At the precipice of discovery

And at the nadir that is academia

By Russel Ismael, Science & Technology Editor


Scientific publishing has become a ruthless game. The infamous aphorism of “publish or perish” describes the pressure academics feel to publish their research extensively and stay relevant within their field. This problem manifests and is tied to a host of other disparities of accessibility within the science research field. Because of this culture, academics may be inspired to cut corners in their research to keep up with the increasing demand of being a scientist. So how can science be restructured from the decades of problems that plague it so that it can achieve equity and address systemic issues? How can one enter the system when it is stricken with socioeconomic barriers and structural racism? Scientists today are saying that science has become too unwieldy, and yet despite seeing the treacherous track of this road, many academics can do nothing but traipse along the same path.

Publish or Perish: The quiet death of scientific inquiry

The term philosophy can be linked back to Ancient Greece as the combination of the words philein and sophia, meaning “lover of knowledge.” Instead of the Lyceum, however, the lovers of knowledge of today now instead present their findings to a myriad of journals, like Nature or PLOS.

Like ancient philosophers, I have also fallen in love with knowledge and the process of building upon my predecessors’ works. But conducting research as an undergraduate student can come with its own costs.

Undergraduate student researchers hold a special place inside a lab. Compared to their graduate counterparts, undergraduates are rarely doing this work to further their own research inquiries. More often, they are seeking to become a competitive applicant for graduate school or to obtain a recommendation letter from the lab’s principal investigator (PI).

Q*, U2 Science and student researcher, says that undergraduates’ position in a lab can make them susceptible to exploitation from lead researchers.

“So a lot of students, just to gain some level of experience, start to reach out to labs and are desperate for any kind of experience in lab work at all,” Q told me. “And that allows for some very exploitable undergraduates because they are not looking for pay [...] they're just looking for some level of experience.”

Q believes that “publish or perish” culture can distill students’ passion for scientific research early on. The lack of research opportunities available for undergraduates pushes them to get involved not out of genuine interest, but to become more marketable to future recruiters.

“Many undergrads are just forced into these situations where they are working on a project that they have no interest in, where their only goal is to get a publication [...] before they can apply for grad school, ” Q said.

The pressure to publish makes it difficult for academics to balance their personal life with their work. For Q, this endless chase of achievement often feels pointless.

“It's not even like having a publication really guarantees you anything given how competitive academia is and how much importance is placed on grades [...] even if you're an excellent researcher, you might get cut off for having a lower GPA,” Q said. “In this context, why research a subject that you want [or] is useful if there's no return on your time investment?”

Reproducibility Crisis: Building scientific knowledge upon sand

“Publish or perish” favours not only quantity, but novelty. Journals’ biases toward new and exciting findings has contributed to the decades-long “reproducibility crisis” that looms over many branches of scientific research. The crisis was first brought into the limelight in 2005, when John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, published a paper arguing that most published research findings are false.

Eduardo Franco, a McGill professor in the Departments of Oncology and Epidemiology & Biostatistics, introduced me to Ioannidis’ findings and explained that there is a severe dearth of corroboration for old scientific findings—there is no “second place” in scientific discovery, after all. But if there is no one to check previous research, then science is founded on unsteady ground.

“So, let's say I'm the editor of a journal and that someone submits a ‘me too’ kind of paper—a ‘me too’ kind of paper in the sense that they're just replicating something that’s not particularly novel,” Franco said. “It’s a minor gain in knowledge, just a confirmation of something that has already been published. As an editor, sorry, I’m more interested in publishing things that are major gains in knowledge—big, new discoveries.”

Franco explained that the public can act as whistleblowers to keep academics accountable. Pubpeer, for instance, is a website that allows users to fact-check and highlight shortcomings in scientific publications. But peer reviewers ultimately bear the most responsibility for keeping papers accurate.

“Who’s the best judge of what I do? Someone like me, who’s sitting in a different institution, who doesn’t have a conflict of interest, and who's an expert in the things that I do,” Franco said. “The peer reviewer, who understands what I do and would judge my work, sends anonymous feedback to me via a journal, and then I'll be able [to say], ‘Hey, that's right, I missed that thing. I should do that better.’”

Since the peer review process can feel never-ending, some scientists are tempted to take shortcuts to claim their first-place prize. Preprint archives, which are scientific manuscripts posted on a public server prior to formal peer review, allow academics to speed up the “publication” process. Franco explained that this is how many scientific discoveries regarding COVID-19 came about. Circumventing the traditional publishing system accelerated mRNA vaccine research, but when scientific findings are not subject to peer revision, it can also lead to disastrous consequences.

“All those [anti-vaccine people] out there who have a bone to pick about vaccines, they start [falsifying data] and putting them in preprints,” Franco told me. “Archives of preprints are a great idea because they prevent the distortion that the world of science was doing with journals, but at the same time, they open up an outlet for people who have a crazy thing to say about anything.”

Though the reproducibility crisis is alarming, Shashika Bandara, a PhD student in global health policy at McGill, warned against simplifying this complex topic into a dichotomy where publishing a lot is framed as bad and publishing less as good. From another perspective, a high annual rate of publications is a sign of increasing innovative scientific discovery. It only becomes an issue when scientists forsake the rigour that should be involved in the research process to publish for publication’s sake.

“I don't think the fact that we are publishing more is a problem because I think science, as we go on, we need to do more research—we need to generate knowledge, and that knowledge may not be used right away,” Bandara said. “A paper that you wrote about something, even a model of equity or even how a protein works in the cells, can be used years later to develop a vaccine, perhaps, so there is use to doing research.”

Structural Issues: Barred from the door of scientific advancement

The systemic issues plaguing scientific advancement took root long before “publish or perish” was conceived. Bandara told me that the plague of science’s colonial roots still persists.

“[Scientific research] used to focus on what diseases are in the colonized countries that would affect the colonizer,” Bandara explained. “And to an extent, it's still moving forward and a lot of the medical research is being built on a colonial model.”

The knowledge that is considered important and funded by academia is dictated by the agendas and priorities of high-income countries, symptomatic of the “foreign gaze” that dominates academic settings: Authors from high-income countries form the principal authority on the problems of low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

“So, we have neglected tropical diseases. We have to ask the question, who is neglecting these tropical diseases? Why are these tropical diseases neglected? Why is there so little research that we have to call them ‘neglected,’ right?” Bandara asked. “All of the time, these neglected diseases exist in [LMICs], and they do not affect high-income countries [....] If you take COVID-19, there is a push to find vaccines, there’s a push to do more research. There's an influx of funding and publishing and so on and so forth.”

The disparity between these countries manifests in the nascent stages of the research process. LMICs have limited academic resources, resulting in delayed experiments and prolonged research periods, which impacts the quality of their research output. For instance, a reagent that can be delivered within a couple of days in Canada could take weeks to arrive at a lab in Bangladesh.

“The institutions, the universities do not have the funding, like McGill does, to subscribe to all these journals for everybody to access. So we don't have this institutional access to journals that are mostly behind paywalls,” Bandara explained. “So a lot of the time, especially young researchers and even more advanced researchers, do not have the capacity or the ability to access these journals—the journal papers about their own country, even.”

To address access issues, Bandara suggests that open-access publishing is a step in the right direction to circumvent the paywalls that prohibit article access. However, to make an article open-access, a scientist would still need to pay the article processing charges (APCs), fees charged to authors for the publication of their work.

“So on the one hand, [LMIC] researchers cannot access journals because they don't have the capacity [...] to pay these journals exorbitant amounts of money,” Bandara said. “On the other hand, they also don't have the money to publish their pieces in these journals.”

But open-access publishing is not an antidote to LMICs funding limitations—only an anodyne. The “foreign gaze” extends to Nature’s open-access publishing, as they will charge researchers nearly $11,400 USD to publish the academic papers they have available as open-access, which can be greater than an LMIC researcher’s yearly salary. This is not unique to Nature, as many high-impact journals like The Lancet also require thousands of dollars just to access their articles for “free” under an open-access model. Such systemic barriers are gradually being torn down, with Nature admitting to their inequitable practices in January 2023 and allowing open-access publication at no cost across 70 countries such as South Africa.

Because of this, LMIC scholars still often rely on resources such as Sci-Hub, which provides free, unrestricted access to scientific works, to conduct their research. But even these platforms have their limitations—science’s colonial structures also mean that its institutions primarily operate in English, barring non-English speaking scientists from many scientific discussions.

To overcome these structural issues of access in academia, Bandara believes that those involved in scientific research must confront the colonial system behind it.

“So some of these things providing waivers, also the open access articles, it’s going the right way, although it's not the complete solution,” Bandara said. “It’s important to recognize the problem first, and then recognize how the foundation of science research and publishing in the first place is built on this model that sort of benefits high-income countries.”

The class barrier to involvement in academic research is apparent in our own university. Q told me that undergraduate researchers without access to financial support are denied many opportunities.

“[Student research] kind of raises this problem of equality because the only students that are actually able to do this kind of volunteer work are those that are rather well-off and who don't really have to sacrifice some aspect of studies, or personal life, or financial security, and whatnot,” Q said.

Of course, this lack of available funding opportunities disproportionately affects those of lower socioeconomic status, especially Black, Indigenous, and students of colour (BIPOC). If a student has to prioritize a second job or family care over research, they are already at a disadvantage compared to other students.

For Q, McGill's BIPOC research awards are an example of how the lack of sufficient research funding in academia can adversely affect marginalized students. Although the award is intended to embolden racialized groups to go into research with a $7000+ summer stipend, Q argues otherwise.

“[The BIPOC award] does the exact opposite of what it’s trying to do, which is to encourage people of colour to do research,” Q explained. “Yeah, well, it does encourage them, except we know full well that because people are always fighting for more awards and more money, a lot of the time, these people of colour are relegated to the BIPOC award, even though they are perfectly good to receive the NSERC or the SURA award.”

Q believes that inequitable hiring decisions happen when PIs use BIPOC students to strategically optimize their finances. When faced with scholarship prospects, Q felt that he was sidelined compared to some of his peers.

“Faculty members talk to one another, and they want to maximize the amount of funding they receive,” Q said. “So they say, ‘Well, this is a person of colour applying to the BIPOC award. Well, guess what? We're going to give them the BIPOC award and reserve the NSERC for a white student that might not be as strong, but who at least has a chance of getting [an award], but has no chance of getting the BIPOC Award.’ So, that basically doubles the amount of money that they’re getting.”

Conclusion & Further Extensions

Passion for scientific discovery is often cultivated when one’s eye is staring down a microscope or telescope, but perhaps our tools of observation should also scrutinize the problems within academia itself.

Scientific academia’s culture has become increasingly toxic, requiring contributors, especially young, low-income, and BIPOC researchers, to sacrifice a crucial part of themselves—the magic of science that drew them into the field in the first place. Scientific discovery has become a race, pushing many contestants to forgo key principles of accuracy and integrity. The utopian vision of science as an objective agent of the world has shown its foibles.

But that does not mean scientists should resign themselves to this fate. Four hundred years ago, everyone believed the Sun revolved around the Earth. There are still years ahead of us that will allow us to make scientific knowledge and research more accessible. Only then can scientific discovery truly flourish. Already, many within the field are critically examining its inequitable structures, such as the Decolonizing Global Health movement.

Since the time of Isaac Newton and René Descartes, many scientists have said that science is too unwieldy. But the lovers of knowledge centuries, decades, and years ago, along with the ones reading this now, had and still have a hold on it.

*Name changed to preserve their anonymity.

Clarification: In a previous version of this article, the author states that Bandara suggested that scientific journals should introduce open-access publishing to reduce inequities in academia. To clarify, Bandara believes that existing methods of open-access publishing are a step in the right direction.

Illustrations by Shireen Aamir, Design Editor