Scientific Publishing And The Culture Canard: Papers Are Currency

Another day, another article which discusses ‘scientific culture’ in biology without referencing funding. This is getting old, but we’ll try this again–I’ll chalk my previous failure up to instructor error (after which, I’m just going to conclude writers of said pieces are fucking morons unwilling to do the heavy lifting).

In biology, publications are not just about communication, perhaps not even primarily about communication (in my experience, that’s what meetings, seminar speakers, and conversations are for). They are a currency.

This currency is used to ‘buy’ funded grants. At most granting agencies, funding rates are somewhere between five to fifteen percent, which makes this as difficult as getting into a highly selective college–except many of the people you’re competing against already passed through that funnel. With such low funding rates, reviewers have to come up with reasons to not fund proposals (which is similar to admissions at highly selective colleges). This means very small distinctions can result in the difference between funding or no funding. Without funding your research program dies (and depending on what type of position you have, you can also become unemployed)–no more cool science stories.

As I noted last week, there is a difference between a unpublished preprint and a published article:

$250,000 per year in direct costs from NIH, and somewhere between $75,000 and $125,000 in indirect costs.

NIH, when assessing grants, looks at publications as evidence of successful progress. In addition, unpublished papers can’t be cited in grant applications. Maybe it shouldn’t be like this, but for now, it is.

In this environment, there is little to be gained and much to be lost–no matter how remote that chance of loss is–by being ‘scooped.’ Regarding being scooped, even having a paper wind up in a ‘less prestigious’ journal (again, I don’t like this, but this is how the proposal review system works) can hurt you, especially if you drop from a ‘glamour mag’ (e.g., Science, Nature, Cell). Having a glamour mag publication, never mind a couple, can allay concerns about productivity and could provide that edge–grant reviewers can psychologically check that box off.

For those of you in the slow incentives group: any plan to promote Open Whatever that does not take into account funders–on which research programs live and die–means nothing. If you want to change things–and I’m cool with that–then you need to do deep dives into how science is funded and how the grant award process actually works.

I realize in the academy (and the pundit sphere), identity-based analysis supersedes all, but sometimes ‘follow the money’ still has great explanatory power.

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1 Response to Scientific Publishing And The Culture Canard: Papers Are Currency

  1. RJ says:

    You want people to think deeply about the real issues? Silly boy. Apparently intelligent people really are caught up in the potentialities of information technology. it’s a faith. Right technology, right app, everything solved. I really think people who could know better still think computers are magic.

    Shrinking and uncertain funding creates scardy-cat conservativism and reduces the salutatory cooperation characteristic of the best science, regardless of ‘culture’. Thank you for continuing to discuss these issues.

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