Academic pressures and faked research

In the world of academic research, approval and career progression, if not fame and fortune, come alongside studies and publications that are deemed to be ‘new’, ‘innovative’, and ‘world-leading‘. This undoubtedly follows from an understanding that generating new knowledge about the world is valuable for society. Yet when the search for new knowledge is accompanied by significant external pressures to find it (and quickly), this can become counter-productive. Instead of taking time with or even replicating studies to be sure that their claims are reasonable, academics can feel trapped in a cycle of ‘publish or perish‘ in which they, and their research, suffers.

I found myself musing on these issues after reading an article about the problem within social psychology of faked results and poorly supported conclusions. While the author, Jerry Adler, focuses largely on quantitative studies, which are judged by different standards than my own qualitative research, the context he outlines is shared by many researchers today.

Something unprecedented has occurred in the last couple of decades in the social sciences. Overlaid on the usual academic incentives of tenure, advancement, grants, and prizes are the glittering rewards of celebrity, best-selling books, magazine profiles, TED talks, and TV appearances. A whole industry has grown up around marketing the surprising-yet-oddly-intuitive findings of social psychology, behavioral economics, and related fields. The success of authors who popularize academic work—Malcolm Gladwell, the Freakonomics guys, and the now-disgraced Jonah Lehrer—has stoked an enormous appetite for usable wisdom from the social sciences. And the whole ecosystem feeds on new, dramatic findings from the lab. “We are living in an age that glorifies the single study,” says Nina Strohminger, a Duke post-doc in social psychology. “It’s a folly perpetuated not just by scientists, but by academic journals, the media, granting agencies—we’re all complicit in this hunger for fast, definitive answers.”

While not all researchers are enticed by the idea of becoming an academic celebrity or TED speaker, the existence of this public discourse provides further pressure to do research quickly, and make sure it has a quick impact, aims which are often at odds with the realities of complex research situations. For me, at least within UK sociology, the situation is not as dire as Adler seems to suggest. That is, faking research is far from a routine practice. Yet the questions Adler raises about academic culture and what is being encouraged by its developments are important. For instance he highlights some work being done by groups committed to reproducing results and sharing data before publication:

This amounts to a whole new approach to experimental social science, emphasizing cooperation over competition and privileging the slow accretion of understanding over dramatic, counterintuitive results.

This certainly echoes discussions within academic circles about resisting the pressure to sacrifice principles of good research, and the importance of pursuing an ethics of slowness. Strohminger’s point about our complicity in a culture that places speed before other principles such as cooperation is key. It suggests the importance of encouraging alternative values such as kindness, and create supportive working cultures. Learning how to ‘criticize with kindness‘, for instance, might become a core skills taught to graduate students.

As Annie Dillard said, ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives‘, and the principles embedded in the production of research become the principles embedded in the knowledge ensuing from it. How we make knowledge and how we use it are deeply intertwined, so questions of academic honesty become intertwined with questions for all of us about the answers we want to hear and the kind of knowledge we expect to encounter.