Is Academia Broken? The Publishing Game


In my mind, there’s no point being in Higher Education unless you’re willing to advance knowledge through research. Teaching and administration have their place in aiding the dissemination of knowledge, but knowledge creation through research is why I’m at a research university and not a teaching institution.  But there’s something wrong with the academic system that has started to see the light – the publishing game has been plagued by cheaters.

We can talk at length about the morality of high profile cases, such as Diedreik Stapel or Japanese Anaesthesiologist, Yoshitaka Fujii, but the reality is that these are extreme examples of what I believe is a deeply ingrained problem within academia – that is, a belief, by some, that data fraud is acceptable and necessary.

But, let’s not jump to crucify every academic who has made an error of judgement by liberally removing an outlier or 50, or even creating whole datasets to tell a story.  There’s more to this than a few crooked academics – in my opinion, it’s a systemic degradation of what constitutes valuable knowledge and how an outpouring of valuable knowledge by an individual affords him or her the security and rewards that come with being a successful academic.

So, why does a person choose to fake their data – even just a little? It’d be irresponsible of me to assume to know the motives of every person who has tampered with their data, but let me provide one explanation.  Clean results help one get published in the best journals.  Just the other week a reviewer commented on how ‘messy’ my data was – I saw a colleague post on Facebook the same reviewer comment about their own work a couple of days later.  I felt like replying to my reviewer with “I’m working with people – real people – my data will reflect their lives – expect it to be messy” – indeed, I tend to say the opposite when I receive a very ‘clean’ dataset – I usually comment privately, to the editor, that the data is “too good to be true”. It’s quite simple, we should blame these crooked, filthy academics who have no moral standing.

Hmmm, I wonder if it’s that simple, though.  Right now, the best journals demand significant results for non-tautological interactions.  Basically, the top journals are demanding weird findings that are almost impossible to find without some level of ‘messiness’. However, years of clean data (and potentially ‘cleaned’ data) has led the journals to expect a high level of weird findings that stretch our imagination of the human psyche.  Why would one publish a paper that explains a part of everyday life that people already know about – and with messy data, at that? Nah, what a waste of paper – it’ll never get cited and will hardly attract any media attention.  No, wait for the weird paper with the crazy interactions that are too good to be true…it’s the journals’ and editors’ fault, clearly!

Ok, let’s take another breath and think about this.  Can we blame the journals? The number of submissions to top journals has increased substantially in recent years and they’re presented with more and more papers that are great for pushing the boundaries of human understanding.  Besides, is it the journals’ fault that they don’t pick up fraudulent behaviour? Is that their role? So, why are the top journals targeted so feverishly by an increasing number of academics? Because universities demand publication in these top journals to satisfy their criteria of ‘valuable knowledge’. Don’t believe me? Try going for promotion or tenure at any leading research school with a poor publication record.  It doesn’t matter if your research had social or practical impact, if it’s not well received in the academic literature, then your career suffers.  P&T committees are demanding their faculty to publish in the best journals – as a result, these journals are targeted more and more by anyone desperate to keep their jobs in an increasingly competitive environment.  Let’s face it, it’s all the universities’ fault.

Ok, I think you know where I’m going with this. Can you blame the universities for demanding higher standards of their faculty.  After all, some manage to publish regularly in the top journals.  These academics drive the reputation of the university up, aiding in the generation of much needed teaching, government and research funding.  Students will flock to the schools with the best rankings and those schools are often judged on their research performance.  As a result, research is put on a pedestal above teaching. So much so, that I believe universities put undue pressure on academics to perform beyond what is reasonably possible, because that’s what the people want.  Society is looking for value from their academics.  You cannot ‘hide’ in academia, especially if you draw taxpayer funding.  The public voice is getting louder and expecting more from academia – and I don’t just mean poor reviews on Rate My Professor, but commenters on academic press releases who demean higher education as an institution; who demand professors be fired because they’re not doing ‘real research’ (yes, I’ve had this one a few times, myself!) or the broadening gap between understanding what professors actually do (and it’s not have long holidays and wear tweed jackets – I don’t own a tweed jacket).  Yes, it’s society’s fault for placing huge demands on universities as a result of a burgeoning consumer economy where the customer is always right – and society is paying a lot for universities to be kept open.

By now, I’m guessing you’ve worked out that there’s no single party to blame.  Equally, it is rational to assume, that no one party should bear the burden of fixing the problem of dodgy data.  So why is the pressure heaved upon academics to clean up their act? Why not encourage journals to start publishing replication studies? Why not demand P&T committees take a broader view of an academic’s ability beyond which journal he/she has published in? Why not explain to society that they don’t get to decide what happens within a university? Why is it all up to us as individuals to take the blame and bear the punishment?  Why? Because the only way to break a cycle of abuse is for one group to stand up and demand a change – and stick to that change.  If all parties do this, then the change is quicker and more effective, but rather than pass blame around, let’s take some responsibility, with dignity, and make a change in areas we can influence.

So, if you’re a dean, a research director or head of a P&T committee, then take a stand and demand more be done to review an academic’s impact, beyond journal publications.  If you’re the editor of journal, then why not take a zero tolerance policy on data fraud and encourage submitters to do research that uses messier data? If you’re an academic, then why not be open, as I am, about the pressures and risks associated with our work, so you’re held accountable for your actions.  And if you’re part of the general public (well done on making it this far!) then why not look to engage with universities, rather than deride the work academics do – understand that your taxes don’t entitle you to have a say in the work academics do or decide what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  Don’t drool over the various rankings published in the newspapers, but take a holistic, reasoned and open minded approach to understanding academia and academics.

Is the academic system broken? At this moment, there are failings that need to be fixed.  Not by patching up the problems or parading a few scapegoats around, but by changing the system that eventually leads to fraudulent data use.  Academia is not on its knees, ready to be executed – there is still much value that higher education brings, beyond awarding bits of paper and awesome parties – but we do need some time to regain our dignity and strength.  Give us that time.


2 thoughts on “Is Academia Broken? The Publishing Game

  1. Pingback: Is Academia Broken? Parochialism | VeerOffTrack

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