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Pressure to publish creates not just friction, but fraud

Publish or perish. Promotion by poundage. These sad slogans from the '60s reflected the growing pressure on young scientists to produce and produce and produce if they wanted to get ahead in the research game. By the mid-1970s, it had become clear that these pressures were generating the unwanted byproduct of research fraud and plagiarism. The problem has continued to grow. Robert G. Petersdorf, dean of the school of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, says that ``science in 1985 is too competitive, too big, too entrepreneurial, and bent too much on winning.'' He told a symposium on fraud at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that this results in powerful incentives for unethical conduct.

According to the summary of that session in the AAAS journal Science, symposium speakers expressed concern at an upswing in fraud in recent years. A number of cases widely publicized over the past decade have dramatized the shame and career damage that result when phony data are discovered or plagiarism unmasked. Yet these examples have not been much of a deterrent. In fact, some speakers noted that many of the cheaters, if not most, get away with it.

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June Price, a psychology graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, found in a survey that one-third of the respondents suspected a colleague of tinkering with or faking data. More than half of the respondents also said they believe a case of fraud would be hushed up by university officials.

Edward J. Huth, editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine, and John Bailer, former editor of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, suggested that lesser offenses may be more common than outright fraud. These include such practices as inflating the importance of a piece of research by statistical distortions or by publishing results piece by piece to create an impressive bibliography.

There seems little doubt that the best way to curb these abuses would be to relieve the pressure to publish. Princeton University sociologist Patricia Woolf pointed out that fraud is found at the best universities, ``where research excellence is emphasized and where many professors publish considerably more papers than is the norm.'' Moreover, she noted, many of those caught cheating were publishing at a ``pathological rate.'' Indeed, such abnormal productivity might well be a danger signal to colleagues.

In such a pressure-cooker atmosphere, busily publishing supervisors can't properly monitor students and junior researchers. Petersdorf noted that, because of the volume of material and increasing specialization of research, even ``academic promotions committees count and weigh papers; they do not read them.''

The output of papers needs to be decoupled from assessments of research excellence. Senior scientists rush to publish because this helps gain more research grants. Junior researchers follow their example as they seek degrees and promotions and grants of their own. Surely this rat race undermines research excellence, whether fraud is involved or not. Yet, while many research scientists and administrators express concern, little is done to slow the race down.

During the AAAS symposium, Marcia Angell, deputy editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, proposed two possible reforms: long-term grants, which would reduce the need for constantly applying for research money, and a ban on citing more than three papers per year in applying for funding or promotion. Most scientists would welcome longer-term funding. The National Institutes of Health, which supports most US biological and medical research, is considering seven-year grants for selected scientists. NIH official William Raub is probably right, however, when he says he's ``skeptical that the broader scientific community would find it acceptable'' to limit their bibliographies.

Somehow, sometime, the US academic community has to face up to its responsibility to curb its own excesses. The competition for grants, promotions, and Nobel Prizes has gone beyond the healthy stage of being a creative stimulus and has become an obsession that threatens the integrity of scholarship. Symposiums deploring research fraud -- or the formal procedures for dealing with it which some universities have adopted -- are no substitute for affirmative action to correct the underlying causes.

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A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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