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The Failure of Success – What a PhD on success in science taught me about academia

Post doctoral researcher at Hasselt University and Amsterdam UMC

If I asked you to describe a good researcher, I would likely receive responses outlining ‘rigour’, ‘team spirit’, ‘honesty’, ‘transparency’, and so on. But if asked to describe a successful researcher, then the discourse might turn slightly towards terms like ‘ambition’, ‘publications’, ‘network’, and ‘luck’.

Last October, I completed a five-year PhD at Hasselt University, Belgium, to study success in science and to explore the possible impact that current definitions of success have on the integrity and quality of science.

Successful is not always good/good is not always successful

Through interviews and focus groups with varied stakeholders of the Flemish biomedical research scene, I quickly understood that the way in which we define success in science is highly problematic and can threaten research integrity. Our respondents explained that success in science is mostly based on research outputs (i.e., scientific publications), but that it disregards the way in which the research is conducted. Processes like openness, transparency, quality, and rigour are only considered if they bring high impact publications, but are otherwise ignored. Furthermore, essential activities such as peer-review, data sharing, code sharing, quality mentorship, or public outreach are largely absent from researcher assessment frameworks for funding, hiring, tenure, and promotion, despite forming the basis of good science. Finally, researchers are most often assessed individually and expected to produce ground-breaking results, so they are discouraged from pursuing team efforts and from publishing low-impact and negative results.

“You shall not pass!” Precarious careers damage science… and people

Our research also revealed that the structure of research careers is problematic. In Flanders — but also in other countries — the number of PhD candidates entering academia far outweighs the number of permanent positions available in academia. This tight bottleneck creates several problems. First, it reinforces the already fierce competition between scientists. With this competition comes isolation which, when added to scarce employment prospects and intense publication pressures, makes the perfect cocktail for burnout and mental health issues. The bottleneck structure also means that many early career researchers (ECRs) who aspire to pursue careers in academia will have to leave against their will, possibly unable to find employment at their level of education and skills. Our interviews included researchers who had left academia, and we found that leaving academia often comes with a feeling of failure. Since the great majority of ECRs wish to remain in academia, this bottleneck imposes a strong burden on many young and undoubtedly excellent researchers who simply weren’t successful in surviving the system. Finally, our respondents explained that to succeed, you need to fit a specific profile, which leaves very little room for diversity. With the increasing complexity and highly collaborative needs of scientific research, building an academic culture with a uniform workforce is as unreasonable as building a football team with strikers, but no goalkeepers, defenders, nor fullbacks.

“It’s not me, it’s you!” So, who’s responsible?

Given the issues at stake, we tried to find who should take responsibility in addressing the problems. Had I included only researchers and research students in my project, I would have found that policy makers, research institution leaders, research funders, and publishers have a big role to play in (solving) the problems of science. But the fact that I involved so many stakeholders revealed a circular share of responsibilities in which everybody blames each other and nobody feels able to change anything. As a result, we are all left helpless, frustrated, and misunderstood.

Hope for a brighter future?

Our findings are not alone in highlighting these issues; similar findings were found in the UK, Croatia, USA, Denmark, and the Netherlands, for example. Fortunately, the scientific community appears increasingly ready to change. The Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which provides concrete recommendations on how to address the challenges of current research assessment, is now signed by nearly twenty thousand individuals and organisations. Other statements, such as the Leiden Manifesto, the Metric Tide, the Hong Kong Principles for Assessing Researchers, the recent ISE paper on the precarity of academic careers, and several others suggest that awareness is growing and the scientific community is increasingly ready to change. Although much remains to be done, some institutions are starting to put these recommendations into action. So altogether, I dare say that there is hope for a bright future! 

“We can do it!”

Changing culture takes time. This is where I think that we, as ECRs, can help. We can raise awareness, build resilience, and uphold what we believe will help foster a healthier research culture. We can also support one another to fight the prejudice attached to non-academic careers, and can consider diverse profiles when building teams. Together, we can demonstrate that collaboration, openness, transparency, and quality really are the ingredients needed for good science.

Further reading

Mental health of ECR

Career precarity

Research culture

Research assessments