Taking the self promotion out of academia
October 24, 2007
Academic science, as it is today (and, it seems to me, for centuries past) is the industry of self promotion. The way the system works, academics must promote themselves. In order to get hired, promoted or funding – or even just not to be let go – they must present their work as being of great importance or novelty. Every new thought or wrinkle or nuance must be presented as a scientific advance worth telling to others, over and over again.
Researchers are thus driven toward emphasizing quantity over quality, toward over-interpreting their theory or data and toward unfruitful complexity (since complexity is harder to criticize and easier to produce than simplicity).
Under current conditions, these trends, which are harmful to the community, are driven by the need to survive of the individual researchers. This is then, the tragedy of the scientific commons.
In addition, the system of peer review promotes the formation of elites and cliques and reduces innovation. The established researchers – being the referees on widely read publications – can prevent intrusion by newcomers and censor unusual ideas, and encourage the endless repetition of the conventional wisdom. This is the rule of the scientific oligarchy.
To resolve these difficulties the sacred cow of the peer review system must be slaughtered. It must be recognized the peer review system is an important part of the problem. The system relies on the idea that it is possible for a handful of referees to determine in a reasonable and fairly evenhanded way which articles are worth publishing and which are not. This idea is false. The decisions of referees are mostly political (i.e., influenced by the interests and personalities of the actors) rather than rational. Referees cannot be relied upon to effectively discriminate between good and bad papers.
Clearly, the authors of a paper, being most familiar with it, are those who are in the best position to estimate the quality of the work. It therefore makes sense to rely on their evaluation in the decision whether to publish it or not. Of course, the authors are biased in favor of their own work, but at least within the body of their own work, they should be able to do a good job of rating quality.
My proposed system is, thus, to give each author a quota of publications – say one article every 3 years. The author can choose what work to put in that article – which is guaranteed to be published. Preferably, the article will still be refereed, but it would be up to the author to decide whether to incorporate any suggestions by the referees into the work. A researcher would then choose carefully, picking the best of their work of the last 3 years (and incorporating any useful ideas of the referees) to produce the best paper he or she could come up with – with 3 years between publications it makes sense that there will be a lot of good work to choose from and a lot of time to write the paper well. The result will be more enjoyable and productive for the author, for his or her readers, and for the scientific community.