Is the Scientific method being subverted by scientists?

While working on the next global temperature post, I ran across this distressing article at the BBC.  I’m thinking one of the side effects of ClimateGate will be far more healthy skepticism and pointed inquiry into the inside game of scientific research.  From the article:

Stem cell experts say they believe a small group of scientists is effectively vetoing high quality science from publication in journals.

In some cases they say it might be done to deliberately stifle research that is in competition with their own.

A small clique of researchers abusing peer-review and peer-reviewed publications for personal benefit?  Hummm, now where have I heard that before?

These kinds of allegations are not new and not confined to stem cell research. But professors Smith and Lovell-Badge believe that the problem has become particularly acute in their field of research recently for two reasons.

Firstly, research grants and career progression are now determined almost entirely by whether a scientist gets published in a major research journal. Secondly, in stem cell science, hundreds of millions of pounds are available for research – and so there is a greater temptation for those that want the money to behave unscrupulously.

Human beings act like human beings, even if they have Ph.D. after their names.  Healthy skepticism, open debate, and full disclosure of research results are important, but policing the entire chain from research, review, and publication are surely necessary when job security, not to mention large sums of money, are on the line.  In fact, I’m a bit suspicious that large sums of money might be the corrosive element in the current environment of Big Science.  Big Science requires lots of money, and most of the interesting questions require Big Science, so this problem isn’t going away.  Somehow, we need to come to grips with this problem and find a way to ensure the integrity of Science and the Scientific Method in a world of billion dollar research budgets.  Clearly, relying on the personal integrity of scientists is not getting the job done, and that’s quite depressing.

One more quote from the article on the dangers of just looking at numbers without context:

“We are seeing the publication of a lot of papers in high profile journals with minimal scientific content or advance, and this is partly because of these high-profile journals needing to keep their so called ‘impact factors’ as high as possible. That’s determined by the number of citations that the papers have and they know that some of this trendy work is going to get cited and they seem not to care about whether its a real scientific advance or not,” [Professor Lovell-Badge] said.

I remember from my grad student days stories of young researchers making small errors in papers just to juice the citation index.  A citation is a citation, even if it corrects an error, and few tenure committee members tracked down every paper’s citation to see why it was mentioned.  Juicing your numbers early in a career is one thing, abusing the system for your entire career is quite another.  I’m not quite sure the extent of the problem today, but I do get the feeling Science may need saving from the scientists in the future.

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