Academic Mafia

In academia, most people’s primary goal is to get their work published. Getting published is a start, but getting published in a reputable journal is more important. A journal achieves reputability by publishing papers that are cited often by other papers, since being cited by others is a fairly straightforward suggestion that a paper is meaningful and useful to others. The measure of how often a journal’s papers are cited by others is its impact factor, and it’s a big enough deal to encourage the introduction of some dishonest practices.

This article by Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic talks about a “citation cartel” that was discovered in Brazil. Brazilian universities were at a crossroads because the impact factor of the journals that their students publish in is crucial in determining the university’s worth in the government’s eyes. Because Brazilian journals are newer and therefore tend to have lower impact factors, much quality Brazilian research is published in foreign journals instead. While the graduate programs look good to the government, it basically means that the commercial benefit of Brazilian scholarship is going to non-Brazilian countries.

Quick fix: Brazilian journals started linking to each other (Meyer writes: “…a lot.”). This made their impact factors rise, and made the journals more appealing to Brazilian students looking to publish. The plan did backfire when Thompson Reuters, the determiner of impact factor, caught them… but it worked for a time.

I recently stumbled upon another disheartening story about dishonesty in academia, about a publication by team of chemistry researchers at the University of Zurich. Unfortunately, one of the co-author’s comments to the principal author slipped through the editing cracks and was published. It read: “Emma, please insert NMR data here! where are they? and for this compound, just make up an elemental analysis…”

Ahhh, what?!?

Most groundbreaking studies aren’t given too much praise until they’re replicated, so that should help weed out fabricated data. And maybe stories like these in which liars are caught will encourage others not to go to dishonest lengths to achieve… Or maybe these are just unrealistic and naïve hopes I have of keeping the pursuit of knowledge pure. It’s a bummer to hear reminders that dishonesty pervades society, but it seems that academia is not exempt from the much-too-common pursuit of accolades regardless of the cost.


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