The Trumpian guide to getting ahead in research

Only losers focus on excellent science. Better to cook the books, spin the wheel and trust to cronies, say Robert de Vries and John Jerrim

January 20, 2021
Donald Trump holding a beaker (montage)
Source: Getty/iStock montage

Donald J. Trump is a man afflicted with what could have been an insurmountable barrier to success – a sack of angry weasels in place of a brain. And yet he has just spent four years in the world’s most powerful political office. If his astonishing accomplishments have taught us anything, it is to value success above all else. Ethics, responsibility, a commitment to the truth – these are all ideas you can and should ignore if you want to get ahead.

This is as true in academia as it is in politics. So for readers ready to embrace the Trumpian path to success, we present these evidence-based tips.

1. Pander to the customer
Hiring and promotion panels do not have time to read your publications and evaluate their scientific merit. Instead, they will rely on where you’ve published – specifically, whether you have published in the top journals in your field. So your best strategy for advancement is not necessarily to conduct the most rigorous possible research, but rather to focus on writing the sorts of papers the top journals like. Hence, you should…

2. Cook the books
Results that support your hypothesis are more likely to get published. Some of this “publication bias” is a result of scientists’ failure to submit negative or mixed results for publication. However, there is also evidence that reviewers prefer positive findings, especially at the most prestigious journals. Positive findings are also more highly cited – so if you’re after that “citation classic”, make sure the results go in the right direction.

The easiest recourse is probably to exploit your “researcher degrees of freedom”. When working with data, there are almost always many legitimate approaches you can take – for example, in the measures you select, the way you code your variables, and your choice of statistical analysis. These will often produce slightly different results. Why not choose the one that produces the cleanest, most positive findings? After all, there’s almost no way for reviewers or readers to know that you’ve done this; and your career will thank you.

3. Control the message
If you do insist on reporting mixed results (either because of some misplaced commitment to scientific ethics or because a journal has forced you to preregister your analyses), all is not lost. Even if your results section reports all your findings scrupulously, your title, abstract and conclusions will do a much better job of selling your paper if you ignore those inconvenient negative results.

Make sure that this spin is also carried through to any press release. Press coverage will boost the profile of your paper and help up your citation count, but mainstream outlets prefer clear, positive results even more than academic journals do.

4. Fundraise, fundraise, fundraise
After publications, the next most important thing for your career is research funding. But grants are hard to get. Your proposal will be thoroughly reviewed and will have to surpass those of many other applicants. As such, it’s natural to want to spend a lot of time making sure your application is of the highest possible scientific quality.

Much of this time is likely to be wasted, however. In one of the largest studies of its kind, we analysed the review scores given to more than 4,000 funding applications submitted to the largest funder of social science research in the UK. We found that the quality scores given to the same application by different reviewers barely correlated. So your chances of success are largely determined by who happens to review your proposal: the luck of the draw. Studies in other countries have similar findings.

The upshot is that, beyond a baseline level of quality, submitting a grant application is the equivalent of entering a lottery. And, as in any lottery, the more times you enter, the better your chances of winning.

5. Trust to nepotism
Because it is often such thankless work, funders can find it hard to recruit people to review grant proposals. Consequently, many funders allow applicants to suggest a reviewer.

These “nominated reviewers” are supposed to assess the proposal in an unbiased way, entirely on its scientific merits. However, in our study, we found that they were three and a half times more likely than independent reviewers to give top marks.

Since funding applications are otherwise a lottery, the single best thing you can do to improve your chances of success is not to polish your proposal to a high shine of scientific robustness, but rather to ensure that you nominate a sympathetic reviewer (there is evidence that the same trick works for publishing papers). Conflict of interest rules might prevent you from nominating a close colleague or a family member, but there are still plenty of options: maybe a conference drinking buddy or a co-author from a few years back. We’re sure you’ll be able to come up with someone.

You might not be able to offer them a Trump-style pardon if they help you out, but don’t worry: an implicit quid pro quo will likely be more than enough.

Robert de Vries is senior lecturer in quantitative sociology at the University of Kent. John Jerrim is professor of education at the UCL Institute of Education.

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Reader's comments (1)

Times were when the professoriat sought to better understand the world and why people behaved they way they do and voted the way they do. Then to construct a useful and balanced argument to make people think. Now it seems that has been largely replaced by 'two minutes hate' and pathetic sneering at those with whom they disagree.