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Stop the publication rat race and improve quality

Health has the important task of improving the quality of research at a time when leading journals are being criticised for publishing research results that cannot be reproduced. Dean Lars Bo Nielsen challenges conventional thinking in the form of the PhD's three ritual articles – and reminds us that no researcher is an island.

2017.05.18 | Nanna Jespersgård

Lars Bo Nielsen feels provoked by the debate about quality rather than quantity because, as he says: What kind of management wants to hype researchers who publish a lot, when what they publish is of low quality? Conversely, it is also pointless to believe that Health can ignore a reality where doing research simply 'is' publishing.

Health can and must contribute to preventing poor scientific practice resulting from researchers being under pressure to publish, and an appropriate place to begin is by helping to point the faculty's young research talents – the PhD students – in the right direction. Perhaps supervisors should advise the young researchers to publish one excellent academic article instead of the mandatory three, which are perhaps a little ordinary?

This is one of the suggestions from Dean Lars Bo Nielsen. It comes after the Academic Council at Health, headed by its chairperson, Professor Helle Prætorius Øhrwald, warned the dean against promoting quick performance measurements such as h-index and the number of publications in the assessment of good and poor researchers. If used wrongly, these measurements can pressure researchers into publishing poor research results, and in turn contribute to the 'reproducibility crisis' that has led journals such as Nature and Science to give notice of stricter requirements for review, methodology sections and data availability. Lars Bo Nielsen wants to prevent this:

“For example, I think we should consider whether the PhD degree has landed on the correct number of publications. At some point, it has become customary in many environments for a PhD degree to be based on three articles. Perhaps we should instead dare say that one important and solid research article with irreproachable data can be preferable to three publications which can all be attacked," says Lars Bo Nielsen.

No researcher is an island

That being said, Lars Bo Nielsen does not hide the fact that he feels provoked by the debate about quality rather than quantity. It is fundamentally pointless to talk about quantity, if the quality is not okay, and what management and research colleague would hype researchers who publish a lot, but of low quality? Conversely, it is also pointless to believe that Health can ignore a reality in which publications and bibliometric data carry a lot of weight.

"We cannot pretend that performance measurements are unimportant at Health, when bibliometric data is, all things equal, weighted so heavily in the real world that we work within – for example when it comes to finding funding for your research. And conducting research is publishing. It is a very important part of our legitimacy in relation to interaction with the society that pays for our work. A researcher is not an island," says Lars Bo Nielsen in a rephrasing of John Donne’s “No Man is an Island”.

For the same reason, Lars Bo Nielsen does not simply accept the Academic Council’s warning about attaching too much importance to the awarding of research prizes when assessing the work of individual researchers. According to the Academic Council, awards are more often a case of knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time, rather than being about research qualifications. But as Lars Bo Nielsen sees it, network and timing are also research qualifications in 2017 – where a researcher is not an island:

"When it comes to research awards, we are also part of a reality where an award signals that someone from the outside has recognised a strong researcher in a strong research environment, because things are interconnected. An award can be a fine recognition of broad research competences. And it would not be a problem for me if we had another Nobel Prize winner at Health," he says with a wry smile.

New times since Skou

The Academic Council also warned against the 'new' threats to freedom of research in the form of more stringent requirements for external research funding and strategic research. For instance, the council asks the dean for his views on how Health can increase the chances for experimental research breakthroughs and a creative research environment in a time where funding is concentrated in fewer hands.

Lars Bo Nielsen acknowledges that conditions have changed since the famous AU researcher, medical doctor and physiologist, Jens Christian Skou received the Nobel Prize in 1997 for his discovery of the sodium-potassium pump that is necessary for nerve cells to function. It is a discovery that is often referred to by researchers who argue for the necessity of carrying out research without a strategic eye for external funding. This is of course because Jens Christian Skou would today – in his own words – have ended up in the stack of projects that were 'not eligible for funding'.

Lars Bo Nielsen is also familiar with the stories about Jens Christian Skou and the respect they command, in which the researcher’s curiosity and desire to learn more about the membranes of the nerve cells led him to boil crabs and experiment without strategic goals in the years prior to his major breakthrough. Back then there was a different framework, but according to Lars Bo Nielsen there is still scope for utilising freedom of research despite things being systematised.

Freedom lies in interdisciplinary research

"There is less funding for basic research and what there is has become more difficult to obtain, but we should remind one another that there are still basic funds at the university which provide a degree of opportunity for non-targeted research. In addition, some new frameworks have arisen in the form of interdisciplinary research collaborations, where there are currently many breakthroughs taking place. I encourage researchers to look into these, because as I see it, this is also somewhere where people can currently try out wild new ideas," says Lars Bo Nielsen.

Interdisciplinary research is perhaps not freedom of research in the traditional sense, but according to the dean the approach is comparable because something new and unexpected can emerge due of the different constellations of people and subject areas. This is something that Lars Bo Nielsen has experienced both as leader of the Department of Clinical Medicine in Copenhagen and as a researcher into arteriosclerosis and cholesterol.

"They say that a stranger is a friend you have not met yet, and in the same way a researcher you do not know can be a sparring partner you did not know you needed," he says, thus adding yet another angle to his view on researchers: That a researcher is not an island. That they should get involved both internally and externally, in the academic environments, in the surrounding society and of course at their faculty.

Be ready to seize the opportunity

In this context, Lars Bo Nielsen has noted that the Academic Council calls for greater openness about priorities and decisions at the faculty. This is a message that Lars Bo Nielsen will discuss with the Academic Council and which he takes note of. Even though he personally thinks there is a lot of information in circulation at Health. Including the less pleasant decisions and dilemmas, which there must of course also be room to discuss in the academic environments.

"We are a university, so there must naturally be room for differences of opinion and debates. On the other hand, I think that as an employee – whether researcher or administrative – you need to be ready to seize the opportunity and to get involved while there is time. Decisions are not open for endless renegotiation, because then they are no longer decisions, says Lars Bo Nielsen, who emphasises that he can be contacted by the faculty’s employees, if they lack information. Because a dean is not an island either.

"Write or call if there is something you want to discuss or are really passionate about," is his invitation after almost seven weeks at Health.

About the interview Dean Lars Bo Nielsen was interviewed as a follow-up on the article "Research under pressure demands focus on academic values" health.medarbejdere.au.dk which was an article in Inside Health from the beginning of May.

About the interview

Dean Lars Bo Nielsen was interviewed as a follow-up on the article "Research under pressure demands focus on academic values" which was an article in Inside Health from the beginning of May.

In the article, chairperson of the Academic Council at Health, Professor Helle Prætorius Øhrwald, expands on some viewpoints contained in a memo that the Academic Council drew-up in connection with the appointment of a new dean. The memo is a proposal for the coming collaboration between Lars Bo Nielsen and the Academic Council, which is tasked with advising the dean on all important academic issues.
Here you can see the members of the Academic Council as well as the Memo to Dean Lars Bo Nielsen regarding the direction of the Academic Council's work (PDF) (in Danish only).


Dean Lars Bo Nielsen
The Dean’s Office, Health
Email: larsbo@au.dk
Telephone no.: (+45) 8715 2007    

Research, Health and disease, Academic staff, Department of Clinical Medicine, Health, Research, Technical / administrative staff, Health, Public/Media