Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Lament of a Conservative Academic

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article on hyperbole in the sciences, which touched a frayed nerve with me:

Scientists Are Often Responsible for ‘Spin’ of Their Results, Research Finds

As a frequent reviewer for journal articles and proposals for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other funding agencies and sponsors, I frequently see the art of exaggeration used to great effect. This isn't surprising when you consider how much harder it is to publish an article or secure funding, in recent times. With so many more competitors in the market and stagnant funding levels...

I keep thinking that I should compile some of the most egregious spin / hype, and publish it for amusement, but of course it is not appropriate to retain any materials from a proposal or article under review, and much of that material never makes it past the editor or program officer and a few referees.

In my (former?) field of nanoscience, the hype level is/was particularly extreme, which I believe contributed significantly to the atmosphere that gave us Jan Hendrik Schön and many others who engage(d) in hyperbole. The sad thing is that those of us who value long-term credibility more than short-term funding are at a severe disadvantage to the hypers and spinners... and outright liars.

Journals and sponsors definitely do not favor cautious and conservative wording; they don't want statements like "we think we have a good chance to construct a new type of transistor with exciting new properties..." Instead, they want "we are very confident that this new transistor will revolutionize the industry..." and cure cancer etc. ! So either you give them what they want or you don't get funded or published. Take your pick.

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