False Positive


It has been a very reflective year for most us with the shifts and adjustments to our new living situations driven by COVID. Looking at myself that certainly was the case.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about my academic career. What will I do next? Is there a field I would like to do further research in? What does that mean for the steps I need to take next in life - be it academically or personally?

It comes as no surprise that it was also during this past year that I made new friends, all at different stages of their education. Being around them lit the candle inside my brain that started questioning ‘what next’, and it wasn’t referring to meals, movies, or countries to visit.

I had some of the most insightful discussions with them, going through everything from a deep insight into what exactly it is that they’re studying to how they deal with pressure coming from the academic community or their families. This particularly came up with one of my friends who is currently working on obtaining his PhD.

We were driving back from a day trip we took to a coast in Egypt, a very scenic three-hour drive, when my friends started being frank about how they were dealing and progressing with their research. It was then when they said to me: they just want you to publish, even if it doesn’t make sense yet.

I’m not all that familiar with what goes down in the PhD realm, I’m only just out of my bachelors - what would I know. But for some reason, I wasn’t too shocked. Sadly so. But it stuck with me.

Publishing results is integral to the progression and development of our knowledge areas. However, putting the greater emphasis on publication for PhD students instills the wrong core and scientific values in students and propagates a dangerous culture in science. Using publication as an indication for the success of a student’s research can only lead to a multitude of issues beginning from sacrificing proper research with the prospect of failure for ‘fabricated’ results to redundancy in the research started. Students start to conduct experiments as a means for publication rather than for genuine academic curiosity and learning.

We start seeing the impact factor outweighing and being mistaken for scientific value. The excitement of science becomes a by-product of publishing rather than the opposite. This is disheartening for many students who are motivated by the research in itself. Rather, they start feeling demotivated by the pressure to publish, to push forward. They can recognize this happening amongst their peers, in their departments.

That seems also to hold true when it comes to what the results are like. There’s a certain neglect of recognizing results if they are not positive or rather when they do not line up with the initial hypotheses in some ways. A continued push to find ‘positive’ results even where they don’t exist - and perhaps shouldn’t exist.

Now, I’m not too familiar with the PhD processes at the TU/e but with so much research happening here, I am curious to find out. Does this hold true for PhD-ers all around the world? If so, isn’t it time to find alternative ways by which researchers and students can accurately demonstrate their results without this publication bias?

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