Phi Beta Cons

How Bad Academic Incentives Block Good Science

American higher education is loaded with perverse incentives, such as the incentive for faculty members to inflate grades in an effort at being popular with students. Another is the incentive to publish research just for the sake of getting things published. That and related problems are the subject of today’s Pope Center piece by Jenna Robinson, “Bad Incentives Undermine the Scientific Process.”

Back in 1962, Michael Polanyi, the famous scientist described the process of science in his book The Republic of Science as akin to solving a jigsaw puzzle; researchers collaborating to fit the pieces together. Over the decades, however, things have changed for the worse to create an environment, Robinson writes, “where scientists are no longer collaborating to solve the puzzle. They are instead pursuing tenure and career advancement.”

What’s the evidence?

For one thing, we have seen a dramatic increase in the retraction of scientific papers due to fraud, plagiarism, and duplicate publication. The pressure to get things into print is overwhelming the pressure to get the science right. The proliferation of journals is part of that problem. Robinson quotes British pharmacologist David Colquhoun: “pressure on scientists to publish has led to a situation where any paper, however bad, can now be printed in a journal that claims to be peer-reviewed.”

With increasing frequency, the results trumpeted in scientific papers cannot be reproduced by other researchers. Why? It’s at least partly due to the fact that journals like to publish papers with exciting findings, even if they later have to be withdrawn. On the other hand, fewer papers with negative findings are published, even though learning what is untrue is a key part of the scientific process.

Up and coming faculty members in the sciences (and other fields as well)  have to get enough published to satisfy the output demands or else their careers are in jeopardy. That is hardly conducive to doing their best and most careful work.

One favorable development in this regard is the establishment in 2014 of the Center for Scientific Integrity, which aims to promote high standards and call out bad or fraudulent work on its Retraction Watch site.

Polanyi would no doubt think that an important, spontaneous ordering kind of move to improve the scientific process.


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


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