Rethinking the Metrics of Success in Academic Research: A Call for Systemic Change

Recent actions against alleged scientific misconduct at many of the top scientific institutions are commendable but insufficient. These actions may give the impression that the problem is confined to specific institutions or individuals. However, this is far from the truth. The issue is systemic, deeply ingrained in the very fabric of academic research. The current academic environment, which rewards success based on paper counts and “distinctiveness” of these papers, perpetuates a cycle that undermines the integrity of scientific research.

The Fallacy of the “Bad Apple” Phenomenon

It’s tempting to attribute misconduct to a few “bad apples.” However, this perspective is somewhat myopic. It overlooks the systemic issues that create an environment that is conducive to such behavior. The problem lies in the institutional norms that prioritize paper counts and “distinctiveness” of papers. We need to be somewhat careful on what this drives in our social structure. I think we need to take a long look and think about what we are trying to create and the incentives we want to encourage in our world.

The War on Academic Misconduct: A Failed Approach

The immediate reaction to misconduct is often punitive. I often feel like that as well. We should simply just punish the bad apples. Drawing parallels with the War on Drugs, punitive measures have proven ineffective in curbing misconduct. I am often struck by the epidemic of drug abuse in many cities, particularly in America. Instead, we need to focus on changing norms. I know that this difficult to read–it is scary for me to write–but we need to be treating misconduct as a symptom of a larger issue. The War on Drugs failed because it did not address the root causes; similarly, punitive measures in academia are unlikely to yield long-term solutions.

The Importance of Process Over Outcome

The current review system is flawed. It teaches researchers how to navigate the system rather than contribute meaningful work. We need to shift our focus from outcomes to processes. Editors and reviewers should prioritize good procedures over good outcomes. This shift would encourage more exploratory research and reduce the pressure to produce only “successful” outcomes. What does that look like?

I don’t know, but I think we can collectively figure it out. It might require us to start accepting papers that have no meaningful results, but they are just well-done. Do we always need to say something interesting? I am not quite so sure. Perhaps, having journal quotas for accepting papers on based on how well it is executed, rather than whether there are any significant results. Perhaps, having rewards for those that do courageous acts of research, rather than whether they found anything interesting. I am reminded of Jane Goodall, and how much of an impact that made in our understanding of animals.

Rewarding Failure and Community Building

Failure is stigmatized in academia, yet it is a crucial part of the learning process. Sim Sitkin suggests that organizations learn more from failures than successes. Institutions should reward failure as a valuable part of the learning process. This might be creating rewards for those who got those most rejects, or those who had the funniest or nastiest rejection letters. It is time that we start bringing this into the open, and stop stigmatizing failure.

Additionally, community building and civic duties should be recognized and rewarded. These “soft” metrics are often overlooked but are crucial for fostering a collaborative and ethical research environment. What might that look like? We create rewards and incentives for community building efforts. Perhaps, we even create endowed chairs and professorships for those are doing scientific community building acts.

Changing the Academic Career Structure

The structure of the academic market transforms PhD students and perpetuates a culture of competition and secrecy. Initiatives like the R3ciprocity Project, PhD Balance, Prof. Gwen Lee’s Robust and Reliable Research Practice in Science of Organizations Initative, PhD Project, and so many others aim to change this by fostering a culture of collaboration and transparency. By changing the incentives and rewards system, we can create an environment that values ethical conduct and community building over individual success. This is extremely hard to do, but we might want to think about what our actions mean in the greater community.

The Role of Kindness and Mentorship

Success in academia is often a result of mentorship and available resources rather than ability alone. I strongly believe we do things that are not so good because we feel desparate and alone. We feel like we have no social support. Ronald Burt found that social capital plays a significant role in all of our lives. Changing how we treat those with fewer resources can make a significant impact. Kindness and mentorship should be integral parts of academic culture.

I know that many of us already strive for that, but I think we can always do better. If there are people that you think are feeling alone at a conference. Reach out to them. You just never know.


It’s time to start a conversation about changing the metrics of success in academic research. Let’s focus on instilling norms of transparency, kindness, and community building to create a more ethical and collaborative academic environment. The first step is acknowledging the systemic issues; the next is taking collective action to address them. Whatever that looks like.

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