Seven sins of scientists part 3: a need for speed

breaking badSome scientists do really rotten things, a topic I’m exploring in a seven part series on what I call scientific sinning.

I started my series on the sins of scientists a few weeks ago with a piece called “Failure to Cite”. “Failure to cite” refers to the practice whereby some scientists choose not to cite the papers of their competitors, to make their own seem more novel, or as payback to folks they consider their “enemies”.

In the second piece in this series I discussed the second deadly sin of science: killing other scientist’s papers or grants as a reviewer for non-scientific reasons. I called it “paper or grant killing”.

In today’s third installment, I discuss what I call giving in to a need for speed.

No, I’m not talking about scientists being addicted to the drug methamphetamine (speed) as is being cooked up by high school science teacher Walter White in Breaking Bad.

Rather, I’m talking about many scientists prioritizing fast science over good science.

Isn’t making science progress fast a good thing?

In theory yes, but in practice mostly rushing science most often does not end well.

There are many pressures on scientists to rush their science such as not getting scooped or trying to produce data in time for a grant application, but whether or not such speedy efforts produce good science is highly questionable.

Perhaps I might argue a new theorem:

The quality of science is inversely proportional to the speed with which it is produced.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but I believe it generally holds true.

Too often in science, we see high profile papers that just smell to those of us experienced in science like they have not repeated their experiments enough. Then sure enough some of those end up not be reproducible by others in the field. An ever-increasing subset end up being retracted.

Some fields such as the stem cell field have many papers of this type. Everyone wants to be first. Not just scientists but also journals (editors). The tradeoff for so highly valuing speed is that you risk getting a reputation for not doing as good science. Such a reputation becomes hard to overcome, especially if you have one or more retractions.

Ideally science would be high quality and very fast, and some labs can pull that off, but most of the time speed and quality are like oil and water.