Meta-Neuroscience: Studying the Brains of Neuroscientists

By Neuroskeptic | November 15, 2015 6:34 am

How do neuroscientists’ brains work?

In a remarkable (and very meta) new paper, German researchers Frieder Michel Paulus et al. scanned some neuroscientists (their own colleagues) using fMRI, to measure the brain response to seeing neuroscience papers. The study is out now in PLoS ONE: Journal Impact Factor Shapes Scientists’ Reward Signal in the Prospect of Publication

Paulus et al.’s paper has already got a lot of attention: it’s been featured on the famous Improbable Research blog, who call it “obviously a joke intended for the small community of scientists who use FMRI equipment”. However, they say, it’s also “a good example of how a joke meant for insiders can be difficult or impossible to explain to anyone else”.

Well, I don’t think it’s too hard. Basically, the neuroscientists were put in the scanner and shown various stimuli. Some of these were pictures of money. There were low, medium, or large amounts:

money_fmriSometimes the images were mock-ups of neuroscience papers. The trick was that these ‘papers’ were customized for each neuroscientist, to make it look as if they had written it themselves. So for instance, the author list was made to feature the participant’s own name. The title and text were based on his or her research interests. The final touch was that the ‘papers’ were made up in the style of either a low-ranking journal, a moderately ranked one, or a highly prestigious one.

In today’s world the prestige of an academic journal is largely determined by its Journal Impact Factor (JIF). So Paulus et al. mocked-up the fake papers to look like they were published in a low, medium, or high JIF neuroscience journal. Like so:


And it turns out that the neural reward-related responses to seeing your name in a high impact journal are rather similar to – or even stronger than – the response to seeing lots of cash. Here’s the key result, showing the fMRI signal in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) in response to (cues predicting the appearance of) the different stimuli:


So the ‘joke’ is that neuroscientists’ brains get more excited about publishing in Nature Neuroscience than about stacks of 500 Euro notes.

The authors conclude:

The results of this study show how scientists have adapted to the predominant reward structure in the environment and have incorporated the currently prevailing paradigm of the scientific community to “publish (in high-impact journals) or perish” in order to guide behavior. From a neuroscience perspective, this study offers novel insights by providing first empirical evidence that the Journal Impact Factor and the authorship position do actually influence human behavior and neural response patterns.

Even though the impact of the Journal Impact Factor has been extensively discussed, with first empirical data showing that it influences institutional decision making in academia, nothing was known about how it influences scientists’ motivation. Through this experiment, albeit in a very controlled laboratory setting, we now have an idea of how deeply entrenched the concept of the Journal Impact Factor has become on the neural systems level.

This is the most meta neuroimaging paper I’ve ever seen. A few years ago there was a study that scanned doctors while they looked at scan images, but this goes much further. What’s the next step? Maybe some researchers could partner with a neuroscience journal and scan some of the peer reviewers at work to find the neural correlates of accept, reject, and revise decisions?

Or, to go even further beyond meta, someone could scan themselves while writing the paper about their self-scanning experiment.

ResearchBlogging.orgPaulus FM, Rademacher L, Schäfer TA, Müller-Pinzler L, & Krach S (2015). Journal Impact Factor Shapes Scientists’ Reward Signal in the Prospect of Publication. PloS ONE, 10 (11) PMID: 26555725

CATEGORIZED UNDER: fMRI, funny, papers, science, select, Top Posts
  • gettingwell

    I think meta-analyses won’t have lasting impact. What did we find out that we can apply in the future from this meta paper that we didn’t already know beforehand?
    I feel this meta phenomenon occurs in other areas, too. For example, my son and I watched Anthony Jeselnick’s latest Netflix show two nights ago. His onstage meta-analyses of his jokes before and after he told them was interesting to watch.
    However, his meta-analyses weren’t funny, to me anyway. My nucleus accumbens wasn’t scanned to corroborate.
    The meta-analyses did have some temporary impact, though. Yesterday, our conversations had a few varieties of “Dead baby jokes aren’t funny” spin-offs.

  • Andy Schnell

    For a researcher, having an article published is obviously worth much more than 500 Euros. Easy choice. I’d choose that over $5,000 even

  • Kamran Rowshandel

    Wait so are you serious? You stopped believing that fMRI was a flawed method that provides the same result on dead vs live fish?

    I don’t know what you’ve been doing with yourself, but it seems as if you’ve been slacking since you started blogging for Discover…

    • Neuroskeptic

      Ah but the point of the Dead Salmon paper was that you need to use multiple comparisons correction in whole brain fMRI. If you don’t, you get lots of false positives, even in a dead fish brain.

      But it wasn’t saying fMRI was useless overall. It’s all a question of proper statistics.

      In this paper the key results were derived from a single anatomical ROI, the NAcc, so there were no multiple comparisons AFAIK.

  • Jackson Hendrick Maria

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  • Jodie Trinity

    “someone could scan themselves *while writing the paper* about their self-scanning experiment” hahaha!

  • Elizabeth Hope Adams

    Interesting implications relating to conflict of interest…

  • djlewis

    But Neuroskeptic — you failed on your primary mission, as embodied in your name. This paper is a perfect example of neurosophistry — 😉

    • Neuroskeptic

      This is not a groundbreaking neuroscience paper, it is just a rather funny and amusingly meta paper (but still methodologically sound as far as I can see.)

      • djlewis

        Gee, I thought your eponymous mission was discussing not just problematic technical methodology but also overhype of neuroscience. OK, I’ll do the latter myself for this paper.

        Like a vast number of so-called neuroscientific studies, this was actually a behavioral study with a piggy-backed fMRI component. As is essentially always the case with such studies, the scientifically meaningful conclusions about behavior were *entirely* due to the behavioral component. Yet your quote from the article implies that the neuroscience is the explanatory component.

        For example, your quote said:

        “From a neuroscience perspective, this study offers novel insights by providing first empirical evidence that the Journal Impact Factor and the authorship position do actually influence human behavior and neural response patterns.”

        The first clause of that implies that the neuroscience provides some, if not all of the evidence for the behavioral effect, which is false – that’s not how the study was constructed. The neuroscience was just adjunct.

        In fact, I don’t believe there are *any* studies where neuroscience data reliably predicts significant cognitive or emotional behavior. There are plenty in the opposite direction: behavior influences fMRI results, but that is entirely different. This is the infamous “reverse inference” issue, which I am sure you are familiar with. To conflate those two types of inference is to commit fallacious, circular reasoning. Unfortunately, that is exactly what this article is doing, though slyly, and it’s really common in the field.

        Here’s another example of neurosophistry, from the abstract (emphasis added).

        “Using functional neuroimaging we examined *how* the JIF, as a powerful incentive in academia, has shaped the behavior of scientists and the reward signal in the striatum.”

        The word “how” is slyly ambiguous here. Does it mean “the fact that” or “the mechanism by which” – “how” serves both purposes in English. Unfortunately, the science only supports the neutral, correlational reading, but probably many if not most people will take it as a causal explanation. Worse, by lumping the behavioral and the neurobiological aspects, this sentence, like your quote, invites the reader to assume they were of equal significance, when again, that’s far from true.

        Of course, we might attribute all this to sloppy writing. But I’ve seen so much of it, and I’ve seen so much exquisitely calculated and hedged language to produce these sophist effects, that I simply can’t assume innocence here.

        So, should neuroscientists be expected to explain clearly what is really going on with these kinds of studies? Should they say the truth, this was a behavioral study with some “interesting” neural correlates, but we really can’t say what the role of the biology is here? Unfortunately, if they did, then the popular press, like you, might not pick up their stuff. And the world at large might get the idea that there is, so far, actually very little of substance that can be said about the relationship of higher-order behavior and neurobiology.

        • gettingwell

          The need to feel important was likely the underlying impetus for the subjects’ behavior.
          The need to feel important isn’t a basic human need on the same level as nourishment, protection, and socialization, though. An etiologic study would attempt to address how this need arose in each subject’s life.
          With only the nucleus accumbens data reported, we don’t even know whether the anticipated rewards were feelings-based or driven by some abstract pleasure.

          • djlewis

            Only nucleus accumbens data reported?! Sorry, but *no* type or amount of biological data with current technology can tell us *anything* substantial or valuable about human feelings or pleasure, or cognition.

            Worse, there is no prospect of or credible path to that goal. It’s all arbitrary 25- to 50- to 100-year “predictions” (except Thomas Insel’s 10-year prediction — and that’s probably because he has pushed us into a 10-year project that he has to hope will produce results or his name is mud, since he has pretty much halted behavioral and outcome studies at NIMH in its favor.)

  • Joanne Williams

    Pretty expensive joke. I’d be pissed if I was at the University of Lubeck.

    • Neuroskeptic

      The authors say they “have no support or funding to report.” So I think they did this study in their own time while the MRI scanner wasn’t being used.

      On the other hand you could say that it still had a cost, because they could have used their time for a more serious study…

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  • Ron Bergman

    Doesn’t sound like a joke to me. Unless it is considered that massive self interest in neuroscientists (and everyone, really, in the academy regarding publishing ) is humorous. Let’s face it: tenure is not funny.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Doesn’t sound like a joke to me.

      Sounds like a classic case of “kidding on the square”.

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  • non_sig

    Sadly, I my excitement about the papers would be U-formend: moderate for the low-JIF papers, very high for the medium-JIF papers, and low for the high-JIF papers.
    High-JIF papers are not anything I spend any thoughts on.
    Moreover I just read a lot more medium-JIF paper, because most papers are published in medium or low IF-Journals, so I “know” those journals better and have more fantasies about where I would want to publish. In case I had any findings.

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  • BlipBertMon

    I think this is bogus / not double-blind in that the mere appearance of the subjects name wasn’t controlled for, at least not in the summary of the article I got to read.

    • Neuroskeptic

      The subject’s name appeared in all of the “paper” stimuli, low medium and high impact factor. So that was a constant across those conditions.

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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