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From EurekAlert 28 March 2012:

 


Has modern science become dysfunctional?


The recent explosion in the number of retractions in scientific journals is
just the tip of the iceberg and a symptom of a greater dysfunction that has
been evolving the world of biomedical research say the editors-in-chief of
two prominent journals in a presentation before a committee of the National
Academy of Sciences (NAS) today.

"Incentives have evolved over the decades to encourage some behaviors that
are detrimental to good science," says Ferric Fang, editor-in-chief of the
journal Infection and Immunity, a publication of the American Society for
Microbiology (ASM), who is speaking today at the meeting of the Committee of
Science, Technology, and Law of the NAS along with Arturo Casadevall,
editor-in -chief of mBioR, the ASM's online, open-access journal.

In the past decade the number of retraction notices for scientific journals
has increased more than 10-fold while the number of journals articles
published has only increased by 44%. While retractions still represent a
very small percentage of the total, the increase is still disturbing because
it undermines society's confidence in scientific results and on public
policy decisions that are based on those results, says Casadevall. Some of
the retractions are due to simple error but many are a result of misconduct
including falsification of data and plagiarism. 

More concerning, say the editors, is that this trend may be a symptom of a
growing dysfunction in the biomedical sciences, one that needs to be
addressed soon. At the heart of the problem is an economic incentive system
fueling a hypercompetitive environment that is fostering poor scientific
practices, including frank misconduct. 

The root of the problem is a lack of sufficient resources to sustain the
current enterprise. Too many researchers are competing for too little
funding, creating a survival-of-the-fittest, winner-take-all environment
where researchers increasingly feel pressure to publish, especially in
high-prestige journals.

"The surest ticket to getting a grant or job is getting published in a high
profile journal," says Fang. "This is an unhealthy belief that can lead a
scientist to engage in sensationalism and sometimes even dishonest behavior
to salvage their career."

Funding is just one aspect of a very complex problem Casadevall and Fang see
growing in the biomedical sciences. In a series of editorials in the journal
Infection and Immunity they describe their views in detail, arguing that
science is not as healthy as it could be or as it needs to be to effectively
address the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.

"Incentives in the current system place scientists under tremendous stress,
discourage cooperation, encourage poor scientific practices and deter new
talent from entering the field," they write. "It is time for a discussion of
how the scientific enterprise can be reformed to become more effective and
robust."

The answers, they write, must come not only from within the scientific
community but from society as a whole that has helped create the current
incentive structure that is fostering the dysfunction. In the editorials
they outline a series of recommended reforms including methodological,
cultural and structural changes.

"In the end, it is not the number of high-impact-factor papers, prizes or
grant dollars that matters most, but the joys of discovery and the
innumerable contributions both large and small that one makes through
contact with other scientists," they write. "Only science can provide
solutions to many of the most urgent needs of contemporary society. A
conversation on how to reform science should begin now."

###

Copies of the Infection and Immunity editorials can be found online at

http://iai.asm.org/content/80/3/891.full 

and

http://iai.asm.org/content/80/3/897.full

The American Society for Microbiology is the largest single life science
society, composed of over 39,000 scientists and health professionals. ASM's
mission is to advance the microbiological sciences as a vehicle for
understanding life processes and to apply and communicate this knowledge for
the improvement of health and environmental and economic well-being
worldwide.