The “age of information” and the development of more accessible internet has resulted in a connected world that nobody could’ve imagined half a decade ago. A result of the “age of information” and the expansion of the media means that information doesn’t always turn out to be true. While “fake news” isn’t new by any means, the prevalence and the potential for it to have disastrous effects have skyrocketed in recent years. However, unlike classical fake news, the world of academia and scientific research is supposed to center around fact-based information supported by evidence.
Franklin High School physics teacher David Stroup spends some of his time editing grant proposals for people who are seeking funding for programs or research projects. He explained that life in academia as a researcher is really difficult. “There’s tremendous pressures for researchers on people in the academic world. The old saying is ‘publish or perish.’ You’ve got to be doing the research, you got to get your name out there.”
To be published in an academic journal and “get your name out there,” research has to be peer-reviewed. Peer reviewing is a process where scientists in the same field as the research give feedback and determine if the work meets academic and professional standards.
Getting your name “out there” isn’t easy; there’s more to it than publishing your work in a journal. Stroup said, “The general measure [of research success] if you’re just doing research day to day is if other people are citing your work in their own.” When more people cite your research, it may indicate that it had more of an influence in the overall field. “Published work cited by others helps you get more funding,” explained Stroup.
The culture of publish or perish and the pressure on academics to crank out more and more research comes from both universities and academic journals. Because institutions are under budgetary constraints, they depend more on their prestige to attract research funding, which is achieved by publishing in high visibility journals. There’s also pressure from academic journals who are competing amongst each other to maintain their visibility and impactfulness. As a result, there’s also an increase in pressure to publish more flashy and groundbreaking research that gets more citations and media coverage.
The consequences of such practices are that some researchers might skew results to lean on the positive side or sometimes outright fake results. Another consequence is that academic journals will be selective when studies are published. They might favor research with positive results and leave out the negative results. This may hinder reproducibility studies—a crucial part of the scientific method.
Stroup said, “A lot of attempts to reproduce [results] are not finding what the first researcher said, which doesn’t mean the first researcher is cheating or lying or anything, just maybe that the standard wasn’t as high as it should be. This is referred to as the reproducibility crisis.”
A 2014 study conducted by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics investigated issues related to the culture of scientific research. They found that, “the perception that publishing in high impact factor journals is the most important element in assessments for funding, jobs, and promotions is creating a strong pressure on scientists to publish in these journals.” What’s most concerning is that nearly 60 percent of respondents feel that they’re “under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards.”
As some of the most trusted people, scientists who are feeling pressured to break moral and professional standards can have a strong impact on public opinion and public discourse. Stroup mentioned the study that claimed that vaccines cause autism as a strong example of the influence of a scientist. “Study after study has found no connection between vaccines and autism. But because one paper claiming that it does got into print, it still circulates around and people still believe it.”
An average person doesn’t wake up in the morning and read academic studies with their morning coffee. When new and interesting research is published, journalists are the ones communicating the findings to the public.
An analysis by PLOS one, a peer-reviewed open-access scientific journal, found that journalists were more likely to report on positive findings and findings from single studies that lacked follow up research. Additionally, PLOS one found that almost half of all single studies reported by newspapers were not supported by subsequent studies.
In the process of science communication, journalists have to create digestible headlines that are simple and help convey sometimes complicated and nuanced scientific ideas. “Science journalism isn’t profitable because it doesn’t attract audiences like the Kardashians,” Stroup said, as a former journalist. “There needs to be people supporting science journalism who aren’t just trying to make a profit.”
In the face of social media’s amplification of things like anti-vax and other misinformation, Stroup feels that his job as a high school science teacher is as important as ever. Stroup has his physics classes do research style writing on some of their in-class experiments. “I want them to do the research for themselves and then be able to make a claim and understand what evidence they’re citing for that claim,” said Stroup. “I think that is a very important part of high school education.”