Crimes Against Science

Many years ago, GG was fortunate enough to take a field seminar class taught by Bob Sharp at Caltech (it is for him that “Mt. Sharp” on Mars is informally named). At one point, Bob discussed a conclusion reached by an unpublished PhD thesis and then opined that the failure of this to be published was a “crime against science.”

GG is wondering if it is time to expand the statutes a bit.

An interesting paper in the mill by Edwards  and Roy is subtitled “Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition,” and this paper expands on the general discomfort many of us have had over a glut of incremental papers or a growing number of episodes of misbehavior to argue that the kinds of criteria being used to incentivize scientists are fouling the scientific endeavor so much that we will soon cross a line, and science will cease to be seen as a valid and useful endeavor. GG would love to quote huge chunks of this paper; better to go and read it for yourself.

With that in mind, here are some proposed new statutes in the crimes-against-science law book:

Excessive bean counting. Making decisions on hiring or promoting faculty on the basis of (1) how many papers are published, (2) h-index, (3) total number of dollars acquired in grants, (4) any other simplistic metric. Extra penalty when committed in letters of recommendation as it presumes an inability of faculty reading the letter to count on their own.

Confusing means with ends. Conflating numbers of graduate students with impact on post-graduate education, dollars spent in conducting research with impact on a field, student-credit hours spent with educational success, four-year graduation rates with proper preparation for post-college life.

Gaming the system. Consistently seeking out the “minimum publishable unit,”shingling papers, using guest lecturers to essentially teach a course (arguably using adjunct faculty is in the same boat), changing course sizes to get better rankings. Extra penalties for special behaviors at the very edge of legally permissible behavior (e.g., adding an academic opponent to an author list during review to prevent them from reviewing the paper, overlooking a conflict of interest in order to weigh in on a competing proposal).

Lowering the bar. Graduating students because they have spent enough time. Granting tenure because someone is a pleasant person who comes to work every day.

Mistaking more for better. Often associated with infractions above, especially bean counting. Assuming having taught more students is providing more educational impact. Assuming having more grants means more successful research.  Assuming more papers is a universal good.

Passing the buck. Refusing to explore the true impact and merit of a scientist’s work when in a position of judgement (i.e., on a promotion or search committee, voting on faculty promotion, or sitting on a college-level review committee). Violations can range from not reading the scientist’s papers to actively committing other infractions as listed above.

These of course are lesser infractions than the scientific felonies of fabrication, plagiarism, and intellectual theft.  But as Edwards and Roy argue, these more minor transgressions are the ones that create an environment more favorable to commission of felonies.


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