By Julie Nixon
2013 was a standout year for two Edinburgh University science academics, Peter Higgs for winning the Nobel Prize in Physics, and my former supervisor Sir Adrian Bird who was knighted in the New Year Honours list. Professor Bird had been tipped for the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine which later went to Randy Schekman. Interestingly, both Higgs and Schekman have made comments recently in relation to the pressure academics face to publish their research. Academic career advancement is based on first author publications, with commercially exploitable innovation often coming as an afterthought.
The focus on getting publications was the driving force in my career as an academic scientist. Your next position/grant depends on the number of papers your research has generated. Each journal to which a researcher may submit a paper has an “impact factor”, a score measuring the number of times that particular journal’s papers are cited by subsequent research. The so called “Big Three” journals, Nature, Science and Cell have the highest impact factors, and having a first author paper in any of these journals is considered a high achievement and an aid to career progression. But do these journals contain the best scientific research? The Big Three do tend to accept papers that they consider contain “sexy” science, research that will make headlines. Some researchers have speculated that politics plays a role in getting into a well-known journal. I have had the experience of having a paper rejected by Nature only for them to publish a paper by a different lab on the same topic (and commenting on my research!). And the rising number of papers that have been retracted as flawed or fraudulent, (for example Science has recently retracted papers reporting cloned human embryos), is testimony that the Big Three journals don’t always publish the best science.
A Flawed Academic Career Structure
In a recent Guardian article Schekman described how the career incentives to publish in well-known journals is as damaging to science as big bonuses were in damaging the finance and banking industries. There is perhaps a public perception that scientists focus their work for humanity’s best interests which in some cases is arguably not the case. But academic scientists are at the mercy of a system that is at fault, and universities and funding bodies should look at the quality of the science produced and not just where the research is published when considering positions and grants to be awarded. I am particularly pleased by how our universities are now taking into account the commercial impact that research has, and aligning PhD students with industry so the future generation of researchers are not just limited to an academic career. Of course there should always be a place for research that is not for a commercial purpose, but in my new career as an IP lawyer I am excited by the quality of the innovative science being spun out of our universities. Scotland has a poor reputation for translating academic research into commercially viable products or services, and I believe to change this the scientific academic career structure, and how it is incentivised, has to be reviewed.