In the old days it didn’t matter so much which journal research was published in. Now it counts for everything.
Funding bodies now award grants almost exclusively to researchers who have published in a handful of top scientific journals.
According to Peter Lawrence, an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge, it’s this new accounting mentality that is “corrupting” the scientific process. Professor Lawrence, who used to edit a scientific journal, and is a respected researcher himself, says “it’s a bit like judging a hospital by how quickly the telephone is answered.
“[Awarding grants] was never a very accurate process in the past. But it was done by people reading the [research] papers and determining whether it contained sparks of originality and quality of rigour and argument. Now that aim has been more or less abandoned.”
What counts now is how often the research is cited, or mentioned, by other researchers in their publications, he says. This is supposed to be a reflection of how influential a piece of research has been. But many outside the grant awarding system regard it as a crude measure.
According to Professor Lawrence: “Once you start doing that, those numbers start gaining an importance to a point where in fact the real value of the work is extinguished.”
The priority now for many career scientists is to market themselves in a way that maximises their ability to have their research published in the top journals. They spend time travelling to scientific meetings to network with colleagues who may be reviewing their work. The research itself can at times seem a secondary concern.
The only way out of this cycle of “corruption”, according to Peter Lawrence, is for grant agencies to move away from counting citations and to actually read research proposals and to judge their quality.
Kind of seems obvious doesn’t it.
Of course, that might require staff at some of the journals deeply immersed in prestige – instead of leadership in investigation – to put in quality time off the networking circuit.