Adventures of a Postdoc

June 2, 2007

Quantity vs Quality (i.e. Publish or Perish)

Everyone knows the most important aspect of research:  publishing.  Anyone who says their students, families, health, or anything else means more is merely lying.

Which begs the question – when is quantity more important than quality?  It’s a trick question, as the answer should be “never.”  However, as we all know, there are plenty of instances when quantity has taken precedent.

There are many cases of researchers falsifying data.  But there are other “lesser” evils, although, like cigarettes, there really isn’t a “light” or “ultra light” wrong-doing.  Some examples include manipulating statistics, excluding data, or adding to a sample size to squeak past that infamous 0.05.

I know a lab that has an on-going bulletin board of the number of publications they want to have each year.  It doesn’t matter how it’s done – reviews, brief communications, full articles, as long as they get that magic number.  They include everyone on their publications, even if they did nothing more than read it in passing.  They split up studies into smaller ones if they’re not on track to reach the magic number.  All this while forgetting the main point – science is supposed to be about quality research, about finding answers to questions that need to be answered.

I came from a lab that taught me from day one that it doesn’t matter how long it takes – that my research will be replicated repeatedly to ensure confidence in the results, that sometimes studies will be done to provide knowledge without being published, that “good science” is by far the most important thing that will come of the lab.

I criticized it at first, but after leaving the lab, and now being a part of a lab that doesn’t hold those virtues, I realize how important it is to emphasize quality early on.  Too many labs focus on quantity and in the process forget the big picture.  It’s a shame because there are a lot of brilliant scientists out there who have forgotten why the got into science – for the love of finding answers and making discoveries that provide important information.

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