Saturday, August 23, 2014

Is academia really broken? Or just really hard?

(Second contrarian post in a row. Need to do some more positive thinking!)

Scarcely a day goes by when I don’t read something somewhere on the internet about how academia is broken. Usually, this centers around peer review of papers, getting an academic job, getting grants and so forth. God knows I’ve contributed a fair amount of similar internet-fodder myself. And just for the record, I absolutely do think that many of the systems that we have in place are deeply flawed and could do with a complete overhaul.

But what do all these hot-button meta-science topics have in common? Why do they engender such visceral reactions? I think they are all about the same basic underlying issue, namely competition for limited resources (spots in high impact journals, academic jobs, grant funding). I think we can and should fix the processes by which these resources are apportioned. But there’s also no getting around the fact that there are limited resources, and as such, there will be a large number of people dissatisfied with the results no matter what system we choose to use.

Take peer review of papers. Colossal waste of time, I agree. Personally, the best system I can envision is one where everyone publishes their work in PLOS ONE or equivalent with non-anonymous review (or, probably better, no review), then “editors” just trawl through that and publish their own “best of” lists. I’m sure you have a favorite vision for publishing, too, and I’m guessing it doesn’t look much like the current system–and I applaud people working to change this system. In the end, though, I anticipate that even if my system was adopted, everyone (including me) would still be complaining about how so and so hot content aggregator is not paying attention to their own particular groundbreaking results they put up on bioRxiv. The bottom line is that we are all competing for the limited attentions of our fellow scientists, and everyone thinks their own work is more important than it probably is, and they will inevitably be bummed when their work is not recognized for being the unique and beautiful snowflake that they are so sure it is. Groundbreaking, visionary papers will still typically be under-recognized at the time precisely because they are breaking new ground. Most papers will still be ignored. Fashionable and trendy papers will still be popular for the same reason that fashionable clothes are–because, umm, that’s the definition of fashion. Politics will still play a role in what people pay attention to. We can do pre-publication review, post-publication review, no review, more review, alt-metrics, old-metrics, whatever: these underlying truths will remain. It’s worth noting that the same sorts of issues are present even in fields with strong traditions of using pre-print servers and far less fetishization of publishing in The Glossies. I think it's the fear and heartbreak associated with rejection by one's peers (either by reviewers or by potential readers) that is the primary underlying motivation for people to consider alternative approaches to publishing–it certainly is for me. We should definitely consider and implement alternatives, but I think it's worth considering that the anguish that comes from nobody appearing to appreciate your work will always be present because other people's attention is a limited and precious resource that we are all fighting for. [Update 8/25: same points made here and here by Jeremy Fox]

For trainees, the other “great filter event” they probably experience is getting a faculty position. Yes, the system is probably somewhat broken (in particular with gender/racial disparities that we simply must address), although compared to peer review of papers, search committees are far more deliberate in their decision making, precisely because the stakes are so much higher. Yes, we can and should encourage and support students considering other career paths. I guess what I’m saying is that even if everyone went into science with their eyes wide open, with all the best mentoring in the world, the reality is that there are more dreamers than dream jobs available. That means many people who feel like they deserve such a position (and certainly many of them do) are not going to get one. And they probably won’t be happy about it.

(Sidebar about career path stuff: to be frank, most of the trainees I’ve met are pretty realistic about their chances of getting a faculty position and have many other plans they are considering as well, and so I think some of the “I’m not getting support and advice about other career choices” meme is overblown, especially these days. We can blame the “system” for somehow making it seem like doing something other than academics is a failure, and there is definitely some truth to that. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that many people do a PhD because being a scientist was a long-held dream from childhood, and so if we’re being totally honest, at least some of the sense of failure comes from within. It’s a lot easier to say abstractly that we should be realistic with trainees and manage expectations and so forth than to actually look someone in the eye and tell them to their face that they should give up on their dream. I agree that this is the sort of hard stuff PIs should do as part of their jobs–I’m just saying it’s not as easy as it is sometimes made out to be. And yes, I’ve personally experienced both sides of this particular coin.)

Look, nobody likes this stuff. Rejecting is about as much fun as being rejected, and I FULLY support all efforts to make our scientific processes better in every possible way. All I’m saying is that even the best, most utopian system we can think of will suffer from inequities, politics, fashions, etc. because that is just human nature. The current systems are currently largely run by scientists, after all, and so we really have nobody to blame but ourselves. I realize it’s much easier to blame Spineless Editor From Fancy Journal, Nasty Reviewer with a Bone to Pick, Crusty Old Guy on the Hiring Committee, or Crazy Grant Reviewer with a Serious Mental Health Issue, and I’ve for sure blamed all those people myself when I have failed at something. Maybe I was right, or maybe I was wrong. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly a rationalization that lets me keep my chin up in what can sometimes be a fairly demoralizing line of work. Science is a human endeavor. It will be as good and as bad as humans are. And when the chips are down and there’s not enough to go around, that can bring out both the best and the worst in us.

No comments:

Post a Comment