Nature is of course one of the most prestigious, highest impact science journals. Their editors think UO’s new plan has it backwards. Instead of making decisions about budget and pay based on what faculty have already published, they think we should give money to promising faculty, to do promising new research. Their editorial is not directly about UO’s “new new budget model” but it might as well be: http://www.nature.com/news/don-t-pay-prizes-for-published-science-1.22275
… The custom of rewarding researchers monetarily for single publications is deeply entrenched at Chinese scientific institutions. For many, it is an official policy, written in the bylaws. Zhejiang Agricultural and Forestry University in Lin’An, for example, pays a flat rate of 500,000 yuan for a paper published in Cell, Science or Nature. And it uses a table with equations to help calculate prizes for publications elsewhere. For any paper in a journal with an impact factor (IF) higher than 10, for example, the prize is IF × 1.5 × 10,000 yuan. According to a People’s Daily news story last year, some 90% of universities have policies of rewarding publications. And the practice is far from unique to China. Scientists in countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia can find themselves similarly rewarded.
That might be good for researchers, and it can be a way for universities to advertise their achievements. Whether it is good for research, in the long term, is a more difficult question. The answer is probably no.
For one thing, it creates a culture in which scientists look at their research as a means to make quick cash. Instead of considering the best way to pursue and expand on experiments, scientists focus on getting the results published.
The emphasis on impact factors, as has been discussed repeatedly in these pages, is greatly overblown. Such metrics already exert undue influence on the evaluation of grants, on hiring and on promotions. Monetary prizes only further inflate the importance of impact factors, at the expense of assessing the significance of what has actually been achieved.
Perhaps more importantly, handing out prizes so soon after publication rewards science that is not yet proven. There is no reason to think that the Sichuan scientists’ discovery — a gene that confers resistance to the fungal disease rice blast — won’t stand up to the scrutiny of post-publication peer review. But what if it doesn’t? Many papers are not necessarily wrong, but their significance might have been overestimated.
Last week’s announcement that this is more a grant than a prize makes an important distinction, but it might point to a more fundamental problem in China, as well as in other countries — a tendency to base grants on past achievement rather than future potential. The rice-blast gene has tremendous practical potential, and the Sichuan scientists might be the right group to exploit it. Or they might have found, based on their research protocol, a number of other avenues for investigation that are unrelated to this gene. Whatever the case, the best way to argue that the group deserves more grant money is through a grant proposal that lays out where the research is heading, and that is fairly evaluated against rival proposals.