A culture of publish or perish

By Virginia Barbour

In September, there was another very public case of a journal article being retracted as a result of academic misconduct.

Dr Anna Ahimastos, lead author at Melbourne's Baker IDI, reportedly admitted she fabricated data in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Sadly, the story is all too familiar. Science is not imperilled but we need to ensure the reward and support structures in academia promote the best practices, rather than corner cutting.

We have only recently began looking closely at how the scientific literature could function better and what can go wrong.

And there are conflicting opinions on how to handle underlying problems.

Peer review is currently the primary tool we have for assessing papers prior to publication.

Although it has its strengths, especially when overseen by skilled editors, it can't pick up all instances of fraud or sloppy scientific practices. In the past these errors may have lain hidden for many years. Now, post publication scrutiny is picking up papers with questionable data.

This is leading to corrections or even retractions.

To non-academics, this might all seem rather surprising. Isn't science governed by strict protocols for performing and reporting research?

Well, no. Unlike industrial processes, for example, which have standard operating procedures and oversight, science is usually organised locally.

Expert laboratory heads typically have the responsibility for the oversight of their laboratory's work. Many laboratories work as part of larger collaborations, which may have their own checks and balances in place, as do the academic institutions to which they belong.

Ultimately, researchers and individual laboratories are responsible for their own work. Isn't science governed by strict protocols for performing and reporting research?

The system of rewards within science is even more perplexing. Academia is a highly competitive profession. The basic training in science is a PhD and more than 6,000 are awarded each year in Australia alone. This is many more people than can ever end up as career researchers.

According to a 2013 discussion document, fewer than five per cent of those who were awarded PhDs find permanent academic positions.