Friday, 25 September 2015

academia is a weird thing

This is one of the best writings on research academia I’ve ever read.

This week, I resigned from my position at Duke University with no intent to solicit employment in state-funded academic research positions in any foreseeable future. Many reasons have motivated this choice, starting with personal ones: I will soon be a father and want to be spending time with my son at home.

Other reasons have to do with research academia itself. Throughout the years, I have been discovering more and more of the inner workings of academia and how modern scientific research is done and I have acquired a certain degree of discouragement in face of what appears to be an abandonment by my research community of the search for knowledge. I found scientists to be more preoccupied by their own survival in a very competitive research environment than by the development of a true understanding of the world.

By creating a highly-competitive environment that relies on the selection of researchers based on their “scientific productivity”, as it is referred to, we have populated the scientific community with what I like to call “chickens with no head”, that is, researchers who can produce multiple scientific articles per year, none of which with any particularly important impact on our understanding of the world. Because of this, science is moving forward similarly to how a headless chicken walks, with no perceivable goal. This issue reveals itself in a series of noxious conditions that are affecting me and my colleagues: a high number of scientific articles are published with fraudulent data, due to the pressures of the “publish or perish” system, making it impossible to know if a recent discovery is true or not. The fact that the peer-review system does not care about looking at the data is not in any way reassuring about this concern. Furthermore, a large portion of the time of a scientist is spent on frivolous endeavors such as submitting a grant request to 5—10 agencies in the hope that one of them will accept. Finally, our scientific publication system has become so corrupted that it is almost impossible to get a scientific article published in an important journal without talking one-on-one with the editor before submitting the article.

Some of my best friends at Duke have told me that I sounded “bitter” when I expressed these concerns. I assure you that I am not and that I am writing these lines with the nonchalance and bliss of a man who has found other ways to be happy and to satisfy his own scientific curiosity, ways that do not involve the costly administrative war of attrition for state money that modern scientists are condemned to engage in. My friends have also pointed out that I should not be “discouraged” by the difficulties faced as a scientist, that I should continue to “fight”. Again, they are wrong; discouragements due to failures have never kept me down. I have never been afraid of failures and of retrying, and retrying again; my scientific successes are what discouraged me, because I know how they were obtained.

My most important scientific articles were accepted in major journals because the editors had a favorable prejudice toward me or my co-authors; because I was making sure that I had a discussion with them before I submitted; or because the reviewers they chose happened to be close colleagues. No doubt the articles contained very good findings — I wouldn’t have spent years of my life on them if they didn’t. However, the real criteria that systematically led to publication, as opposed to the dozens of other journals where they were rejected, was the kind of prejudices described above. The scientific publication system portrays itself as a strict system for the evaluation of the importance of individual scientific contributions to knowledge, but anyone who has participated to this system and became good at it knows that the true factors that influence the publication of a scientific work have to do with social networking and, in many cases, straight-out corruption. Most of this “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” system operates without wrongful intentions from anyone involved. In fact, I am certain that most people who contribute to it are well-intended people who end up obtaining power here or there in the scientific system and use this power to favor scientists who they genuinely think are good. However, the end result is the same, no matter what the intention is: a corrupt system where favoritism is the norm. A system that I have benefited from for long enough. It is not surprising that such systems develop given human nature and considering that the publishing of just one article in a major journal means that a researcher can claim his share of a multi-billion dollar flow of money coming from the government or private foundations for his/her future work. No matter what one thinks of this system (I’ve heard everything from “It’s terrible” to “It’s totally fine”), the fact is that I do not have the energy to be a part of it for the rest of my life. I can work 12 hours a day, I can work on weekends, I can work at night, I can handle high-stress environments and I thrive in competition. I could sell a life vest to someone living in the Sahara Desert. Call me at 3 AM and tell me that an animal’s life is in danger and I’ll be dressed for surgery in less than 15 minutes. However, nothing in this world can exhaust me as much as the personal conviction that my work is not noble.

Of course, this does not mean that I will abandon all of my activities related to the search or dissemination of knowledge. I will still teach my courses in Biology and Artificial Intelligence at the University of the People. I will still publish my book, The Revolutionary Phenotype, which contains an important novel theory on the emergence of life. My wish is that this new theory will be taken for what it is and evaluated publicly by whoever wants to comment on it, not by two or three reviewers hiding behind anonymity. Euclid’s geometry stood on its own, because of the truths it contained, and his books have survived all scientific systems that have existed for the last few thousand years, remaining perhaps still today the most concentrated series of useful truths ever gathered in a single place. I hope the same happens with my theory, but I want to make sure that whatever remains of it in a thousand year will be what it deserves in and of itself, not some superficial hype artificially generated by the leveraging of my own popularity, social network or other meaningless considerations. Unfortunately, my experience with research academia suggests to me that the traditional scientific publication system is not an appropriate vessel for my theory to obtain such an objective treatment.

I will still, also, publish the Season 2 of, for which we have gathered amazing guests. I will still go talk science and have fun with the Drunken Peasants. And I will still spend my days trying to prove the Goldbach conjecture, although you probably won’t ever hear about it because I probably won’t succeed. In fact, my leave will likely give me more time to concentrate on these important activities. The reality is that throughout the years, my attention has drifted away from research academia, because I found other ways to satisfy my scientific curiosity that seemed more appealing and more genuine to me.

There is a general rejection of these alternative paths to knowledge dissemination in academia, but I have grown out of caring about it. Selling knowledge and prestige are the bread and butter of universities, so we should not be surprised to see the main recipients of the flow of money coming from well-wishing parents and governmental funding agencies dismiss the validity of other, less socially costly paths to knowledge dissemination.

This reminds me of an event which vastly contributed to my discouragement about academia, and which I think illustrates the vacuity with which certain editors of scientific journals treat the review of scientific works that may have taken years to perform. I was in a scientific meeting in Switzerland a couple of years ago and I was having a discussion with the editor of one of the two most important scientific journals in the world. He was asking me and my PI about different young scientists to know what we thought about them. He did not seem so concerned about the quality of their work or the insight they provided on the world. He was asking about their reputation. I remember a question that he asked very seriously but that was hilarious to me:

“And David Eagleman, I saw his book, is he a good one?”
The editor later proceeded to explain to us why he was inquiring about the reputation of these scientists:
“I’m asking to make sure that I accept articles from reputable people. Because you see, at ******, we want to do real science, not Richard-Dawkins-type science”.
It is hard to express how many mental facepalms I have experienced in my head when he completed that sentence. A swirl of facepalms, a googol of facepalms +1, an embedded infinity of facepalms. I remember discreetly shedding some tears for an hour that night at the conference’s bar, not because that man was unjustifiably mean to one of the most intelligent scientists in the world, but because I had come to the realization that our system of scientific publication is governed by people who have no idea what knowledge is.

I want to thank all the academics I have been interacting with in my career; especially those from Duke and the Université de Montréal. Academia is a weird thing; it is populated with very intelligent, motivated and brilliant people, who are operating in a system that is simply defective to the point of impeding on the very ability of these individuals to engage in a true search for knowledge. In this sense, I am leaving research academia for the same reason that I joined it 12 years ago: in search for a better way to satisfy my hunger for a scientific understanding of the world.

Jean-François Gariépy, 6 September 2015.
Reprinted with permission of the author.

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