Monday, April 12, 2010

Quantity Doesn't Necessarily Mean Quality (an Undergrad View of Science Culture)

A lot came out of that amazing friendfeed thread from last week. One thing worth mentioning is that I met Mickey Schafer who teaches scientific writing at the University of Florida (in Florida) to budding young scientists. During the feed Mickey discussed an assignment where students responded (via private blog) to an essay written by a fellow open scientists. She stated that she did not have the means to make one particular "response" public so I volunteered to get the student's name and essay out there. I think it is a powerful piece and an interesting view of science from a young student. That student's name is Milana (sorry I don't know her last name) and her statement is on the next page.

I discovered science my junior year of high school, at a summer science program that introduced me to research. I reveled in the multitude of questions, ideas, and discoveries that originated in tiny laboratories around the world. This wasn’t a school classroom where only what has been known for 10 years was studied. This was real science, on the brink of new ideas, new experiments, and new discoveries.

While reading the articles about utilizing web 2.0 in science and the scientific community’s reluctance to budge, I’ve started asking myself why. Why is science, the supposed cause for the creation of the internet the lowest percentage of its users? Perhaps the reason is because a science career is based on the number of publications, and not on innovative ideas or collaborations. Too often, the research becomes about furthering oneself instead of the actual contribution to society.

From the organizations that provide grants to the graduate students who run the experiments, the whole of the scientific community is focused on publication. The grant providers want results, and use published articles as proof to the American population of scientific progress. Thus, the tactic that most grant organizations employ to persuade professors to publish is to demand results by a certain date. Unfortunately for scientists, sometimes experiments don’t go as planned, and results are unattainable by a specific date. At this point, the scientist has two choices: he may either tell the superiors who provide him with his salary that he did not obtain the results he hoped and risk losing his job and grant, or he can create results from what he has, make his superiors happy, and keep his job and grant. While we would like to believe that most scientists’ moral compass would not allow them to choose the latter option, many scientists do, and no one can really blame them. Many of them have a family to support.

Take for example the scientist Dr. Wakefield, who published a paper stating the influence of vaccines in the development of autism in young children. The paper was published in 1998 and led to a severe drop in the number of vaccines given to children against mumps, measles, and rubella. Twelve years later, the New York Times announced the retraction of his article from a prominent British journal due to a failure to duplicate the results and to financial conflict of interest.

In reality, every scientist who received a grant has a financial conflict of interest. It doesn’t matter whether the problem is crucial to understanding a medical condition or requires great effort. Neither a university nor an organization will support a scientist that does not publish regularly.

Thus, many scientists will choose to ignore a complicated problem in lieu of a simpler one that will guarantee a publication at an earlier date. Their success depends on the number of articles they publish and in which journal, not on the quality or impact on society of the publications themselves.

This absurd notion that the more you publish, the better you are is passed on to students. How many times have I heard that if I am involved in research, a published paper is imperative? A publication after a year in research looks better on a résumé than four years of research without a paper. Why? Why are students persuaded to publish as soon as possible, to present posters when more often than not, those posters end up being the experiments and results of their mentors? From early on, the scientific community is breeding scientists to think not for themselves, but of themselves before anything else. We are teaching future scientists that more is always better, which especially in science, is usually not the case.

Quality through quantity is not effective in science because of the nature of science itself. Anyone who has worked with humans, animals, living cells, or bacteria, knows that sometimes, no matter how hard you work or how much time you put into it, the experiment does not work out. Living things do not always follow the rules we set out for them. Thus, results sometimes come unexpectedly, from pure luck, and sometimes only after an excruciating number of hours each week, each month, and each year in the laboratory.

Until the scientific community acknowledges that quantity of publications does not necessarily equal quality of research, the use of web 2.0 in science will never take off. Web 2.0 caters to what science should be: an open forum of ideas, discussion, collaboration, and experimentation that results in the growth and expansion of our scientific knowledge. But this is not the same science that is practiced today, and until we, as a scientific community, come to understand this and agree to change, we will creep along at a turtle’s pace, with heads in our shells, oblivious to the vast world surrounding us.

I responded to Mickey via email, but in short I told Mickey that Milana's feelings aren't too far from the truth in a lot of cases. Many of my fellow grad students here at UNM are unfortunately subjected to PI's who force papers and data just to have more publications and some are subject to much worse. I have been lucky enough to have a PI who cares so much about the quality of work we publish and doesn't care how long it takes as long as it is done right and it is done well.

I also have been lucky to work with a PI who let's me explore innovation. I'm not forced to publish a paper in any journal and am definitely not pressured to publish in the "high impact" journals. Instead I am encouraged to publish in any manner that I/we feel can be the most beneficial. To date I have no peer-reviewed publications, but I have countless contributions in the form of written protocols, video experiments, online notebook data, presentations, documents, and invaluable interactions with the greatest community of scientists I could have ever hoped for. One day I'll have that peer-reviewed journal article, but when I'm done I'll have contributed so much more than that!

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