There is no good way to put it: The current system of scientific publication actively impedes the growth of science. As Yale sets out to enhance its research capabilities in STEM, it has the opportunity to reform the process of knowledge production itself.
For the uninitiated, an individual’s success in STEM fields is largely defined by the number of articles they publish in “high impact” journals. Publications — and their resulting citations — determine promotions, grant money and acceptances to graduate programs.
According to a 2015 report on scientific, technical and medical publishers, researchers’ core motivation for publishing is not clinical impact, but rather securing funding and advancing career prospects. And while the top journals — Nature, Science, Cell and the like — carry weight because their articles are cited often, they are the drivers of a $10 billion industry that is less concerned with scientific progress than it is with outlandish profits.
The top STM publishers record annual profit margins of around 35 percent — far outpacing the 12 to 15 percent margins at the top of the magazine industry. Whereas magazines pay authors and editors to produce quality content, STM publishers leverage scientists’ desperation for publication and cut costs.
Consider the fact that a STM publisher does not compensate its authors. Instead, the authors are funded to do their research by university stipends and government grants. The publisher doesn’t compensate most of its editors either — editing is outsourced to the peer review process, during which other scientists in the field check on the veracity and accuracy of the data on a voluntary basis. The typical reviewer spends five hours per paper, and reviews about eight papers a year —all for free. With the incredible institutional support they receive, scientists at Yale can navigate this system and thrive in it — but many others cannot.
Finally, STM publishers compile the work that has been produced and edited for them and sells it back to the universities and scientists that produced it. It’s the equivalent of The Atlantic forcing its writers and editors to work for free and then demanding they buy their own writing. It’s not so much a broken system as an astonishingly illogical one. In the words of Adrian Sutton, a physicist at Imperial College London, scientists “are slave to publishers.”
As publishers chase profits, scientists chase paper. Research is not an academic pursuit — rather, it is about producing the most appealing scientific package, especially for those at a highly competitive institution like Yale. Richard Buckminister Fuller’s adage — “there is no such thing as a failed experiment” —has long been abandoned. The failed experiment is the experiment that’s not sexy enough to be published.
A lot of science isn’t sexy but is immensely valuable. Consider experiments that fail to prove their hypotheses — experiments with “null results.” A null result helps future scientists understand what avenues not to pursue, and whittles down the amount of trial-and-error they’ll have to undergo.
But a system that sells citations does not incentivize writing and publishing mistakes.
In 2014, investigators reviewed 221 studies in the social sciences that had been conducted over the course of a decade. Fifty percent of them wound up being published, but only 20 percent of the studies with “null results” were published. Sixty-five percent of the studies with null results were never even written up.
How are scientists going to learn from each other’s mistakes if every failed experiment is kept secret?
Healthcare companies have begun to acknowledge the issue even as their publishing counterparts sit idle. In 2013, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline committed itself to publicizing all of its results from all of its clinical trials — successful or otherwise —since 2000. GSK acknowledged that this effort would take time, but stated that the cost “will be outweighed by the public health benefit of having a complete picture of the trials conducted on treatments currently available to patients.” It’s a baby step in a long battle against publication bias and artificial benchmarks of scientific success.
With a News survey reporting that 44 percent of the Class of 2021 intends to major in STEM, labs and research facilities around campus are about to receive an influx of new scientists (“Class of 2021 By the Numbers”, August 30, 2017). It’s difficult for anyone, particularly an undergraduate, to break free of a system that is so deeply engrained in the way we understand and reward science. But it’s important for Yale’s new generation of scientists to separate the importance of progress from the limitations of publication and profit.
Mrinal Kumar is a senior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at email@example.com .