In a recent opinion piece in Nature, cancer biologist Michele Pagano laments the ongoing “businessization” of science. He argues that mismanagement of scientific funding in the US is promoting a culture of “quantity over quality” in biomedical research, to the detriment of reliable science and academic rigour.
Pagano claims one aspect of “businessization” is the increasing volume of data that journals want in scientific papers, in order to make them appear more important. More important papers means more attention for the publishing journal, and ultimately greater profits. Particularly striking to me, Pagano notes the ever increasing use of the word “story” in reference to scientific papers, “a testament to the tabloidization of scientific information”, as he puts it.
I have been hearing people talk about scientific stories since I first became involved in research. Creating a “story” out of one’s results is seen as either desirable or necessary in order to foster interest and improve publication success.
With respect to fostering interest, stories can be a good idea. Science continues its inexorable march towards greater complexity, and framing results as a narrative can aid in understanding. A distinction can be made, however, between creating a narrative from the data, and explaining how the results fit into the larger narrative of the field. The latter is essential for the progress of science; the former should be used more judiciously, so as to not distort the significance of the results.
But results are distorted when narratives are created to improve publication success. In another recent Nature opinion piece, William G. Kaelin Jr., also a cancer researcher, suggests the emphasis on “complete” stories jeopardises the integrity of the results. He claims he would have more difficulty publishing his results today compared to when he did so more than ten years ago. The reason would be a perceived lack of completeness in the manuscripts – lack of precise mechanisms or animal experiments are cited as examples. In other words, lack of a good story.
The result of this focus on stories, according to Kaelin, is that the correctness of results does not receive as much focus as their significance, which is emphasised in the story driven approach to publishing. When reading a paper, the focus “should be whether its conclusions are likely to be correct, not whether it would be important if it were true.”
On the other side of this coin are all the results languishing on hard drives for lack of a suitable story to fit into. Perhaps an interesting set of behavioural data has been collected, but subsequent physiological experiments were unsuccessful in establishing a neuronal correlate. What might be a fascinating set of results will be consigned to digital purgatory, when they could be inspiring experiments by other researchers.
If a body of research yields results that, with appropriate interpretation, could be reasonably framed as a story, so much the better. But these fortunate cases should not come at the expense of science that is not so easily narrativised, but offers equally interesting and reliable results – or, perhaps most importantly, that inspires further research. Nor should we accept the need to force results into a narrative, and thereby obfuscate the true significance of the science.