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Mind

Bullied Into Bad Science?

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There’s been an interesting discussion on Twitter about senior scientists who pressure their students or postdocs into scientific misconduct or otherwise poor science:

Today, I was made aware of a site called Bullied Into Bad Science which aims to tackle this problem.

builied into bad science
builied into bad science

Founded by behavioral ecologist Corina Logan, the initiative aims to help early career researchers (ECRs) who have “felt pressured into taking professional actions that are against your ethics”, and it features a petition in the form of an open letter as well as an 8-point program of actions that institutions could adopt if they want to support their ECRs.

A compelling part of the site is the section of (anonymous) anecdotes from ECRs describing the pressures they face. Some of these stories explicitly describe junior researchers being told that they need to produce the ‘right’ results.

I have been constantly harassed by superiors to modify data in order to provide better agreement with known experimental values in order to make the paper look better for publishing at prestigious journals.

Most of the anecdotes on the site don’t describe such blatantly unscientific demands, rather pointing to a more subtle pressure: the imperative to publish in high-impact journals.

Its a somehow unwritten law at the University of Vienna that you wont get a permanent job without a Nature or Science paper

or

My supervisor told me that he is looking out for our career development, and that accordingly we need to publish in high impact journals as this will raise my profile among his peers. Having repeated papers in high impact journals would be crucial during applications for jobs and grants.

I think that this pressure to publish in the most prestigious journals produces an indirect pressure to find ‘good’ results. High-impact journals are known to be selective and they select, primarily, on the basis of the ‘impact’ of the results, rather than the methodological rigor of the study. So the cult of high impact is, in its own way, a roundabout way of telling ECRs what their data ought to be.

I was a little surprised to see that Bullied Into Bad Science didn’t seem to feature much about bullying, at least not in the classic sense of bullying by an individual. A number of prominent researchers were exposed for bullying last year, for instance, but I found no references to these cases on the site. Only a handful of the anecdotes refer to specific bullies.

On further reflection, however, I think the site’s name is apt. The point is that the academic system as a whole bullies ECRs into compliance – and, while the word bullying can be used over-broadly, speaking from experience I don’t think it is in this case. From this point of view, the cases of bullying individuals that make the headlines are the tip of an iceberg of institutionalized pressures.

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