The motto for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is simple, elegant, and symmetrical: “Advancing science. Serving society.”
What I love about these four words is that they convey a duel role of the association. The AAAS aspires to improve our understanding of the world, but the ultimate goal of knowledge is to benefit society. Science is not just an end in of itself, but a means to a higher end — the improvement of human welfare. Most scientific societies have similar mission statements.
But what if that ultimate goal of science was being chipped away, eroded, such that science begins to turn inward and become an end in itself. According to a new study of the perceptions and behaviors of scientists, this is taking place. And the cause of scientific narcissism is the “publish or perish” culture that universities have shaped for their academics.
Hendrik van Dalen and Kène Henkens, researchers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, report their findings in “Intended and unintended consequences of a publish-or-perish culture: A worldwide survey“ which appeared online in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology on April 20th.
Surveying demographers — a multi-disciplinary group of researchers in fields covering sociology, epidemiology, geography, anthropology, economics, and history, among others — Van Dalen and Henkens report what many of us have heard anecdotally for years, that publication is valued above all other accomplishments and is rewarded at the expense of other academic responsibilities. They write:
Population scientists find publishing in international refereed journals and being cited by other scholars the most rewarding element in their job. Writing referee reports and making insights visible by writing articles for newspapers rank among the least appreciated elements of their work.
Scientists, however, are not fixed to their first place of employment, nor do they conform to a single behavioral model. Those who do not enjoy (or succeed) in the high-pressure publish-or-perish environments of research universities gravitate to institutions with less pressure to publish and the reverse is true as well. Concentrating ambitious researchers in elite research institutions, however, has its costs as competition requires researchers to publish more in order to keep up with one’s peers.
What is refreshing about this article is that van Dalen and Henkins provide historical and sociological context to the normative behavior of scientists. The publish-or-perish model and our reliance on publication metrics, they write, is not altogether bad–as it helps to identify and reward scientists based on merit and not on favoritism and nepotism–only that it comes with consequences for the role of science in society. They write:
The results presented in this article show that the publish-or-perish culture can have both beneficial and detrimental effects. . . . A consensus can be detected on the benefits of publications, as they improve the upward mobility of scientists. However, the detrimental effects revealed are the widening gap between science and policy, and especially for those scholars working outside the United States the incentive to publish in peer-reviewed journals is perceived to discourage the production of local knowledge.
As economist Paula Stephan described in her interview with Kent Anderson, public policy does not have to be radical to change the behavior of scientists. Shifting the emphasis on rewarding scientists for quality rather than quantity of publication, for example, by limiting grant applicants to their top five publications, would help stem “salami-style” publication behavior. And Stephan does not advocate against abandoning publication and citation metrics, only limiting their importance.
When we wish to change a complicated system, we should avoid limiting our conversation to grandiose policy shifts, as they often arrive with unintended consequences. Sometimes just a little nudge will do the trick.