Saturday, September 12, 2015

To Glam or not to Glam: that is the question...

In following the discussion between Jean-Francois Gariepy and Potnia Theron this week I find myself somewhat in the middle. Briefly, Gariepy is disgusted with academia, the frauds, the pressure to publish only fancy papers or too many papers, and he's leaving to spend time with his son (which is commendable). Potty defended academia saying that fraud is not that widespread, that academic pressure is not that different from pressure in other professional fields and basically that Gariepy should realize that not everyone is like he thinks.

I mostly agree with Potty, but I also understand where Jean-Francois is coming from. I have never worked at Duke and do not know the general environment and his specific environment, but I have been to multiple places like Duke. When the stakes are really high and the pressure piles up and PIs are set on a shiny idea, fraud happens and it's usually perpetrated by individuals and sometime supported by institutional culture. I find that each institution is different in how they react. In my 15+ years I have been privy to maybe 4-5 glaring falsification cases and I have heard of many others. The PIs reactions have been varied. In one case the PI was very well respected and still at the bench, he tried to replicate the results and found out that all the constructs were faked to generate the desired results (very skilled fraud), he reported it, retracted the paper, lost most of his major funding as a result. In another the PI protected the result, refused to retract, went through an audit and lived to live another day as a fancy department director. But these are very isolated cases, mostly I have seen people cut corners. And what I find is that people cut corners more frequently if they were not trained correctly as grad students and if they were pushed to generated data without careful scrutiny or training. So while I think Jean-Francois is grandstanding at times, I get where he is at. I've been disgusted myself, but I have an internal compass and I follow my compass. The majority of the scientists I know follow those same rules, even in what Potty calls the "BSD/Glam world". They know which papers are good and which ones are bad. They know who the cheaters are.

What I don't understand is the demonization of the Glam world. In my mind a Nature paper is a monumental achievement. I have seen the genesis of multiple Cell, Nature and Science papers and the amount of work and money and grit that it takes to get one is amazing. While sometimes you can get a CNS paper with a phenomenal idea, I find those papers to be the minority. Most CNS papers I have seen originated from an interesting finding that was studied from every side and understood mechanistically after 4-5 years of work and probably 2 years of revisions. Sometimes this is not worth it. I have seen a large number of grad students be pushed to the brink to get a CNS paper and just leave academia right after their PhD. I have seen careers destroyed by CNS while people waited 7 years to publish because they only wanted to be in one of the top 3 journals. I have also seen people with exceptional stories be rejected, get into other journals and still be recognized for their work.

Do I hate CNS with the same vitriol found on Twitter? No. I think it's important to have a benchmark. I still strive to hit that benchmark every day, the benchmark to understand how a natural phenomenon works. I marvel at some Nature, Science and Cell (and Nature Neuroscience and Neuron) papers, I teach them to my students and help them understand what it takes. I wave my fist at the sky when the same journals publish trendy crap from powerful people, but mostly my cry is "Who? Who reviewed this BS?" However, I still make my choices based on my career necessities. I like full multi-faceted stories and I want to be proud of my work, but sometimes understanding a mechanism takes 10 years. Sometimes you need to cut a story short because you need a paper out for a grant. Or competition requires you to move quickly. Or you need a descriptive study to start a mechanistic study. And so you parcel out pieces of a bigger story that still makes you proud. If people run around "like headless chicken", like Jean-Francois suggests, then those people are idiots and don't really know what they are doing. But maybe from the outside it looks like headless chickens and in 15 years we'll see them give a talk with a perfectly constructed story where each paper is a slide in the presentation. Only time will tell.

I usually explain my job of running a lab in an R1 institution like running a small business. I have to pay for the salary and benefits of my people, publications are my product which gets me my financing and presentations are my advertisement. Teaching is my pro bono work. Some labs are like Apple, full of shiny and trendy products, but always in beta. Some labs are like oil companies, always using the same reservoir thinking it will never run dry. Some labs want to stay local mom&pop operations and some others want to make it big...Some have international subsidiaries.

I like it. This is the type of job I want. Like all my friends in banking or pharma I struggle every day with the fact that I am embedded in a corporation, a "non-profit" corporation in the business of education and healthcare. But at the same time, I love my lab. I love my employees and I love my product. I stand firmly behind it and will not cut corners. As people go through their PhD and postdoc they have to look at the reality of what these jobs entail and decide whether they are for them or not. Working at an R1 medical school is different than working at an R1 undergraduate school and is even more different than working at a liberal arts college. AND each school is different in their culture and values...really different. Same as in every job, you find your niche where you can do your thing, or you find a good enough fit you can live with, or you decide you are better suited to something else. None of these things can be construed as success or failure.

I find it reductive to throw away all academia because it's full of cheaters and thoughtless drones or to damn the Glam world because some people don't reproduce findings. Academia is not one thing. And it's very cool because of its diversity. And yes there are lots of problems that need to be fixed, some systemic and some institutional, but that will require a lot more posts from better people than me. :)

PS: and now I head to lab to check on my CRISPRs...because it's trendy ;)


  1. I appreciate your balanced view on this, however, mine is not quite as rosy. Are the people who cut corners in order to publish so that they can get tenure or the next grant to keep their lab afloat bad scientists? (If so, then I'm not sure I've ever met a good scientist....) Perhaps more importantly, if I hold myself to a higher standard but have to compete against folks like this, will I ever make it? Academia seems like the sports world to me ... *before* they really started cracking down on doping. And I find it sad that people have to compromise their ethics in order to have a shot at the gold medal.

    1. I have had hours of discussion about this with my colleagues when I was a postdoc. As we were preparing for our independent careers it seemed like an unfair fight against people with a lot more money and a lot fewer scruples. I hold myself to a higher standard because it allows me to sleep at night and because it contributes to make science better. If I fail by doing this, I will have failed honorably. I am helped by the fact that most people I know believe in rigorous, careful science and know how to spot the fakers.
      In any high pressure, high stakes job you'll find people who sacrifice their ethics, but I still feel this does not affect everyone in academia and that it is more evident at some institutions than others.