Publish or perish: the crisis of research today

Sunday 14 October, 10:0011:30, Frobisher Auditorium 2Scientific skirmishes


Scientific and academic research plays a large role in contemporary political debates. ‘The evidence says’ or ‘research tells us’ have become familiar parts of public argument. However, and especially in an age of ‘fake news’, there is a worry that poor-quality published research risks duping the public. When a newspaper reports that a ‘peer-reviewed scientific journal’ has published such-and-such a result, members of the public may think, understandably, that they can take this result as the settled opinion of the ‘scientific community’. For some, this is simply evidence that public literacy about academic or scientific issues is low and should be addressed by education. But what if some researchers are less rigorous than they ought to be, some publishers less scrupulous about what they are tacitly endorsing?

With academics under what’s been described as a ‘push to publish’ to justify their employment and bring in research funding to their universities, many are concerned that we are facing an epidemic of poor quality research papers. An additional pressure has been a proliferation of journals keen to publish; some worry about ‘unscrupulous’ or low-quality publications, that ‘pay to publish’, but retain the credibility afforded by an association with academia. Many, of course, are still rigorous although there is a suspicion that the traditional checks and balances on research have been jettisoned in the process. For many, the prestige of publication is tainted.

While these trends may not be completely novel (after all, Logan Wilson, a US professor, coined the phrase ‘publish or perish’ way back in 1942), underpinning concern about the contemporary situation are questions about the practice of peer review, the ‘gold-standard’ practice of having research anonymously reviewed, and then approved or rejected, by academic peers prior to publication. Prompted by evidence of bias, randomness and even, in the case of the ‘replication crisis’ in psychology, downright ineffectiveness, many are calling for substantial changes, or even the abandonment, of peer review. Over the years, there have always been worries about how trustworthy this process is; in some cases, reviewers have been shown to be intellectual rivals of the author and less rigorous about impartiality. But nowadays, new procedures could challenge rigorous critiques and high standards. In an era of ‘unintentional bias’, bias-literacy workshops have sprung up to keep reviewers on the straight and narrow but are often so self-consciously trying to be fair about extraneous issues like equalities that the substantive issues of quality research can be sidelined.

Indeed, the context of this debate is one in which the very notion of ‘research’ and ‘scholarship’ have changed dramatically. The popular Twitter account @RealPeerReview catalogues a range of ‘alternative’ research methods that have proliferated in recent years in peer-reviewed journals, including autoethnography, where scholars focus on writing about their personal experiences. For many commentators, these make a mockery of the idea of ‘peer-reviewed’ research: how can you review or criticise someone else’s personal experience? How do you invalidate their ‘results’? Yet other, self-styled ‘progressive’ scholars celebrate such methods for including previously marginalised voices or eschewing the reliance on ‘Eurocentric’ scientific practices.

To put it lightly, the nature and reliability of academic scholarship is seriously in question in 2018. Do we need a new approach to peer review to ensure the integrity of science? Should we be concerned about advocacy research and the broader politicisation of the academy, or are such fears ahistorical and overblown? Do we need to address the pressures academics are under to publish, and encourage the return of longer, more considered research approaches? Should we urge a more restricted notion of scientific knowledge, or should we welcome the expansion of the realm of the ‘academic’ as urged by progressive scholars? At the end of the day, what is the point of academic research, and how should we assess it?