Intense Competition among Scientists Has Gotten out of Hand

Intense competition among scientists has led to abuses. Is there a better way?

When Isaac Newton developed calculus and his theory of gravity, he reaped a reward far greater than stock options in a start-up or a big year-end bonus. He got credit for his work and recognition among his peers—and eventually the wider world. Since Newton, science has changed a great deal, but this basic fact has not. Credit for work done is still the currency of science.

How should credit for scientific work be assigned? The question has tremendous implications for how science is done and what society gets from its investment. Since the earliest days of science, bragging rights to a discovery have gone to the person who first reports it. This “priority rule” has led to some colorful disputes—Newton famously got into a tussle with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who wanted credit for inventing calculus—but by and large, the rule has worked well. In recent years, however, intense competition among scientists has led to difficulties, and we have begun to wonder if there isn’t a better way.

At its best, the priority rule fosters healthy competition, which can be a strong motivator for scientists to innovate and rapidly solve problems. Economists view scientific knowledge as a public good, which means that competitors are free to make use of that knowledge once it is publicized. The priority rule provides a potent incentive for scientists to share their knowledge. Some think that the priority rule also helps to ensure that society gets the optimal return from its investment in science because rewards go to those scientists who benefit society the most.

The winner-take-all aspect of the priority rule has its drawbacks, however. It can encourage secrecy, sloppy practices, dishonesty and an excessive emphasis on surrogate measures of scientific quality, such as publication in high-impact journals. The editors of the journal Nature have recently exhorted scientists to take greater care in their work, citing poor reproducibility of published findings, errors in figures, improper controls, incomplete descriptions of methods and unsuitable statistical analyses as evidence of increasing sloppiness. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

As competition over reduced funding has increased markedly, these disadvantages of the priority rule may have begun to outweigh its benefits. Success rates for scientists applying for National Institutes of Health funding have recently reached an all-time low. As a result, we have seen a steep rise in unhealthy competition among scientists, accompanied by a dramatic proliferation in the number of scientific publications retracted because of fraud or error. Recent scandals in science are reminiscent of the doping problems in sports, in which disproportionately rich rewards going to winners has fostered cheating.

The importance of teamwork in science has never been greater. Studies of publications over the past 50 years show that teams increasingly dominate science and are contributing the highest-impact research. Collaborators, consortia and networks are essential for tackling interdisciplinary problems and massive undertakings, such as the Human Genome Project. The priority rule may be undermining this process.

Read more . . .

via Scientific American – Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall

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Academic journals face a radical shake-up

Support has been swelling for open-access scientific publishing

IF THERE is any endeavour whose fruits should be freely available, that endeavour is surely publicly financed science. Morally, taxpayers who wish to should be able to read about it without further expense. And science advances through cross-fertilisation between projects. Barriers to that exchange slow it down.

There is a widespread feeling that the journal publishers who have mediated this exchange for the past century or more are becoming an impediment to it. One of the latest converts is the British government. On July 16th it announced that, from 2013, the results of taxpayer-financed research would be available, free and online, for anyone to read and redistribute.

Britain’s government is not alone. On July 17th the European Union followed suit. It proposes making research paid for by its next scientific-spending round—which runs from 2014 to 2020, and will hand out about €80 billion, or $100 billion, in grants—similarly easy to get hold of. In America, the National Institutes of Health (NIH, the single-biggest source of civil research funds in the world) has required open-access publishing since 2008. And the Wellcome Trust, a British foundation that is the world’s second-biggest charitable source of scientific money, after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also insists that those who take its shilling make their work available free.

Criticism of journal publishers usually boils down to two things. One is that their processes take months, when the internet could allow them to take days. The other is that because each paper is like a mini-monopoly, which workers in the field have to read if they are to advance their own research, there is no incentive to keep the price down. The publishers thus have scientists—or, more accurately, their universities, which pay the subscriptions—in an armlock. That, combined with the fact that the raw material (manuscripts of papers) is free, leads to generous returns. In 2011 Elsevier, a large Dutch publisher, made a profit of £768m on revenues of £2.06 billion—a margin of 37%. Indeed, Elsevier’s profits are thought so egregious by many people that 12,000 researchers have signed up to a boycott of the company’s journals.

A golden future?

Publishers do provide a service. They organise peer review, in which papers are criticised anonymously by experts (though those experts, like the authors of papers, are rarely paid for what they do). And they sort the scientific sheep from the goats, by deciding what gets published, and where.

That gives the publishers huge power. Since researchers, administrators and grant-awarding bodies all take note of which work has got through this filtering mechanism, the competition to publish in the best journals is intense, and the system becomes self-reinforcing, increasing the value of those journals still further.

But not, perhaps, for much longer. Support has been swelling for open-access scientific publishing: doing it online, in a way that allows anyone to read papers free of charge. The movement started among scientists themselves, but governments are now, as Britain’s announcement makes clear, paying attention and asking whether they, too, might benefit from the change.

Read more . . .

via The Economist

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Crowdfunding for Research Dollars: A Cure for Science’s Ills?

Science in crisis

Scientists – and science generally – are in a moment of crisis on multiple fronts. The gap between science and society has grown to a chasm, with disastrous consequences for issue after issue. For example, just last month, Tennessee passed legislation permitting creation “science” into classrooms. On another front, the concern of Americans about global warming has dramatically declined over the past decade,  despite the scientific consensus on the clear and present danger caused by climate change.

But science illiteracy in the general public isn’t the only crisis in science. Funding for research is becoming increasingly unattainable, with funding rates at their lowest levels in a decade at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the two most important American science agencies (see here and here for details). The situation in many other nations is no better. In Spain, for example, science spending by the central government has fallen by 20% since 2009. Even worse, research funding from traditional sources will likely be even harder to come by in the years to come due to ongoing economic instability around the world.

The solution

The public disengagement with science and the difficulty of funding research are very different problems. Unexpectedly though, there is a new solution that might just answer both problems: science crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is a relatively new internet-based method of fundraising. With crowdfunding, individuals post projects that need funding on websites, like RocketHub and Kickstarter, and then solicit contributions for those projects from the general public. Crowdfunding has grown explosively over the past few years as a source of funding in many fields (like arts and technology), with $1.5 billion raised by this method in 2011 alone. The arts-based Kickstarter expects to disburse $150 million this year, more than the National Endowment for the Arts. In the sciences, the British charity Cancer Research UK regularly funds specific cancer-related research projects to the tune of fifty thousand pounds and above.

Read more . . .

via Scientific American – Jai Ranganathan

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Research Unveils Drug Against Entamoeba Hisotolica

A breakthrough research has managed to develop a drug that may be effective to beat a lethal parasite.

It was done by a team of researchers from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), the University of California San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine and Wake Forest School of Medicine. They managed to found that the rheumatoid arthritis medication auranofin can provide relief to those who are being affected by Entamoeba hisotolica.

It is believed that the parasite has the tendency to claim lives of 70,000 people throughout the world every year and that’s what makes it all the more imperative that there is some sort of cure found.

“This new use of an old drug represents a promising therapy for a major health threat and highlights how research funded by the National Institutes of Health can benefit people around the world”, said Sharon Reed, professor in the UCSD Departments of Pathology and Medicine, who led the research.

Read more . . .

via French Tribune – Annabel Tautou

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