing rewards: who first?

A fairly popular theme among scientists in academia is to change what scientists are rewarded for. One of the most recent was by Gary Marcus.

Restructure the incentives in science. For many reasons, science has become a race for the swift, but not necessarily the careful. Grants, tenure, and publishing all depend on flashy, surprising results. It is difficult to publish a study that merely replicates a predecessor, and it’s difficult to get tenure (or grants, or a first faculty jobs) without publications in elite journals. ... Instead of, for example, rewarding scientists largely for the number of papers they publish—which credits quick, sloppy results that might not be reliable—we might reward scientists to a greater degree for producing solid, trustworthy research that other people are able to successfully replicate and then extend.

Another new paper makes similar points, specifically targeting journal metrics.

Thus, granting of research funds, awarding of academic rank and tenure, and determination of salaries (including bonus payments) have become tied to manipulable journal metrics rather than the significance or quality of reported research. Therefore, it is no wonder that the integrity of science is more often being questioned. How should a young investigator approach the “publish or perish” dilemma? Performing sound research and preparing optimal materials for publication must remain the overriding goals(.)

These proposals are frustrating. It’s hard enough to convince tenured scientists of the need for change. Most of them have had some level of success under the current system, which is how they got to be tenured. But even if you could get scientists on board, it's not just up to us, unfortunately.

Administrators will be even harder to persuade. Many of them have never been scientists. I think many are more interested in playing the game rather than changing the game. At my own institution, I've watched our administration rush headlong into creating exactly the sort of reward structure that Marcus is talking about here.

I wonder what department, university, would be the one to publicly declare that their changing their reward structure. And how many institutions would have to do so to start to change the balance.


Anonymous said...

from @PubAdvisor:

I agree with you, such fundamental change in attitude will not happen democratically since science is based individuals who consider them smartest to ask and answer questions. Rather than talking endlessly about the need for change from the top, we should seriously work on debunking science that has been falsified, tweaked and mis-used for personal gains from the bottom.
A solution: efficient Post-Publication-Review from virtually everybody reading a published paper. Collecting the information and connecting it to stats (like how many people have cited faulty or questionable information) should give anyone who is interested in pursuing a specific topic a crowd-sourced information base that will allow to judge scientific output for what it is worth.

Scientist said...

I am a tenured scientist in a biomed field, and I think many of us would like to see more credit given for quality, as opposed to flash. I work to play the flash game because I want to remain funded. But I would prefer a system based on quality, as would many of my peers. The question is how to gauge quality, particularly outside of your field.