Is Crowdfunding an Answer to Academia’s Publish or Perish Culture?

By Justine Alford

The pressure to publish in academia is skewing the literature and stifling innovation. Sean MacEntee/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The pressure to publish in academia is skewing the literature and stifling innovation. Sean MacEntee/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Whether you prefer the mysterious charm of the unknown, or believe that things become more beautiful with understanding; there’s no denying that science has, and continues to, helped make the world a better place. To do that, the field has to continually evolve and improve, with scientists constantly coming up with new ideas and hypotheses, testing them in various ways and rejecting or supporting them based on robust experimental evidence.

But how can we trust that what scientists are reporting is reliable, their methodology was sound, and their interpretations were accurate and unbiased? Anyone can do an experiment and document what they found, so there needs to be a vetting process to sieve through the dodgy and pick out those that are genuine contributions to the field. This is what peer review is, and those that pass the process earn the reward of being shone in scientific lights through publication in an academic journal.

The gold standard of science, but nothing is perfect, and peer review is indeed far from that. A hoax paper entitled “Get Me Off Your F*cking Mailing List,” consisting solely of that sentence repeated over and over again which still managed to get published in an open-access journal, is just one of many examples that highlight how the system is in desperate need of an overhaul.

That is of course an extreme illustration of the situation, but predatory journals such as the one which accepted that paper are just one undesirable outcome of the pressure to publish in academia. Lengthy lists of publications and papers in prestigious journals with high impact factors, such as Nature and Science, are seen as hallmarks of success as a researcher. Some institutions also set annual publication targets, and publication records are known to play a significant part in the selection of projects to be awarded grants by research councils.

Of course, publications are an important part of scientific research; they promote the dissemination of results and therefore the application of discoveries, invite constructive criticism from peers, and allow researchers to replicate the experiments to ensure their validity. That said, the demand for papers means that scientists may be forced to hastily publish their work in low impact and sometimes obscure journals, just to keep playing the numbers game and survive in academia. This has unfortunately resulted in the arrival of predatory journals which will publish pretty much anything for a fee, which devalues genuine papers with reliable and important findings.

The increasing number of journals and papers is devaluing those of genuine importance. Sam Churchill/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The increasing number of journals and papers is devaluing those of genuine importance. Sam Churchill/Flickr CC BY 2.0

So who suffers the most as a result of this so-called “publish or perish” culture? With only around 30% of grant applications awarded funding, it’s clear that there is an ongoing struggle for the majority of researchers. However, early career researchers or women returning from maternity leave are some that bear the brunt of this issue.

“It really is a situation of publish or perish,” said Dr Eloise Mikkonen, a postdoctoral researcher who recently returned from maternity leave and turned to crowdfunding through Walacea to support her research on Alzheimer’s. “I’ve almost perished due to not having anything published in 4 years – I’ll have my first (first author) manuscript published in July since I graduated in 2011.”

Mikkonen’s last publication was in 2012, prior to going on maternity leave. “This has been frustrating,” she said. “I understand you need to prove yourself and get things done, but it’s very difficult with the stresses of being a mother of small children.

“They [research councils] do say that you can include in your applications information of maternity and parental leaves. But if you are struggling to set up your own research ideas and make a break at the same time as continuously applying for funding just to get some income each month, it can feel like a never-ending nightmare.”

Mikkonen has now been awarded the break she deserves, smashing her crowdfunding goal so that her important research can continue. But she also touches on another important issue, of trying to become independent and investigate novel ideas. While the pressure to publish may encourage progression in established areas of research, it may also stifle innovation. Rather than taking risks by exploring new ideas, which have the potential to lead to significant breakthroughs, research has suggested that the demand for publications means scientists are more likely to play safe and build on existing research.

Another issue of this publishing culture is that it leads to reporting bias. Since it seems that journals are more likely to accept papers with positive results that support hypotheses, the published literature is therefore skewed and not representative of the actual research that’s going on in the field.

Clearly this situation in academia is in need of addressing, and while there is no simple overnight solution, crowdfunding does have the potential to make a difference to the field. The method is still in its infancy in the UK but already it’s helped bring projects that were rejected from research councils to life, from studying friendships in dwarf mongooses to using 3D cameras to improve diagnostics in African children. And with the media and public attention that some campaigns received, most notably the first imaging study of LSD on the human brain, people evidently have an appetite for it. It’s an exciting time to get involved, so we hope you share our enthusiasm for seeing how this venture unfolds.

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