by Tibor Hartel
I was just re-reading the paper of Joern Fischer and his colleagues about academia`s obsession with quantity, more papers, more grants and more everything. Here, I focus on one potential aspect of this issue. I am aware that here and there I may look crazy, and exaggerate, but the intention is to offer a short blog and maybe one short second of reflection.
I wonder to what extent this obsession is rooted in and induced by our new (researcher) population demographics. Yearly, thousands of ‘scientists’ may be produced in just one field of biology, in just one continent. Each being extremely enthusiastic, clever, inventive and willing to do great things in research and life. The sad news is that each of them will not end up being a successful ecologist. And this is not because they don`t deserve it. No, there is nothing personal. It is even worse: we may be (and I am sorry for being so direct) too many. The researcher population is growing, resources are scarce, and it is already stressed by its own demography.
We all feel the symptoms of this, let me enumerate just few: the review system is increasingly random (excellent papers being rejected without review while other papers go under review). This randomness makes difficult to publish even good stuff. There are new journals available every week almost (each aiming to be revolutionary), and new journal initiatives, as a response to the growing population of … manuscripts. Permanent jobs are rare resources today in this field (postdocs positions increasing?). I even feel that ‘transdisciplinary science’ may flourish, to an unknown degree, as a result of the above mentioned population demographics: being transdisciplinary allows scientist to pass the border of the ‘science habitat’ and establish outside academia.
One can feel that such an environment is full with pain and frustration. The strong natural selection processes acting on each member of this growing and crowding researcher population. In any other animal species, e.g. rats, such a crowding certainly would select for behaviours and morphs which are not ‘normal’. We know this from Darwin and subsequent works. Below some abnormal behaviours in science (there may be other, more proper examples too) selected in and by the overcrowded researcher population: The ‘obsession with quantity’, described by Joern and his colleagues. The goal of science changes in an overcrowded scientist population: generating valuable knowledge may not be the main objective, but papers which cease being a means (through which knowledge is communicated) and become the goal. In this way, papers are displays of alpha ranking and the most highly ranked members of the community are given more (re)production rights via grants, PhD students and permanent positions. The selection of PhD students (future researchers) is interesting too: image is valued, the created noise and the ability to sell (in other words, the ability of the candidate to capture what the alpha fe/male want from her/him and act accordingly in order to get the position). Being silent and humble is not valued – such people are generally not noticed (of course, noisy people can be humble and clever too…but the selection criteria is the noise and not always the humility and wisdom behind, and that is the problem).
If the scientific products of our days are the result of the struggle for life (in its Darwinian sense), induced and controlled by the demographic context (i.e. the result of an abnormal behaviour, induced by an abnormal situation, basically), how we can ever expect a society to take us (and our big explosions, i.e. papers) seriously?