Publish or perish

Science is based on an elegant procedure: Ask nature a question; formulate a hypothesis; develop an experimental scenario in which the hypothesis may be falsified; repeat until all questions are answered.

Reality looks different – publish or perish!

Much too often we may not pose the questions that matter. We are forced to ask the questions that yield a significant result – that are publishable. Scientific elegance is gone: finance in order to publish; publish in order to finance. Instead of a path there now is a rotating wheel. Science is trapped in its own mouse cage.

Throughout the 20th century increasing amounts of money are channelled into science that experience a fabulous rise. Western industrial nations develop into knowledge societies. Since the advent of the 21st century this is over: research budgets do not grow any more. At the same time increasingly more scientists compete for the available funding. A few years ago, around one third of scientific project applications could count on financing; today is one tenth.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for scientists to find permanent employment. A PhD is followed by years of science jobs with temporary financing: it might be for one year of for three, it might be somewhere in Europe or the US – the postdocs. Salaries are in no relation to the requested qualifications. As everywhere else women are disadvantaged; founding a family if no realistic option for female scientists. The expected 24/7 availability leaves no room for children.

Little more than one out of ten scientists succeed in academic research. Even a permanent position doesn’t mean an exit from the rotating wheel. Not much more than one’s own position is financed. The execution of the actual research depends on external financing. Financing permits publishing; publications are necessary to finance the next project. Those who do not publish exits the academic sciences voluntarily or involuntarily – publish or perish!

In the middle of the 1990s I secure a permanent position in academic research a mere seven years after completing medical school. This becomes possible because by combining clinical responsibilities with science; a career path only available for physician scientists with a joint appointment in a hospital. The disadvantage: If one takes it seriously, its two fulltime jobs! And only if one takes it seriously it is possible to maintain this for an extended period of time.

Paediatric oncology may count on the preparedness of people to donate. This in the sciences rare luxury enables a basic financing without the need of regular applications for funding. In addition to bench money financing includes one position each for a PhD student and a technician. This long-term perspective permits risky and time-consuming projects. Third-party financing allows an increase of the group to 6-8 people. After founding a spin-off biotech company – another form of third-party financing – it’s up to 20 people.

Many aspiring young academics pass me. They dream the dream if academic freedom, acting out their inborn curiosity, the liberal design of one’s own work. Sometimes these dreams come true – at least during the short interval between one project’s funding is granted and the next application needs to be written.

As director of a research group I’m working for my team, not the other way round. The most important task: Secure financing so that your team may successfully generate scientific knowledge. Freedom last only as long as one can afford it. Already when designing a new experiment one needs to make sure that its results may be presented in the next paper or project application in the most favourable way – publish or perish!

Nobody prepares aspiring young academics for the fact that their main occupation is going to be selling: Science and scientists need to be marketed. They might have heard about it, but nobody explains them the meaning of publish or perish!

The bitter awakening arrives with the completion of a PhD. A PhD is not nearly enough for securing a permanent position in academic research. Hence: postdoc! Numerous candidates respond to a job advertisement of a prominent research institution. The successful candidates are those who’s dissertation appeared as an article in a reputable journal: the minimum is one paper; additional publications increase the chances – publish or perish!

Top universities can afford to not pay their postdocs a salary. The host institution expects that the postdocs bring their own stipends. They merely provide the infrastructure. Publishing is mandatory before the stipend is used up, the more prominent the better. Few of these publications reach a sufficient quality so that the author may hope for a permanent position – publish! Most of them fail. Consequently: one more round as a postdoc. Sooner or later, most of them give up – perish!

How may science escape this vicious cycle? I do not have the perfect solution for this challenge. In order to succeed newly generated scientific knowledge needs to be communicated and sold; not only to one’s peers, but to the lay public as well, that had to dig deep into their pockets to cover the costs of science. Scientists should apply their creativity and innovative capacity not only to their research projects, but also to financing, the precondition for realisation. Society and its representatives in politics are responsible for building bridges; plenty of proposal to do so are available. Scientists’ responsibility, however, is to cross these bridges.

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