Competitive Academia and Perverse Incentives
Recently, I read Dr. Edwards’s paper entitled “Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition” on the special issue of Environmental Engineering Science. This article focuses on the rising of perverse incentives in academia, their negative effects on scholars, such as damaged research integrity and unethical behavior, and current hypercompetition atmosphere induced by tight funding conditions. As an ongoing PhD student, the content really gets me into deep thinking about our academia and the current evaluation system.
Under the hypercompetition environment with increasing demand for funding opportunities from young scholars, those who distribute the money and positions now preferably evaluate the application strength through quantitative performance metrics. Even for us scholars, we say one specific student is a promising PhD student since his/her recent research findings was published on “Nature Communication” (hypothetically), suggesting that top-tier journals weigh much more than the conveyed scientific information itself. For young scholars, in order to get an advantage in job market or increase the success rate during funding application, boosting their performance metrics seems to be a short cut considering their manipulable feature. Publishing more scientific papers are considered as the easiest step. Research data are cut into perfect amount and submitted to various journals in order to produce more outcome papers. Risky ideas are abandoned at early stage of experiment, and concentration should be placed on those experiment with promising preliminary results. Before the whole experiment is completed, the writing process is already initiated, and the final manuscript will be submitted at the earliest time as possible. Reviewers are expected to complete the critical review process within one month, and once the comments are sent to authors, the revised manuscript will be resubmitted within one week. All these efforts are made towards one purpose, accelerating publishing process for maximized papers being accepted. According to bibliometric analysts Lutz Bornmann and Ruediger Mutz, the estimated increase rate of yearly publication number is closer to 8-9% since 1980, which equates to a doubling of global scientific output every nine years. Along with the increase of publication number, more journals are created to accept numerous low-quality research papers. It seems like we are on the high-speed train towards the golden age of research, but this only happens at the expense of reducing the quality of research.
With more paper published, the scholars can get more citations over the time, letting alone other ignominious approaches to boost citation counts, e.g. intentionally ask for citation during the peer review process. More papers and citations also lead to inflation of journal impact factors (IF). This popular figure announced by Journal Citation Reports every year receives lots of attention. About 80% of the journals included in Journal Citation Reports (JCR) has an increased IF from 1994 to 2005 annually. Right now, we can easily find a journal with a IF over 5 or 6 in environmental engineering and/or science field. But higher IF does not equal to enhanced quality. I should say most of the research published is of little use to current or future potential issues. We should find a effective solution for current fierce competition and quantitative performance metrics oriented system to mitigate and, at the same time, prevent unhealthy development of academia.