The scientific practice is one of the few human activities that do not require high amounts of financial rewards to attract talented people. Due to a peculiar feature of this activity, i.e., a feeling of being constantly challenged by problems whose solution appears far from simple makes some people get involved without expecting to make a lot of money. Of course, in some scientific fields there are many opportunities to start a business that might lead to big financial returns, for example, biotechnology, nanotechnology or molecular biology. Yet for the skilled and talented people not interested in making money through science work there is a powerful incentive: to be the first one to describe and explain a phenomenon, to develop a method or to create a new theory. All of these events are highly regarded in the scientific environment, and indeed to get moving upward in the career one needs to show a track record of such achievements.
The current academic landscape is very competitive and forces people to search for the most rewarding research pathways. Perhaps this is a feature common to all human activities but the main difference with respect to a science career is that the rewards are intangible, and mostly involve prestige. Scientists today are increasingly looking for reconnaissance in every action they engage in, e.g., publishing in high prestige journals, attending the best in-person scientific meetings, taking part in the board of elite scholar societies, being invited to talk at largest and influent international conferences, and above all being awarded the most visible and prestigious prizes. All of these engagements do not necessarily mean making or getting money, rather they imply being successful in highly selective procedures to get a personal feeling of accomplishment. That is, to be elevated to the academic zenith! For the “unfortunate ones” who cannot enter or benefit from these “meritocratic” and “hierarchical” systems, the alternative is either to work harder than ever or to become an outsider (a maverick, a lone wolf), and look for “niches” out of the scientific mainstream. The intense competition for scientific prestige has promoted the appearance of many prizes, awards, medals, certificates, honorable mention, ensuring that everyone willing to enter the race has a chance to get a prize no matter how insignificant it is. In reality this competition provides us a prima facie explanation for some phrases we commonly read in many scientific articles such as “for the first time we show that...”, “to the best of our knowledge no one else has described...”, “we present here a novel, robust, simple, affordable, alternative, method, protocol, concept, new way of doing things...”
While this impulse to search for innovative methods and concepts - “res nova” - is quite important (and wellcome!) to widen the frontiers of knowledge, there seems to be an exacerbation and banalization of “rerum novarum” discovery. The things that are really new, innovative, disruptive and that bring unexpected perspectives about the facts of the world and our lives do not happen every day, at every published "paper". Some research work does contribute to changing a scientific field, creating new methods and unraveling subjects or phenomena that we had not imagined before. But most research papers do not transform science in this way. Due to massive production of articles in all fields of science, i.e., more than 2,500,000 papers per year(1), it is not credible that all of this academic knowledge is changing the world (and science) every year. Let us consider some of the challenges in the field of Parasitology/Tropical Medicine: more than a hundred years have passed since the discovery of Chagas Disease and till this day we do not have a vaccine or a good medicine to treat the patients. The same pattern appears in Leishmaniasis, another infectious disease that lacks vaccines and good medicines. There is the case of Malaria, a disease known for centuries that only recently had a promising vaccine candidate (with limited efficacy) recommended by the World Health Organization(2). In addition, the most efficient treatment for Malaria (artemisinin derivatives ) has been losing efficiency by the appearance of artemisinin-resistant Plasmodium falciparum(3). Not to mention the increasing difficulty in controlling the insects that transmit the microorganisms causing all of these human infections.
The list of “yet to be solved problems” in biomedicine is long, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of articles are published about the complex problems in this field each year by researchers globally. So why we do not see the solutions to these problems if plenty of researchers continuously report a “novel”, “robust”, “for the first time”, and “to best of their knowledge” scientific evidence, powerful method, new concept and way of doing things? The parsimonious (and simplistic) answer to this challenging question is that most of the research articles do not report relevant evidences, do not report novel findings, do not report disruptive methods, do not bring different or unexpected perspectives…. At best they are incrementally adding tiny pieces of data that might contribute to solve complex problems or to expand the frontiers of science. Authors would do a good service to science communication if they avoid words that overvalue their results. Rather, they should spread their message circumscribing it under the expression we report here an incremental piece of evidence to this problem. Scientists up to date in their own field know what is new and relevant, and are also able to flag somebody telling more than the research results allow to conclude. Well, they should do it…
At the end this is a question of intellectual honesty that depends on a thorough review of the current set of incentives that push researchers towards a race for the best academic positions and to grant a copious amount of “prestige”.
Editor in chief, Memórias do IOC
1. The STM Report 2015. An overview of scientific and scholarly journal publishing. Celebrating the 350th anniversary of journal publishing. https://www.stm-assoc.org/2015_02_20_STM_Report_2015.pdf.
3. Noedl H, Se Y, Schaecher K, Smith BL, Socheat D, Fukuda MM. Evidence of artemisinin-resistant malaria in western Cambodia. N Engl J Med. 2008;359:2619–2620.