October 19, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Seven sins of scientists part 6: quid pro quo

I’ve been blogging about the darker side of science in a seven part series on what I call scientific sinning or the “seven sins of scientists”.

You can see the first 5 posts here as a group, which have generated a ton of interest and many thousands of reads each.

The first five posts are specifically on these topics:

Today I am focused on sin number six: the quid pro quo mentality.

Quid pro quo literally means an exchange of equal things between two parties. It is often now referred to in the work place in the context of sexual harassment where a senior party indicates they’ll give a promotion to an employee for sexual favors.

However, that is not what I’m referring to in this post.Status Quo

What I mean by the quid pro quo mentality in science is where one scientist will secretly do favors for another, expecting to get a favor back. You can imagine how this could lead to ethically questionable behavior during scientific review of papers and grants.

But is there really a harmful quid pro quo in science?

I think so. After 20 years in science, I believe that a significant number of scientists have this “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mentality. It hurts science.

Some scientists I informally chatted with about this topic went so far as to call quid pro quo the “status quo” for many scientists. Coincidentally, there is a rock band called Status Quo that released an album called “Quid Pro Quo” (See album cover above).

I’ve written quite a lot about how scientists will be cut throat during review of grants or papers, but how often does the exact opposite happen?

I’m not talking about a reviewer just being extra nice for the heck of it, but rather a reviewer going out of their way to be extra positive about a paper or grant for a nefarious purpose of expecting favors in return as part of an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” clique or club.

I’ve never been part of anything like, but I’ve heard people say it happens all the time and I’ve seen evidence of it.

Of course a variable when it comes to publishing is that the editor may not pick from your list of suggested reviewers, but I believe it happens enough to impact science.

For grants, the situation is a bit different in that your grant is reviewed by a whole study section, but here too the gestalt in science is that quid pro quo happens. Senior faculty say all the time that “you better hope that your grant gets assigned to a study section where you have a ‘friend’ or two”. Of course in return you’d be expected, if the opportunity arises, to favorably review their grants.

Here too, however, there are complexities such as, to my knowledge at least, reviewers have no say in which grants they get assigned by the leaders of the study section. But even if someone is not assigned as a reviewer specifically they can still speak up to defend a proposal and increase its odds. Further, if this special “friend” is in your field they very well might be chosen to review your grant because their background makes them uniquely qualified.

So you might say that different forms of quid pro quo permeate society more generally and are just part of being human? Perhaps it is true that in society quid pro quo arrangements happen all the time in different forms, but that doesn’t mean that they are all good for humanity.

For example, I believe that the end result of the quid pro quo in science is a lowering of scientific standards and a slowing of progress.