Use Your Judgment!

There seems to be a movement afoot in the upper echelons of science to rethink the “publish or perish” culture that fetishizes impact factors and citation counts. It is a recurring theme in these Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative videos, which are, thankfully, sponsored by the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. I’m sometimes a bit cynical about the role of industry in research, but I do think capital has an interest in fostering good science so I think that, on this issue at least, they are backing the right side. And I think (here’s the cynic again) that such backing will be decisive in any possible cultural change. The publish or perish culture has been fostered by one kind of money; it can only be undermined, I suspect, by the influence of another kind of money. Such, unfortunately, is the way of the world. It is not, finally, argument and evidence that settle these things, but their uptake by those who fund research.

In any case, Michael Brown’s advice here is very good. We can’t outsource academic judgment to journal editors and reviewers. When hiring someone we must reach our own conclusions about the quality of their research. The ability of an applicant to get published in a high-impact journal, which involves a particular set of skills that is not a perfect proxy for the ability to make important scientific discoveries, introduces a factor into hiring decisions that too often gets us to set aside our natural sense of our colleagues’ talents. We used to pride ourselves in being good judges of character. We used to hone this sense. These days, we are inclined to think it somewhat quaint to try to decide whether a particular person is a “good scientist”. Can they get published? That’s the tough-minded question of the modern research director. It’s good to see Nobel Laureates and their corporate patrons pushing back against this attitude.

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