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8 thoughts on “Conflicts of Interest”

  1. While I completely understand the point of this (much needed) commentary, and I agree for the most part, I have to take some issue with painting with such a broad brush. As a soon-to-be Ph.D., I recently attended a conference and was honored to be presented with a travel award as a result of my having been selected to give a talk. Neither I, nor any of the other speakers or attendees- which included some luminaries from around the world- engaged in self-promotion of the kind to which you seem to refer.

    And a question, perhaps from my naïveté: what is the connection between the lack of reproducibility and self-promotion?

    1. Hi,

      Thankyou so much for the comment, and my apologies for not saying so until now (responding to referees, email backlog, experiments over Christmas blah blah blah).

      You are of course quite right to point out that most scientists, of whatever level, are not solely engaged in self-promotion – I concur that most of us are generally interested in the natural world.

      The connection between the lack of reproducability and self-promotion is that the modern uber-competitive career structure discriminates against scientists who replicate others findings, and this is not a good thing.

      Finally, the very best of luck with the PhD submission, and if we meet at a conference, we can chew the fat over a beer I hope!


  2. Reproducibility (or lack thereof) is clearly an important issue, but I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to say that it’s a problem that isn’t being tackled – although clearly we can do more. One interesting recent development is the Reproducibility Initiative (, which has recently been set up that aims to subject papers to validation, and provides an outlet for the publication of these studies.
    It remains to be seen how well this works, and whether due credit is given to people who take the time to conduct reproducibility studies, but at least there are now moves in the right direction…

  3. Hi Thomas,
    I think you raise some interesting and important points in this piece, but it seems to me that there are two main issues that are perhaps better treated separately.
    (1) The reproducibility issue.
    This is certainly a problem, and you are correct in that, under the current system of doing science, it is not possible to correct this. People who are competing intensely for money for new research will hardly manage to obtain funding to do something that has already been done, even if they were inclined to do so. Short of setting aside funding specifically for reproducing data, I don’t see how this can be solved in the long run.
    (2) The competitiveness issue
    I’m not sure if that is the correct term for it, but I certainly see where you’re coming from. The intense competition for funding (not to mention positions, publications, notice by your peers, etc.) does effectively set up a selection scenario. It is interesting that you pick up the ability to self-promote as something that we could consider “selected for”. I think that’s true, and I also think your point about the luminary telling the questioner that a family wasn’t an option also points out that there is selection for those who will work at their projects to the exclusion of everything else. Something I have noticed myself (in a subjective, non-quantified way!) is that younger PIs in particular, under this enormous pressure, are increasingly not like the professors who taught me, in that they are far less likely to be polymaths. They don’t have time to be interested in anything else, let alone excel at it. Granted, they were older, but even so, if younger scientists don’t even have time to read about something other than science, it’s bad news for science and the human beings doing it. The main driver for people becoming interested in science is curiosity, and I feel it’s a crippling shame (and very short-sighted) that people must effectively crush their curiosity about anything else. As for the self-promotion aspect, I feel that we are selecting for the hugely ambitious – and there is a risk that this will promote people who are prepared to put ambition ahead of principle, something that should not happen in science.

    One final point about your questioner asking about families, as this is a particular bugbear of mine. You note that both were female. In my experience, that question has *only* ever been asked by one woman to another, which reveals something very fundamental about the assumptions in our society. Why don’t men stand up in careers talks and ask other men how they balanced their careers with their families? In fact, I challenge you to do this at the next opportunity. I imagine they will be flummoxed. Women ask themselves this question all the time; historically, at least, this has never been an issue for men. They apparently simply *assume* they can have both. Equal parental leave would mitigate some of this, but challenging the assumptions of both genders would be perhaps just as fruitful.

    1. Jo, as ever, a pleasure – I shall indeed ask this at the next career session I go to (or at least try to!).

      I also totally agree with you about polymaths, and now I think about it, I think you are onto something with the correlation with age, ironically despite the fact that it is now super-trendy to be ‘interdisciplinary’.

  4. The Economist “Cherry Picked” the Data!

    Like several criticisms of science that I have read recently, the Economist attacked scientific methods using a statistical argument that purports to show that scientists routinely make type-one and type-two statistical errors. In the article, the Economist assumed that all statistical data has a p-value of 0.05. Based in this gross assumption, the article calculated the error rate for scientific inquiry. The author should have realized that scientific results often come with p-values of 1X10-9, not just 5X10-2. The article appears to have been intended to show the weakness of scientific method, but clearly demonstrated the bias and lack of sophistication of the writer.

    1. I totally agree about the statistical point. There are a number of other annoying things in the article that underline the point that the author clearly has not ever done any science. Which perhaps suggests that science journalism needs an overhaul of similar proportions to the one that he is suggesting for science itself.

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