The Rathenau Institute is of the opinion that the publication culture in the medical sciences will soon have to change, as stress and cynicism currently prevail among researchers.

Imagine that the results of your research do not fit in with your hypothesis. What do you do? You change the statistics ‘and then it all fits in very nicely,’ to quote a doctoral candidate interviewed by the Rathenau Institute. This is just one of the cynical examples bandied about by medical researchers. They complain that they have to cope with publication pressure, favouritism and lack of scientific integrity.

For those wishing to pursue a career in the medical sciences, publishing a great many articles in the right medical journals is far more important than what they are actually researching. “Although we ought to put quality above quantity, this is different in practice,” as one researcher said.

‘Much more subjective’

Moreover, the best researchers are by no means at the top of the pecking order. One interviewee remarked: “If you send an article to a journal where your professor is an editor, this article is accepted without question.” Another added: “This has really been a rude awakening for me. The peer review procedure is much more subjective than I thought, and it’s important to know the right people in the field of research.”

The Rathenau Institute interviewed a number of doctoral candidates, post-docs, university lecturers and professors at four Dutch university medical centres (UMCs). The institute held 12 group discussions with a total of 79 medical researchers and arrived at the following conclusion: “Doctoral candidates often find the publication culture degrading, and they feel very strongly that it undermines the quality of the research.” But according to the report, the situation is much worse for staff members: “Although these people have already obtained their doctorates, they have not yet been promoted to professor. As far as many of them are concerned, their future scientific career depends on their success in publishing articles.”

Vicious circle

The professors, who have come out on top of the system, seem more inclined to regard the publication culture as a ‘fact of life’. However, younger professors who have a considerable sense of responsibility for their staff are generally more concerned about the system than their older colleagues. “Practically all researchers feel they are part of a vicious circle that has been set up behind their backs, and they are forced to participate in this,” says the Rathenau Institute. 

This is indeed partly the case, simply because there is not a great deal anyone can do about international pressure. But what they themselves can do is address the rules of procedure for doctorates and the management culture. “In this respect, researchers must assume personal responsibility as well as identifying the system or the managers as being responsible.”

The report includes a few recommendations, including the following: scrap the unwritten rule that doctoral candidates have to publish at least four articles. Medical scientists would do better to obtain their doctorate “on the basis of one sound piece of work assessed by their own professors or department instead of by reviewers at a number of professional journals, most of which are international.” HOP