Written by Gene Lim

June 2019

The Flawed Reward System of Scientific Publishing

two ideas for reform

If the fundamental purpose of a scientific publication is an unbiased dissemination of useful knowledge, the scientific publishing industry is failing: miserably. And surprisingly? It’s understandable. In a world where researchers’ career progression and financial incentives are tied to the number of papers published in high impact factor journals, scientists face enormous pressure to skew the actual findings of their research to ensure publication.

 

Now: this might not be an issue if the paper’s audience were solely experts in the field, as they may have the necessary skills and knowledge needed to evaluate and interpret a study's results and findings objectively.  But they are not: science journalists, policymakers, clinicians, non-field specialist scientists, and the masses often read scientific journals to glean information.

 

However, the stilted language and jargon of laboratory conversations contained within pages and pages of the journal alienates, excludes, and most importantly – bores. This ultimately means that non-scientific audiences are likely to form an opinion, with glazed-over eyes, based on the paper’s possibly flawed discussion alone. Or worse, they might have been so put off that they simply get whatever they can from a single, summarizing sentence from the abstract section.

 

So – how can scientists ensure more accurate dissemination of scientific findings? Or, more specifically: better science communication? I believe there are two main ways.

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#1 - Independant Discussion Sections

A concrete way of encouraging more scientists to strive for an unbiased reporting of outcomes would be the inclusion of an independently-authored, second discussion section for the manuscript (Avidan, 2019). The investigators will have to provide all available information of the study – without the discussion section, of course - to an appropriate expert (or experts). The independent author (or authors) can then scrutinize the data and study materials to reach a balanced appraisal of the manuscript.

 

If the ultimate conclusion reached by the independent discussion section is demonstrably similar to the investigators', the credibility of the paper is then enhanced. On the contrary, if the third party is unable to reach similar conclusions based on available information, the investigators might have to take a second look at their original elucidation.

Science Matters

#2 - Promote Brevity and Clarity

A shift towards conciseness in the reporting of scientific findings can already be found in several journals. ScienceMatters is a specific example – it aims to strip away the need to spin big stories from simple observations just to get published. The journal only accepts single, robustly validated observations for publication – this means that researchers only communicate a solitary finding in a paper (the effects of A on B, for example). The discussion of only two variables in a study makes it easy to understand - even for a layperson.

Science provides an understanding of matter, life, and societies, and can create tools of enormous power for transforming human activities. For us to make well-informed decisions about our health, environment, and even politics, we need accurate, unbiased scientific information. More than ever, scientists need to play their parts in better science communication. And what better way is there other than concise, impartial, and moderated scientific content?

References

Avidan, Michael S., John PA Ioannidis, and George A. Mashour. "Independent discussion sections for improving inferential reproducibility in published research." British journal of anaesthesia 122.4 (2019): 413-420.

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