As a researcher, I often have to stop and ask myself: what kind of research do I want to do? Research that would get cited a lot versus research that would make an impact in people’s lives? In general I think that the answer should be obvious, but sometimes I find myself getting caught in the “publish or perish” mindset that seems to encompass all the scientific world nowadays.
Last year a Dutch professor in social psychology, Diederik Stapel, became widely famous because of a decade of research that was, unfortunately, all fabricated. He was caught because three of his PhD students started suspecting study results that were simply too good. In the consequent investigations, it was found that he had been falsifying data for a long long time, perhaps as early as his dissertation research.
The New York Times article about initial suspicions of Stapel’s long line of fabrication quotes Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara:
“The big problem is that the culture is such that researchers spin their work in a way that tells a prettier story than what they really found. It’s almost like everyone is on steroids, and to compete you have to take steroids as well.”
In a way, this was the message I got from October’s ACR conference as well. On one hand, ethics and integrity were called for; on the other hand, it was emphasized that writing a good paper is like telling a nice story. I’m not saying that these things are contradictory, but sometimes I wonder whether honesty and marketing can ever cohabit without at least some bickering.
Stress and haste can make people vulnerable to losing their integrity and prone to cutting corners. If it happens in professions where results of the work are concrete and immediate, it is certain to happen in research as well.
Dear readers, please remind me frequently that the main purpose of the research and work we do is not fame and fortune, but to make the world a better place. No one’s perfect and we need each other to keep our integrity. It’s not a race, it’s a journey towards a common goal.