Bullied Into Bad Science?

By Neuroskeptic | January 20, 2019 3:22 pm

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.

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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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  • mythusmage

    So some people prefer the answer that makes them comfortable.

  • OWilson

    Not bullying in the conventional sense, more like a subtle peer pressure not to upset the current conventional wisdom, which some are so invested in!

    In it’s milder form it can be a positive learning experience. A more commercial aspect of peer pressure is advertising, the “right gear”, the right beer, car and so on. A route to “acceptance” or “popularity” with many.

    It can enhance one’s career in academia, and politics, where attitude can be more important than ability or talent.

    Taken to the extreme, as in societal attitudes, we have police state dictatorships. A skeptic of the “conventional wisdom” is always denigrated, or worse.

    But it will always be with us, for better, or worse!

  • CHEMST

    We all have a bias toward for data that conforms to what we think will happen. I think it is critical for supervisors to greet data that does not conform with expectations positively as it may indicate the opportunity to learn something we do not know.

  • Mavis

    The pressure for a corporate sponsor, should have been mentioned. Academia has become truncated by the reliance on attention getting headlines, a complicit media, and corporate money. The absolute crap “Science” that gets amplified by corporate media, and social media is not only deceptive, and misleading, it contributes to some dark narratives. The scientific criticism, never gets any media attention.

    • http://www.facebook.com Mel Famie

      Corporate sponsors are no different in that sense than government sponsors. My own research was heavily funded by NIH, and if my grant proposals had said, “We intend to demonstrate that the biological effect named in the RFP is insignificant,” our chances at the grant would actually fall below zero. No grant, and probably no more grants ever from that agency.

  • peterjohn936

    Publish or perish.

  • Tosin

    Sad.

  • Uolevi Kattun

    Why should science be an exception? Nearly on all branches the simplest questions have been solved and plentifully operators are competing with the ever more complicated ones. When making progress is getting difficult, it’s attractive to continue with the already-known to retain own status. Bureaucratic and illusory societies may hide their triviality into ‘bad science’ as well as conmen in internet.

  • CL

    “These data are not replicating my previous studies, go back and reanalyze”
    “If we can make these results pop more, we have a better chance of being published.”
    “yes, that is a valid criticism of the results, but the reviewers will never figure that out”

    Quotes from prior mentors…

  • Occasional-Cortex

    I work in finance. Everyone has their favorite “system” of analysis and prediction, just like gamblers, which we are.

    Last month, everyone I know had their system torn to shreds by what occurred in the stock market. “A bird strike at 30,000 feet”, as one associate put it. Mike Tyson did put it best, “Everybody’s got a plan, until they get punched in the face.”

    We all had to go back to the drawing board, do some cold analytical soul searching and revise our procedures and assumptions from the ground up.

    As annoying, laborious and, in many ways, frightening as that is it turned out to be well worth the effort, at least in my own case. I found a much better way of doing things.

    A lot of science becomes “junk”, or “junk” passes as science (the recent hilarious pseudo articles published in post modern gender studies journals come to mind) because it never undergoes the acid test of reality, IOW never gets “punched in the face”.

    Physics, engineering, math and other “hard” sciences at least can be put to the test, ideas modified or abandoned if need be. “Softer” sciences often devolve into a word salad and “thought salad” of gibberish that is accepted because it fits the political or philosophical mind set currently dominant.

    • OWilson

      Conventional wisdom, often suffers a punch in the face.

      Look up “Scientist puzzled”, “Scientists struggling to understand”, “Scientists scratching their heads”. It’s how we learn and move forward.

      But we have many lemmings in the soft sciences, markets, politics, who are reluctant to abandon their beliefs.

      Experts are always looking back in their models. If a model can explain a past few events, (Selection Bias?) it is considered sound, and used to “predict”. And there’s the rub! A currently popular guru can be correct, until he is wrong. They come and go.

      Notable among them are “economists”, “political analysts”, “market analysts”, and I would include “climate analysts”.

      But they always assured of a receptive audience! And, a guranteed gig on the 24/7 News cycle.

  • Gruia

    we need to gain back the clarity of virtue. we need to be able to recognize and reward virtue.
    the current political struggle is the war on incompetence breaking loose. all join in, and reclaim the philosophy that will move us forward

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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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