Publish or perish

10 December 2013

​Recently, the question has been raised whether or not scientific misconduct is on the rise and what the possible causes for it might be. It is difficult to draw firm conclusions at this time, but it is a fact that the number of scientific papers being retracted is growing. We also know that it has  sometimes appeared difficult or even impossible to repeat certain outcomes of scientific experiments published in scientific journals.

Explanations for scientific misconduct

Why do some researchers decide to bend the truth and manipulate the outcome of their experiments to make a good story? Most writers mention the pressure to publish as one likely cause for scientific fraud. Competition in research is fierce and, like in many other professions, one has to be outstanding, hardworking and persevering to gain international recognition. In addition, ‘excellence’ is often measured by the number of scientific publications and the perceived impact of said scientific output.

Pressure on PhD students

Even PhD students are expected to produce a certain number of scientific papers in order to graduate. These requirements are imposed by the universities and are becoming stricter. In many cases, two accepted scientific papers (independent of the quality of the journal) is a minimum  requirement. This leaves less freedom for PhD students to study unexplored territory as this offers no guarantees of generating any interesting results.
Continuing to work on what others have already done is the safer option. It is up to VIB PIs to try
and keep the right balance in this regard.

What does it mean within VIB?

VIB is an organization with a solid reputation and a scientific output that, in terms of quality
and perceived impact, can measure itself against the better life sciences institutes worldwide.
Students, technicians, postdocs, group leaders and department directors are all recruited in the
expectation that they will be able to contribute to maintaining the high standards of VIB science and achieving breakthroughs in their field of research. This of course creates a certain pressure to perform. The question is whether or not this pressure is problematic. One could argue that a certain amount of pressure is the logical consequence of our ambitions. And that joining an organization like VIB is a deliberate decision to accept that pressure. Does this mean that VIB researchers don’t experience stress due to (publication) pressure? Or that they are able to cope with it better? We have asked a number of VIB colleagues for their views. 

Stay focused on content and quality 

The scientific world is a competitive environment. And those scientists that want to pursue an academic career especially experience pressure to perform, as the number and impact of their publications play an important role in achieving that goal. According to many scientists, the pressure to publish has been rising and this may, at least in part, be responsible for the number of scientific publications having doubled over the past 12 years (2000-2012). PhD students feel that pressure, and some may become even more stressed towards the end of their PhD studies if the results of their hard work don’t turn out to be what they hoped for. Stress, however, is not due to publication pressure by or in itself. Other factors, such as personal ambition and the way the research is being managed, also play a role. The best way to deal with pressure is to stay focused on the content and quality of the work. Proper coaching is also very important. Cutting corners in order to get a manuscript out may relieve some pressure but is not likely to take away all stress, and it certainly won’t make you happier since it will always have a negative impact in the long run. In the end, it is quality and relevance that make the difference.

Esther Meersman, PhD student
VIB Laboratory of Systems Biology, KU Leuven
There is a lot of pressure. Among fellow  PhD students, the conversations often end up about our publications. The ones that have not published yet definitely feel more stressed.
This pressure does not have to be problematic,
though. Research is still research, so some hypotheses can and very likely will lead nowhere.

It is our responsibility to cope with it. I do know

some PhD students for whom the stress and pressure is (sometimes) too much.  Too bad there is still a kind of ‘taboo’ around this issue. I think it is very important that stress becomes a topic that can be discussed.”

Michal Janiak, PhD student
VIB Department of Molecular Microbiology,
KU Leuven
The pressure is very tangible, especially for people who are dreaming of an academic position. For them the number of papers, or their impact factor, makes the difference. The stress is due to a complex mix of your own ambitions, your colleagues’ behavior, your boss’s strategy, and the results you (don’t) obtain. Under the current granting system, it could cause conflict if you wanted to research unexplored questions. I am sure, for example, that George Mendel would never have arrived at his theories within the framework of an actual research ‘project.’ PhD students are part of the scientific game. As long as the rules of the game don’t change, we all have to deal with them.”
​Nevena Hristozova, PhD student
VIB Department of Structural Biology, VUB
I fully understand the desire of big institutes to
maintain their top-rankings but it feels like the
balance is being lost. At my previous university,
a PhD student had to publish 3 or 4 papers, which led to desperate digging into old data. As
a young researcher, I’d rather go for accuracy,
and sacrifice being first for the sake of having a
better story. Unfortunately, this is not how many supervisors see it. Ambition often makes us rush unnecessarily, which in turn may prevent us from paying attention to interesting anomalies. Too often, we discard them as mistakes, as deviations, and who knows how often we miss important information in the race for the breakthrough."


Bart De Strooper, Department Director
VIB Center for the Biology of Disease, KU Leuven
“In my opinion there is now less focus on the
number of publications and impact factors than
there was a number of years ago. Qualitative
aspects and creativity have become more
important. But that doesn’t change the fact that
there is a certain pressure to perform. But that
comes with ambition, and we also have to show
to the public in an objective way that we spend
the taxpayer’s money wisely. My biggest worry is about the fierce competition among young
researchers to succeed early in their career. Perhaps we should recruit fewer PhD students and more researchers, who have the option of exploring new areas without the strict  requirement of publishing a number of papers within a certain time frame.”

​Geert De Jaeger, Group Leader
VIB Plant Systems Biology Department, UGent
I do think that publication pressure in general
has been increasing over the years. The fact
that at VIB monitoring has switched from impact
factors to TIERs has not removed that pressure.
But we have the good fortune of having financial
means at our disposal that many colleagues in
other research centers in Flanders can only dream of. Hence it is normal that demands are higher. Taking the pressure off people, whether they are PIs, PhD students, postdocs or technicians, is a question of keeping the daily science and experimental work central instead of numbers, and providing proper coaching. VIB targets have been met with efficiency so far, so I guess we could enter a new phase now where part of the money goes to high risk/high gain projects. This asks for a mentality change, but in the end it will make us an even better scientific institute.”

The Office of Research  Integrity (ORI) of the Department of Health and Human Services of the US has developed an  interactive game on a case of research 
misconduct. It is a very educative experience to walk through the story.

At the start you can choose one particular role. You can crawl into the skin of the
Research Integrity Officer, the group leader, student or postdoc. When you have chosen your role, the story begins to develop. Questions and dilemmas will be thrown at you. The choices you make determine how the story develops. You receive feedback on whether your choice was the best one and why.

Play online