Tackling academic gangsters can only happen when the science community fights back

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

Science is increasingly being perverted by research mafias. These academic gangsters distort the process of evaluating and certifying research as they seek a larger slice of the pie. Promoting bad science over good hurts us all, because people start rejecting the idea that experts can contribute to policymaking.

The way science is supposed to operate is that experts produce new research, and then objectively review one another’s work.

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The research that they collectively deem is the best gets published in the leading academic journals and is highly cited, while lower quality research goes in lesser-ranked journals.

A researcher’s publication and citation record is used for decisions relating to hiring, promotion, and – most importantly – funding from grants. The system’s goal is to ensure that the best research gets maximum exposure, and that the best researchers get the most resources. This gives policymakers a strong incentive to seek the counsel of elite scholars, as they possess the most cutting-edge knowledge within their field.

Unfortunately, academic racketeers undermine this system through “reciprocal altruism,” which is the scientific term for “trading favors.” It starts with an unscrupulous scholar securing a position of power, such as the editor of a prestigious journal. Rather than objectively evaluating the papers the journal receives, the editor promotes lower quality research as a favor to others, such as their former students and their friends who edit other top journals, thereby establishing a research mafia.

The distortion is accentuated by dishonest citation practices: the mafia members will exaggeratedly cite one another’s research, while systematically marginalizing the research of people outside the group, both by rejecting their papers from the top journals and corruptly refusing to cite those them.

In addition to causing sub-standard research to rise at the expense of high quality work, this academic racketeering also motivates researchers to spend time and money on currying favor with influential researchers, rather than on actually doing science. For example, instead of running an important experiment, they attend a cushy conference to obsequiously rub shoulders with the influential keynote speaker.

Harvard University. (Stock photo)
Harvard University. (Stock photo)

The system really breaks down when two or more competing mafias emerge, as the publication process turns into an academic version of trench warfare: crude, dirty, and ultimately fruitless.

We all pay the price for this corruption as it leads to bad government. Policymakers need to listen to experts to take important decisions regarding pandemics, economic crises, wars, and so on. If a discipline’s most celebrated scholars are only well-connected frauds sitting atop a mafia hierarchy, they will give poor quality advice. When governments and the public eventually realize that “following the science” is counterproductive, this opens the door for populist leaders who openly shun scientific knowledge, and tyranny is usually only a few steps away.

Mafias emerge anytime humans compete over resources and influence, especially when it is difficult to apply rules objectively, and where those in power have a lot of discretion. In the case of the scientific sector, this problem has always existed, and is getting worse because public funding for research is decreasing. Moreover, a growing number of PhD graduates are chasing a falling number of academic research jobs. Humans are quite good at sustaining ethical behavior when the pie is growing, but when a shrinking pie breeds conflict, they revert to their most primitive traits, including reciprocal altruism, resulting in destructive mafias.

While government oversight for the academy is a sensible proposal, it is generally ineffective because the only people qualified to judge cutting-edge research are cutting-edge researchers, and so the government is forced to ask the foxes to guard the henhouse.

The only people who can solve this problem are the ones whose greed and myopia created it: the scientific community. These circumstances require good leadership: virtuous scholars need to club together and forge an honest mafia that must work to undermine the dirty ones. Their most powerful weapon is the fact that if they don’t succeed, the general public may decide to pull the plug on the billions of dollars governments allocate to scientific research annually. As any good scientist will tell you, parasites must control their appetite lest they kill their host.

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