Publish or Perish: The Woe of Every Scientist in Academic Research and Augmented Reality as a Potential Remedy

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“Publish or perish,” is the axiom that hangs over every academic research scientist's head. Today, scientists in academic research often find themselves not in the pursuit of high-quality science, but high publication counts instead. This is because a scientist’s success relies on consistent publications that present extravagant and “groundbreaking” findings and a lack thereof can result in career death. To exacerbate this issue, research heavily depends on funding, which has become scarce as more and more scientists compete for finite resources. The result is a never-ending race to publish and apply for grants, not for the advancement of science but in the name of self-preservation.

The consequential time-sensitive nature of academic research has detrimental effects. As a growing number of scientists resort to falsification, plagiarism, and bias in their work to meet the standards imposed on them, science strays further away from its tenets of honesty and integrity. This essay will explain the current “publish or perish '' issue in academic research and how augmented reality (AR) technology can be used as a remedy, particularly with regard to maximizing efficiency in the laboratory and transparency in the research and review process.

Academic research and its impact on society

The history of academic research can be traced back to 19th century Prussia when German universities began to pursue research in the humanities. Prior to this epoch, European universities such as Oxford University and the University of Bologna took on educational niches as they relied on prominent scholars to teach students solely via lectures (Atkinson & Blanpied,2008). However, by 1820, professors at the University of Berlin and other German universities had started incorporating research into their teaching roles, namely in areas such as linguistics and philology.

The University of Berlin became the prime example of an institution wherein research and teaching existed harmoniously as it upheld the Humboldtian Ideal upon which it was founded (Anderson, 2004): “Einheit von Forschung und Lehre” or the “unity of teaching and research” advocated for universities to not only disseminate knowledge but to also contribute to it (van Bommel, 2015). Universities established on the basis of this ideal are also found in the United States, including John Hopkins University, founded in 1876, and Stanford University, founded in 1891 (Atkinson & Blanpied, 2008).

Since then, academic research has contributed significantly to the advancement of society, particularly in the form of economic growth. Academic research has not only produced many of the most impactful technologies we use today, such as pacemakers and the World WideWeb (NAE, 2003), but they have also created jobs and revenue on federal, state, and local levels.According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, research and development at the University of Washington contributed 25,960 jobs and $12.5 billion to the state in 2014 (AAAS,2016). In 2021, research at the University of Michigan generated approximately $100 million for Michigan’s economy (DeGroat, 2022). As the saying goes, “Knowledge is power.” Here, that power lies in the ability to foster economic success through innovation.

The “publish or perish” crisis

Unfortunately, the laurels that academic research adorns have created a seemingly perverse culture among scientists. Throughout history, academic research has demonstrated that positive, innovative results resulted in societal and individual success, and the same standards are expected of today’s scientists. While this may seem ideal, such expectations have been translated into “quantitative performance metrics'' (Edwards, 2017) that journals and funding agencies now use to determine who gets published and funded, respectively. Among these metrics are total patents, number of publications, and journal impact factors (JIF; the average number of times articles in the journal are cited each year), all of which can be manipulated when scientists’ careers are on the line.

The consequences of such perverse incentives are considerable. Journals and funding agencies champion statistically-significant results and will shun inconclusive findings regardless of how high-quality the study design is. As a result, a growing number of scientists have resorted to publication bias, over-exaggeration of significant results, and falsification of their methods to favor said results (Nuzzo, 2015; Fanelli, 2009). A 2021 meta-analysis found that of its 23,228 participants, 27.9% had engaged in research misconduct, whereas 55.2% witnessed or knew a colleague who engaged in such activities (Xie et al., 2021).

One of the core causes behind the “publish or perish'' crisis is the finite and disproportionate funding that millions of academic scientists compete for. In 2021, the National Institutes of Health, the largest funding agency for biomedical research in the world, approved 19.1% of the 58,872 research project grant applications it received (NIH, 2020). Additionally, a 2020 study analyzing NIH grant equity among 123 medical schools in different regions of the U.S. from 2009 to 2018 found that while NIH funding did increase, the money was allocated disproportionately: the Western region saw a large growth in its funds — 33.79% increase, Northeastern faced a 6.64% decrease, Central met a 2.46% increase, and Southern ended up with a 6.08% decrease (Noble et al., 2020).

To make things worse, grants eventually expire (Rockey, 2013) and the novel research demanded of scientists often takes many years. With such limited and selective funding and with the number of scientists in academic research growing every year, money continues to be a major issue in the field.

Academic research has been and is still plagued by perverse incentives. Publication counts determine a scientist’s success. For research to be published, it must be novel and statistically significant. For research to even occur in the first place, scientists need funding that will eventually expire. Ultimately, time is a key factor in academic research. Anything that prolongs the duration of a project can waste grants, and the burden of persistently producing publications encourages scientists to manipulate their study design or results to win the favor of journals and funding agencies.

Augmented reality as a stepping stone

The implementation of AR technology in academic research can help facilitate efficient time management by streamlining protocols or procedures and providing more transparency during the peer review process prior to publication. By doing so, scientists may feel less inclined to “cheat” their way through the system. Although the following solutions do not instantly eliminate the perverse culture in which academic research thrives, they have the potential to become important stepping stones in tackling it.

Maximizing efficiency and safety in the laboratory with AR technology

Perhaps the most obvious way to avoid impeding the research process is to have a thorough understanding of the protocols and dangers involved. Failure to do so can result in erroneous results, property damage, injury, and even death. It would be reasonable to assume that because scientists are often exposed to various hazards, academic research prioritizes meticulousness and safety above all else. However, this has not always been the case. In 2016, Schröder and coauthors concluded that only 66% and 61% of academic researchers consistently wore laboratory coats and eye protection, respectively, compared to those in the industry (87% and 83%) and government (73% and 76%) (2016). Consistent with these results are the findings of a 2018 pilot study that surveyed scientists at a Canadian university, wherein only 40% of its participants wore PPE at all times in the laboratory (Ayi & Hon, 2018).

Poor laboratory safety practices can have devastating consequences. One of the most horrific laboratory accidents occurred in 2008 when Sheharbano Sangji, a laboratory technician at the University of California, Los Angeles, died after being ignited by a pyrophoric chemical (Baudendistel, 2009). At the time, she was not wearing a laboratory coat and failed to abide by the safety protocols concerning pyrophorics (e.g., a plastic syringe was used instead of glass) (Sigma Aldrich, 2012).

In 2016, a hydrogen-oxygen gas explosion at the University of Hawaii cost postdoc Thea Etkins-Coward her arm and the laboratory $800,000 worth of property damage (Kemsley, 2016). These are just a few of the many accidents that have cost research institutions time, money, and even the lives of their faculty and students. It is also important to note that it is not only these institutions’ research that gets tainted, but their reputation also as the public, journals, and funding agencies may grow skeptical of their competence.

A potential approach to promoting laboratory productivity and safety is AR technology. Whether through real-time step-by-step instructions or the correct identification of chemicals and specimens, AR can help streamline research processes while reducing the risk of exposure to potential physical, electrical, chemical, and biological hazards. Below are a few ways through which AR can be applied in such a manner:

  • Manufacturers can print AR codes (similar to QR codes) or images on their protocols and equipment manuals, which scientists can scan to view websites, diagrams, or instructional videos that clarify or emphasize certain aspects of a protocol or piece of equipment. One example of an application that utilizes AR for this purpose is the GeoGebra software, which was used in a 2020 study to demonstrate how physics concepts can be laid over the physical environment during experiments (Teichrew & Erb, 2020). By overlaying visualizations of arrows and light rays, for instance, students could better understand what forces contributed to a particular phenomenon. Likewise, without taking their eyes off of their physical surroundings, scientists can use AR to visualize important concepts behind protocols as well as watch tutorials regarding safe chemical and equipment use.
  • Similar to the above solution, scientists can rely on AR glasses for real-time, step-by-step guidance during an experiment or equipment maintenance. Iristick is one company that develops AR glasses capable of carrying out this function (Iristick, 2022). Safety checkpoints can also regulate procedures — services like LabTwin’s digital assistant app prevent scientists from moving on to the next step until they are wearing gloves (LabTwin GmbH, 2022). Using AR technology to overlay instructions over their physical environment, scientists have the option to carefully follow protocols or inspection routines without worrying about skipping important steps that may otherwise result in erroneous data or safety risks.
  • According to a 2006 study published in the Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, 55.5% of identification errors in the laboratory were due to mislabeled samples (Kim, 2017). Mislabeling of chemicals and samples is dangerous because the substances can incur harm to those working with them. One such instance is that of a University of California, Berkeley scientist who was sprayed with acid in 2018 after pouring isopropanol into a container mislabeled “isopropanol” (OEHS, 2004). This container was actually intended for unwanted chemicals, resulting in a chemical reaction that produced the spray. Barcode identification systems have been developed to help prevent cases like these. By printing barcodes and sticking them onto test tubes, flasks, and other containers, scientists only need to scan them to identify what exactly they are working with. The integration of AR with such barcode labeling systems has already been made possible by companies like the aforementioned Iristick, whose AR glasses allow warehouse employees to scan barcode labels on packages (Iristick, 2022), and P4IT, whose CaptureID mobile app scans barcodes and subsequently displays any related information (CodeCorp, 2021). For scientists, this information can be a chemical’s hazard rating and expiration date.
  • One way to increase the likelihood of acquiring novel results, particularly in molecular biology research, is by using AR technology to analyze molecular structures. Conventional molecular analysis methods may cause scientists to miss important knowledge in their field or observations in their samples that may benefit their research. A study conducted in 2020 successfully visualized the three-dimensional structures of proteins using Microsoft’s HoloLens, allowing participants to view the molecules’ outer and inner compositions (Peterson et al., 2020). Observing key details that may otherwise be invisible or easy to miss under traditional methods like microscopes may mean the difference between publication and rejection.

AR technology can modernize peer reviews and provide transparency to research processes

Peer reviews are an integral part of the publication process. In this step, scientists submit their manuscripts to a journal to be carefully evaluated by credible researchers in the field. These researchers examine the manuscripts to assess the quality, validity, and originality of the study design and results while pointing out questionable or erroneous content (Kelly et al., 2014).

Peer reviews can be considered a “checks and balances'' system in academic research as scientists evaluate one another to ensure that scientific communication remains relevant and accurate. They play a large role in building trust within the scientific community as well as the public. For example, hypotheses are only typically accepted after it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal (Mulligan, 2005).

Despite peer reviews acting as a seemingly promising deterrent to low-quality science, they nevertheless continue to fall short of impartiality and efficiency. One dogma of academic research is that it must be reproducible; however, it is very difficult to determine whether an experiment is reproducible or not simply by reading the manuscript (Tennant & Ross-Hellauer,2020). As a result, while reviewers do strenuously examine manuscripts to ensure the authenticity of the study design, they ultimately have no choice but to trust that the scientists carried out their research with integrity. This trust is not exactly reliable given that academic research is clouded with perverse incentives.

Furthermore, peer reviewers are not immune to the “publish or perish'' crisis. Because they themselves are academic researchers, they too are subject to the same pressures regarding publication counts and grants. This can influence the peer review process if the manuscript they are reviewing belongs to someone with whom they share a relationship, whether positive or negative. Such relationships include collaborators, friends or partners, and rivals, which can culminate in different biases such as reviewing with leniency or delaying the review process so that the reviewer can publish their results first (Tennant & Ross-Hellauer, 2020). Examples of these biased reviews have been parodied into the #sixwordpeerreview hashtag on Twitter.

The inability to effectively validate research and the potential influence of bias in peer reviews call for increased transparency in academic research. Efforts to encourage transparency have already been made through services that enable pre-publication peer reviews (aka DynamicPeer Reviews (Kelly et al., 2014)) as well as clinical trials. Services like Hypothes.is and PREreview allow the scientific community to comment feedback on manuscripts that are currently being written up (Hindle & Safari, 2017). Meanwhile, clinical trials like those found on clinicaltrials.gov publicize updated information on ongoing studies such as treatments used and patient data reported (NLM, 2012).

These platforms demonstrate how ongoing research and manuscripts can be scrutinized by an impartial audience, rather than by traditional processes that often occur behind closed doors. While Dynamic Peer Reviews are experimental and traditional peer reviews are still predominantly used in academic research, such platforms provide a glimpse of how the peer review process can be modernized to discourage research and review misconduct.

There are a couple of ways AR technology can be applied to these services:

  • Services that were not mentioned above, like EMBO and eLife, facilitate peer reviews as “digital discussions” between authors and reviewers, which are moderated and used by the journal’s editorial team to make publication decisions (Tennant & Ross-Hellauer,2020). With these services being developed, it is important to note the potential of AR as a medium through which such digital discussions can be conducted. According to OscarKox, CEO and Founder of iVention and a user of Microsoft’s HoloLens, AR allows him and his foreign collaborators to view the same laboratory environment and data (LabTwinGmbH, 2022). Likewise, peer review discussions between authors, reviewers, and editors can be taken to AR contexts. For example, reviewers can further examine different facets of the experiments conducted such as laboratory conditions and equipment used.
  • Services that were not mentioned above, like EMBO and eLife, facilitate peer reviews as “digital discussions” between authors and reviewers, which are moderated and used by the journal’s editorial team to make publication decisions (Tennant & Ross-Hellauer,2020). With these services being developed, it is important to note the potential of AR as a medium through which such digital discussions can be conducted. According to OscarKox, CEO and Founder of iVention and a user of Microsoft’s HoloLens, AR allows him and his foreign collaborators to view the same laboratory environment and data (LabTwinGmbH, 2022). Likewise, peer review discussions between authors, reviewers, and editors can be taken to AR contexts. For example, reviewers can further examine different facets of the experiments conducted such as laboratory conditions and equipment used.
  • One additional disadvantage of the peer review process is that they are laborious and take a long time to complete. In fact, reviewing a single manuscript can take as long as six hours to more than one hundred hours (Peer reviewers, 2009) depending on the complexity and length of the manuscript. Similar to the first and last (fifth) solution to “maximizing efficiency and safety in the laboratory with AR technology” above, scientists can supplement their research with AR code-based websites, diagrams, and videos that may help answer questions the reviewers may have, potentially expediting the review process. Such digital content can include imported data from three-dimensional visualizations generated by AR technology, such as the aforementioned protein structures obtained using Microsoft’s HoloLens.

Cost of AR

This essay would not be complete without addressing the irony in proposing expensive AR solutions to a field largely restricted by money. Some of the products mentioned above, like Microsoft’s HoloLens and Iristick, cost thousands of dollars (Microsoft’s HoloLens costs between $3,500 to $5,199 per unit (Microsoft, 2017) while Iristick prices range from $2,099 to $2,964 per unit (Iristick, 2022)). In a competitive climate wherein funding is in limited supply, many scientists may feel reluctant to make significant adjustments to their budgets.

However, there are cheaper and even free alternatives in the market. For scientists looking to visualize information, Augment and ChimeraX are viable options. In 2017, postdoc Allister Crow used Augment, an AR app, to generate a three-dimensional structure of the bacterial protein he was studying (Perkel, 2017; Crow et al., 2017). Augment offers its services at the price of $9-59 per device per month depending on the user’s payment plan (Augment,2022). ChimeraX, on the other hand, is free and allows users to view and project molecular geometries, plasmids, and even tomographies (RBVI, 2018; Pettersen et al., 2020; Goddard,2020). Such services enable scientists to better understand and communicate their work.

Scientists can also create their own visualization software based on their research needs using free engines like Unreal Engine and OpenGL, thus eliminating any functional limitations. In fact, ChimeraX was made using the latter software (Matthews, 2018). Two disadvantages of this approach are that its users must know how to use the program (OpenGL has a steep learning curve) and that developing the right tool can take months, which many scientists do not have. Scientists can also tailor their tools to support or yield the results that they want, leading to research misconduct.

Scientists and reviewers looking to upgrade their telecommunication abilities through AR can opt for Vuzix glasses, which are relatively cheaper. The cheapest of their products, the Vuzix Blade, gives users the ability to share their surroundings and computer screen for the price of $999 (Vuzix, 2022).

While cheaper alternatives do not necessarily have the same extent of capabilities as HoloLens or Iristick, they nevertheless offer a more cost-effective approach to increasing transparency and efficiency in academic research. It is also important to consider that with the growing prevalence of AR in the professional world, AR technology may become more affordable (Marr, 2021).

Conclusion

Academic research plays a pivotal role in society, proving time and time again that innovation leads to success. However, this way of thinking has been taken for granted as it has seemingly become the only way to achieve success in the field. Scientists are pressured by journals to produce the best results irrespective of the quality of their hypotheses or study designs, compelling them to falsify and fabricate their work if the findings obtained are inadequate. Moreover, constraints imposed by grants, such as expiration dates and amount funded, contribute to such perverse incentives. With the emergence of AR technology, steps to dismantle the “publish or perish” crisis become increasingly possible every day. Whether through step-by-step assistance or holographic telecommunication, AR can revolutionize efficiency and transparency in the research and review process, reducing concerns of time-sensitive schedules that could otherwise cause scientists to overlook safety risks and engage in research misconduct.

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About the Author

The photo of Christal Dita

Christal Dita

North Carolina State University

  • Field of Study:Zoology and Biotechnology
  • Expected Year of Graduation:2024
  • Chosen Prompt: How augmented reality (AR) can be used to improve the laboratory setting and peer review process in response to the "publish or perish" crisis in academic research.

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