The Corner

Education

The Trouble with Academic Research, Part Deux

Many laughs have been had over academic-research papers. In the second of his two-part article on academic research, Professor John Staddon gives us more material. The Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University had a problem:

[Professor Brian] Wansink and his fellow researchers had spent a month gathering information about the feelings and behavior of diners at an Italian buffet restaurant. Unfortunately their results didn’t support the original hypothesis. “This cost us a lot of time and our own money to collect,” Wansink recalled telling the graduate student. “There’s got to be something here we can salvage.” [Staddon’s italics]

It’s silly enough that university research faculty are studying the feelings and behavior of diners, but Staddon’s point here is about what he italicized — the felt need to publish something out of the data collected. That’s because of the publish-or-perish mentality. Staddon writes,

Four publications emerged from the “salvaged” buffet study. The topic is no doubt of interest to restaurateurs but unlikely to shed light on the nature of human feeding behavior. It’s entertaining. The study is correlational, not causal — no experiments were done. These are all characteristics typical of most of the “science” you will read about in the media: a distraction and a waste of resources, perhaps, but not too harmful.

Staddon’s argument is that people focus too much on the quantity of publications rather than quality and also that just because a paper gets published in a prestige journal doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good one. And, he writes, “The powerful incentives for publication-at-any-price make for ‘natural selection of bad science,’ in the words of one commentary.”

What to do? “Clearly, change is needed,” Staddon writes. “Science administrators can change right away: less emphasis on quantity and place of publication, and much more attention to what aspiring researchers’ papers actually say.”

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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