The Unhappiest Bartender in Australia

Sad man with beer

I’m not talking about students for this one, I’m talking about the scientific community. On reading yet more articles about the growing rate of retraction, on top of the inability to replicate key studies, it appears that we are at risk of losing our way. I need to be able to train my students for the world that they will work in – so I’m going to briefly discuss my beliefs and interview myself to talk about my fears of what happens when scientific integrity is trumped by mercenary and short-sighted values.

The executive summary is “Do science properly or do something else.” If you’re already practising science at a high level, with integrity, please leave work early and enjoy a beverage of your choice, at your own expense. I salute you! Come back and read this once you are refreshed. (This is a bit more opinionated than usual, so if you want to focus on my Learning and Teaching posts, you might want to read some of my previous posts or come back tomorrow. I welcome you to stay, however.)

I understand, to an extent, why people are taking questionable approaches to their work in order to achieve publication in the same that I understand why students cheat sometimes. But comprehending the rationalisation does not mean that I condone the actions – far from it. In another blog I commented on the fact that some people change their behaviour when they drink. If they are aware that this is going to happen, then the excuse “I was drunk” is not an excuse. Getting drunk was an enabling step. If your choices, as a scientist, are leading you down dark paths then you have to look at the end of that path to see where you’re going. “That was where my path naturally led” isn’t valid when you know that you’re on the wrong road.

I’m pretty worried by some of the behaviour that people are practising to get ahead. But don’t think that I’m in a strong enough position that I’m immune to the lure of the dark path – I want to keep my job, make good progress, get promoted, get grants, have an impact. Like everyone else, I want to change the world. The question is “What are you prepared to compromise in order to get to that stage?”

Do I feel pressure to publish? Yes! Am I willing to fabricate data to do so? No. Am I willing to cite ‘suggested papers’ that all appear to be from the editor of the special edition or a select group of friends? No. Am I willing to run an experiment 100 times and write up the single time it worked as if this was a general case? No!

But, wait, if you don’t meet your publication targets, doesn’t that have an impact on your career? Yes, possibly. I’m expected to publish at a very high level on a regular basis.

And if you don’t? Well, I can demonstrate my worth in other ways but research turns into publications, publications support grants, grants bring in people, people do research. Not publishing will have a serious impact on my ability to produce research.

So you’d bend a little because it’s in the greater interest for your work to be published because your research is valuable. Nice try, but no. I’d prefer to leave my job than compromise my principles in this regard.

Well, it’s really nice that you’ve got that level of agency but, hey, your wife has a stable income and the wolf isn’t at your door. Aren’t you just making an argument from privilege? Hmmm.

Well, that’s a good question. My response would normally be that there are many, many jobs that use some of what I have that don’t require me to have a strong set of scientific and personal ethics. I could teach computing courses and never have to worry about research ethics. I could write code as a small cog in a large company and not have to worry as much about experimental replication. I could tend bar, I guess, or maybe work in a shop, if jobs like that still exist in 10 years time and they’ll hire a 50 year old. But, again, this assumes a level of skill transferability and agency that does presume a basis of privilege if I’m going to walk away from science and do something else.

But this assumes that you went in to be a scientist thinking that this kind of bad behaviour is just what scientists did, that ethics were optional, that publication by any means was acceptable – that reality was mutable when deadlines were tight. Let’s break this thinking now because I don’t want any students to come to my program thinking like that.

I believe that if you want to be a scientist, you have to accept that this comes with a package of ethical behaviours that are not optional.

Science has impact! Building on bad science gives you more bad science. This bad behaviour in science could be, and probably is, killing people. We’re potentially setting back scientific progress because of time wasted trying to build on experiments that don’t work. We are in the middle of a data deluge and picking from the many correct things is hard enough, without adding deceitful or misleading publications as well.

What concerns me, reading about increasing retraction rates and dodgy surveys, is that the questionable path to success may become the norm. People are already questioning perfectly good science, because of a growing mistrust fuelled by bad scientific behaviour, and “Well, I don’t know” is a de rigeur  rejoinder in certain parts of the blogosphere.

I always talk about authenticity because it’s the backbone of my teaching. I have to believe it, or know it, or it just won’t work with the students. The day I think that our community is lost, I’ll no longer be able to train students to go to the fantasy land that I naively thought was reality and I’ll quit.

Come and find me, if I do, I’ll probably be working in a bar – and looking really unhappy.

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