Saturday, June 17, 2006

Cash incentives for academic publications?

Nature, a leading science journal, doesn't like the idea [link via Pradeepkumar]. The immediate provocation is the plan by South Korea to introduce such awards. Here's the relevant quote from its editorial:

But there are some powerful arguments against the widespread adoption of the practice. Cash bonuses tied to specific publications are likely to exacerbate corrupting tendencies in the scientific community. Debates over who should be included on author lists, and who should be the first author and the corresponding author, will surely get even more vicious when a chunk of money is on the line. A scientist struggling to meet a mortgage payment might be more willing to forgo a potentially fantastic result for a quick cash-earner. And a researcher measuring science in terms of dollars might even be more tempted to plagiarize or fabricate data.

All this is quite sensible; but, it's important to keep in mind that publications in high impact journals lead to many other rewards: better chance of funding for your future projects, awards and recognition (some of which come with cash prizes), and early promotion (with its built-in cash incentive). Thus, an explicit award for each publication just happens to extend this trend (which, by the way, is quite common in industry, where cash incentives are given for patents, and sometimes, also for papers). So, I don't see any great reason to get worked up about it; I mean, I don't see any important principle at stake here.

I want to highlight something else in the editorial. This sentence (which appears just after the above quote) betrays a shady motive:

In countries recently damaged by high-profile cases of scientific corruption, where it is all the more essential to develop a culture of integrity, the award of large sums of money for high-impact publications is even less desirable.

This is an ugly, gratuitous attack on the integrity of thousands of sincere and honest scientists in South Korea. We must remember that the Hwang Woo Suk scandal was unearthed by an army of junior researchers in South Korea itself; they don't need this sanctimonious lecture about integrity from the editorial high offices of Nature which, together with its high impact counterparts elsewhere, should be examining their own not-so-stellar role in such scandals.


  1. Anonymous said...

    I looked through the articles you mentioned and I think that I go along with the sentiments expressed in Nature. Over 40 years, I have seen many young people wasting their time on routine work for the sake of publications, increments and promotions and many groups pushing their agendas even in pure science. I think incentives are ok in technology but in pure sciences they often seems to defeat the very purpose of research and make careerists out of even people with some talent and curiosity. If cash incentives is an extension of the system we already have, it is time to rethink about the existing system of rewards.

  2. Abi said...

    Gaddeswarup: If science were to be the career choice of a large number of people (i.e., it's not a hobby of a privileged few any more), money has to be an important consideration; however, I realize that reasonable people may differ on where exactly one should draw the line separating 'proper' incentives and 'improper' ones.