Disappointment and Discouragement in Research

Sep 07 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Jean-François Gariépy has written a facebook post about leaving his research position at Duke University. The main reason, he says, is that he is going to be a father, and wishes to devote more time to his child. I do wish Dr. Gariepy well. He has made a choice that is hard to make, and seems to be doing so with clear eyes.

He has a set of secondary reasons:

Other reasons have to do with research academia itself. ... I found scientists to be more preoccupied by their own survival in a very competitive research environment than by the development of a true understanding of the world.

and

By creating a highly-competitive environment that relies on the selection of researchers based on their "scientific productivity," as it is referred to, we have populated the scientific community with what I like to call "chickens with no head," that is, researchers who can produce multiple scientific articles per year, none of which having any significant impact on our understanding of the world.

Some of the problems he cites are:

[1] a high number of scientific articles with fraudulent data, due to the pressures of the "publish or perish" system, makes it impossible to know if a recent discovery is true or not; [2] a large portion of the time of a scientist is spent just writing grants so that they can be submitted to 5-10 agencies in the hope that one of them will accept; and [3] our scientific publication system has become so corrupted that it is almost impossible to get a scientific article published in an important journal without talking one-on-one with the editor before submitting the article.

These are long excerpts, but I wanted to make sure I was not inadvertently slanting his words.

I do not doubt that all of this is true, or seems true, to him. But this is not everyone's experience, although the discouragement is too frequent amongst human beings of all stripes and professions.

Everyone is preoccupied with their survival. Sorry, is this is any different from trying to be an ethical, honorable lawyer or a doctor (yes, they do exist)? Or being a part-time single-parent worker in the service industry with three children in danger of being laid off? The world of scientific research is competitive, but most of the western world is, too.

The list of three problems is certainly a function of the lab one chooses. That #2 plagues nearly everyone in my current and past departments, tenured and untenured, is the state of the world. But not everyone feels this way. I have a friend, untenured, but near. She just got a 5 year r01. She has a grad student, a postdoc and a good collaborator. She is not chasing funding now. In 3.5 years, will she be back in the same position? Probably, but for now she can do her research and work at what she loves. People do get funded. Some people do not run big labs and one grant is enough to make their operation go. I do not deny that its hard. I do not deny that it provokes anxiety and unhappiness and stress. But my friends who are in business for themselves, as graphic designers or pub owners, look at this day in and day out.  They still have to put food on the table for their kids, but say its the price for independence.

#1 (fraudulent research)  and #3 (needing to know the editor) are not universal truths. In fact, I have seen almost nothing in my field that makes me think fraud. I do not think that I am naive. I review (although I try to avoid it) for the major journals in my subdiscipline. I've had a number of collaborators over the years. There is a lot of schlock that gets published. I know who rushes to get something off, and hasn't quite done the right analyses, or pushes the results further than they warrant. Or doesn't bother to find the right context (ie my work) for their results. But its not fraud. As for knowing the editor, I publish regularly, and the only editor I know is an old friend in another field in a journal quite distant. Perhaps the difference is that I don't publish in SNC.

Which brings us to the chicken without a head syndrome. Don't insult me that way. Your PI may be chicken-heading it, but that's not the world I live in, nor many of my colleagues. I know people doing clinical work that may not be as flash as gene-therapy, but it is making a difference for how people with a stroke learn to use their hands again.  I know ecologists who are understanding the interactions among bacteria and health in mammals living in the field. It may be bunny-hopping, but understanding how rabbit locomotor skills, not just speed, but agility, relate to survival across a boreal winter is adding something important to our knowledge. How fucking dare you say that this work being done't doesn't add to knowledge.

Do you only read the science in your field? Do you only see the posters/talks at meetings that are in your corner of the field? If you are a neuroscientist, go to ExBio or SICB or Ecology/Evolution meetings. Yeah, they are expensive, but get a bit of your work, and think of its bigger implications and submit it elsewhere. Go talk to someone else. The world is wide, minnow, and there are oceans you haven't swum in yet.

23 responses so far

  • Hi Potty,

    I do not know what to think about your post, on the one hand it seems like you are confirming most of my complaints, but on the other hand you seem to not want to admit it. First, thank you for recognizing the possibility that all of what I say is true (sic).

    I agree that being interested in one's survival is not a defect in and of itself. In the process of doing good law defenses, a lawyer may be interested in his own survival. In the process of saving a life, a doctor may be interested in his own economic well-being. The problem would come when this desire to survive impedes on the expected mission of the professional, and the point of my post is not so much that caring for one's survival is a problem in and of itself, but that it has now impeded upon our search for truth in many ways, including fraudulent data (and one only needs to look at the numbers to show this, my own perception and experience is barely relevant in face of the statistics on scientific misconduct).

    Concerning #2, your argument seems to be that it's "the state of the world." This does not make it immune to critique. You also write that it causes anxiety and stress, so somehow you agree with me that it can be a problem (although stress and anxiety was not my focus, I was mostly worried about the amount of time lost on written products that are not part of the contribution of a researcher to society).

    I do not claim that #1 and #3 are universal truths, but they are common enough that my little Facebook post has gathered an unprecedented (unprecedented for my Facebook) wave of support and comments indicating that many others have experienced these problems.

    Your comments on fraudulent data, with all respect, made me genuinely laugh:

    "I have seen almost nothing in my field that makes me think fraud."

    Of course no one ever sees anything about fraud, but there is a lot of self-deception in a lot of fields. The main question here is, when you are a reviewer, are you viewing and requesting the entirety of the data set in a format that could not have possibly be altered or not? If not, then the fact that you have not seen anything is expected and irrelevant.

    The other problems of misconduct you point out may not be fraud, but they have the same effect in the end: they bring false data and put them under the limelight. I don't really care if fraud is intentional or if it operates through sub-conscious self-deception, the problem from outside is pretty much the same; perhaps with slightly different solutions.

    I am sorry to hear that you were insulted by the chicken without a head comment. In my comment is intended as "if the hat fits, put it on." Of course I haven't said that the entire library of research ever performed in the history of mankind is useless. I commented simply on an attitude that I perceive, in some individuals I interact with, which leads to my intellectual dissatisfaction. I certainly do not include my PI in this comment, to the contrary, I have the greatest respect for him and I would include him among the exceptions.

    I get to multiple of the most important (in size and in specialty) meetings in my field, and in fact in a broad array of fields. I pride myself with reading every single title of every single poster at any scientific meeting I attend, I have read tens of thousands, and I have stopped to discuss with the researcher at hundreds of them throughout the years. I've been doing so for about 9 years. I am acutely aware of the research that is undergoing in pretty much every area of neuroscience. I do not think I need to be sold on the wideness of the world.

    Best,

    JF

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Well put, Potnia! It is truly sad that so many who are caught up in the Glamour game can only see that context for doing science.

  • physioprof says:

    Yeah, sure sounds like "nonchalance and bliss" to me. This egotistical fucke can't grasp that just because science is competitive and just because maybe he personally might end up on the wrong side of that competition doesn't mean that science as an enterprise is "corrupt" or "bankrupt" or that "the search for truth has been abandoned". The narcissism is staggering.

    More power to him if he's a lazy fucke who wants to stay home and pretend to raise his son while he jackes offe to the Internet all day. But don't be such a sniveling narcissistic shitte about it.

  • Dave says:

    I agree with DM. What is concerning is that a lot of young students and post-docs think that there is only one route to an academic career. That's fundamentally not true, and some of his views surely can be fixed with some good mentoring.

    Either way, what's sad is that this lad probably has something to offer, but he can't see the wood for the trees. He can't even accept that his papers might have been published because they contain interesting data that the community values.

    All the other stuff he said about The Revolutionary Phenotpye and whatnot.......hmmmmm. Good luck with that JF!!

  • Bill says:

    The defensive anger here (in the comments) is very informative. Someone suggests that all may not be rosy in the ivory tower, and its denizens rush to impugn his ability to raise his kid?

    Methinks thou dost protest too much, fuckers.

  • pentahedron says:

    +1 to Bill

  • Jean-Francois says:

    Very well put Bill, couldn't agree more. There is no attack in my post, simply a justification of my choice, and what it means for myself and why I do it. I agree that the defensiveness is revealing here.

  • Anonymous says:

    +1 Bill

    Good luck, JF. I agree with many of the things you wrote in your FB post. In particular, I've been struck by the degree of selfishness I've witnessed among academics -- and I'm not even at a super-competitive top-notch school! Perhaps I was just very lucky in the 10+ yrs I spent in industry (engineering), but I never saw anything like that there. As you said, it's all a matter of degree. And sadly, in many ways, Academia is just out of control. Of course, I don't expect most people immersed in the system to recognize this.

    And Potnia Theron: "Do you only read the science in your field? ... The world is wide, minnow, and there are oceans you haven't swum in yet." When it comes to condescending and insulting, you are the pot calling the kettle black.

    • potnia theron says:

      If you see every bit of advice given by someone older (although you're in industry and not in academia, so I don't claim the advice holds, nor do I necessarily trust you to evaluate my advice) as condescending, you will have a painful and ignorant life.

      • Anonymous says:

        I don't have a problem with advice from older folks -- I'm pushing 50 myself, is that old enough for you? But I still respect other adults. Assuming that someone who is younger must necessarily have a narrower scientific view than yours is pretty ignorant. But I guess you felt insulted and wanted to strike back -- very mature. Are you proud?

  • Juan Lopez says:

    "Someone suggests that all may not be rosy in the ivory tower"... Yes, of course. There's nothing that Potnia, DM and CPP dislike more than someone criticizing the scientific community. How dare you!

    JF, it's a half empty, half full glass thing. Of course some things in science are messed up. Tell me where they aren't. But the positive is so awesome that it's absolutely worthwhile. Have you seen the things people are doing nowadays? I have only been alive for a short time in science terms, but I bet things were not any better in the past. Go back a few years and see how horrible things were happening in science. There's a lot of room to improve, but also a lot of progress made.

    • potnia theron says:

      Go back and read what we've written. Or what I've written. Go back and read about my not getting funded - "rosy"? For me? Crap. JF has a valid perspective, but it's not mine. Nor, in fact, is my trainee's. What he criticizes sounds awfully like coming out of a Glam Lab, and not like those who have made a decision to do good, solid science in a less sexy realm. That's part of the point I was making, and one of the points DM has made over and over. To be blunt, his experience is his, but not that of the people working in my subdiscipline.

  • Bill says:

    I should add that I agree in large part with the OP about the "headless chicken" thing, although my angle is slightly different.

    I don't take it as a personal insult, but I think it foolish to talk about work that has no "significant impact on our understanding of the world" unless it's many, many decades old -- and perhaps even then. It is not possible to predict significance -- time and again the history of science shows the grand discovery coming to a pedestrian end and the insignificant observation, given the right setting, saving a million lives.

  • BikeMonkey says:

    For not making an "attack" on scientists it sure is being read that way by a lot of people.

  • Mikka says:

    "I will still publish my book, The Revolutionary Phenotype, which contains an important novel theory on the emergence of life. My wish is that this new theory will be taken for what it is and evaluated publicly by whoever wants to comment on it, not by two or three reviewers hiding behind anonymity. Euclid's geometry books stood on their own"

    Mmmmkaaaayyy...I'm not going to judge you by doing whatever you want with your life (specially if it involves raising children, because fuck yea you go boy). But this sentence set off audible "crank detection" alarms inside my head. I wouldn't brag about not needing peer review if you're going in that direction.

    • Anon says:

      Ok ... I guess you don't consider reputable scientists in his field to be members of the public, too? Who could comment on it if it's publicly available? Or do scientists not read papers unless they have to review them or they've been vetted by someone else?

      Stop looking for reasons to dismiss him; he just might know what the hell he's doing. I realize that he makes people in the establishment nervous, but you don't have to be so damn transparent and immature about it.

      • Drugmonkey says:

        "Makes people in the establishment nervous".

        Yeah that's not helping with the crank thing.

      • Mikka says:

        Chill, anon. I don't dismiss him. I'm only saying that he shouldn't dismiss peer review, because he risks sounding like a crackpotty crank. There are options for quite open peer review out there (BioRxiv among others) that he could use for his theory.

        Bonus pro-tip: don't mention Euclid (or even worse, Galileo) in the same paragraph where you mention your important supertheory. I don't care if your theory is right, until you show it you are not worthy to lick the mud off their sandals.

  • boehninglab says:

    It is always interesting to me how scientists in other fields/uni's etc. perceive the profession, especially with regards to academia. I have no doubt that JFG's experiences are absolutely real. I also know that they do not necessarily apply to others (and I am sure JFG knows this as well). Personally, my sub-field is mostly collaborative and we do replicate each other's experiments (regularly). I have even managed to publish a couple "negative results" papers which have, I think, helped the sub-field progress. So yes, there are some terrible environments to do science. However, they are not universal.

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