Scholar slates 'dodgy' criteria

August 10, 2007

A leading Cambridge scholar has published a stinging attack on the "audit society", which he says is destroying originality and honesty in research.

Writing in the latest edition of Current Biology , published this week, Peter Lawrence, a developmental biologist at Cambridge, says that "dodgy" criteria for evaluating the value of research, such as the "impact factor" of the journals where academics publish, and article citations, are "dominating minds, distorting behaviour and determining careers".

In the article, "The mismeasurement of science", he adds that to secure funding and promotion, "scientists aim, and indeed are forced, to put meeting the measures above trying to understand nature and disease".

Dr Lawrence, an MRC emeritus scientist in the department of zoology, complained that evaluating research by quantity rather than quality will create a culture of "citation-fishing and citation-bartering".

Bad papers, which may have wasted the time of hundreds of scientists, still end up helping their authors secure a job, promotion or tenure, he said, while original work that is not immediately appreciated counts for little.

Studies show that articles are often cited even if they have not been read, he said, and group leaders claim credit for authorship from junior researchers. As scientists spend "bizarre amounts of their time touring" to network, he said, less pushy but talented researchers were left behind.

Dr Lawrence said that a fightback could start with a "public discussion on what justifies authorship", and urged appointment committees to read or listen to their candidates' work.

David Colquhoun, a professor of pharmacology at University College London, who has made similar complaints, said of the article: "I think most research active people will agree with it already, and most vice-chancellors will take no notice."

But Steve Bloom, head of the division of investigative science at Imperial College London, said that as long as output measurements were considered along with other factors, such as reputation, they could be a good way of making decisions.

"You can choose people who take you out to lunch and lend you their holiday home, or you can choose the people whose research you favour, which could lead to considerable bias."

Taking the opinion of a number of specialist colleagues in the field was the "least bad" alternative, he said.

"If people are distorting the system, that distortion must be eliminated or compensated for," Professor Bloom said.

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