22 Politics of Prestige

What do you think of when you hear the word “prestige”? Is it wealth, an Ivy League education, or a competitive award? According to Merriam-Webster, prestige is “the respect and admiration that someone or something gets for being successful or important.” So what does this have to do with science? Prestige plays a huge role in every aspect of life. Whether it is a neighborhood, a pre-school, or groundbreaking research studies, and most relevantly to a scientist’s career, prestige plays a factor. Prestige is determined by the environments in which we occupy and how we are taught to define success and greatness. Prestige is therefore a social construct, a construct of the people and problems around us that signify when someone is intelligent or smart. Although these may seem like very obvious examples of “prestige” they are in fact very prevalent in the science world.

In this chapter, we  will set out to uncover how prestige is misunderstood in science. Science is often presented as an ethical pursuit of knowledge that is governed by the scientific method in the search for the “truth” but in practice science often becomes a lot more complicated. The reason for this disconnect in science in theory and the way in which science is practiced is the pursuit of prestige. In science, the currency is usually not directly connected to money, instead it takes the form of publications. To acquire this distinction, such as a publication in a closed access journal , you must have a reputable background and favorable results that will get the public’s attention. This exact scenario has played out in several scandals in the past few years, where researchers faked and overtly lied about data results. As a result, the entire integrity of science is put on the line as the scientist may lose respect in the science community but what no scientist wants to happen is the loss of respect to the general public. As scientists are striving to acquire prestige through publications, sometimes they strive so much that they make the reputable sources a lot less reputable.

This course of action was demonstrated in the case of Michael LaCour, a UCLA graduate student in political science and, preceding the scandal, a soon to be assistant professor at Princeton University. LaCour fabricated data and the sources of his research funds in a study that became very popular where he found that “gay canvassers can influence voters’ attitudes on same-sex marriage” (Carey, 2015). When researchers, including several of LaCour’s colleagues at UCLA, looked into his study they found that he cut a lot of corners in his methodology. As a result, Science Magazine retracted his study and he lost his job offer  at Princeton University (Singal, 2015). While Michael LaCour’s case is a tragedy (for his own reputation and the reputation of science) it needs to be recognized that there are innate pressures in being a scientist that would lead to this kind of case. Once the public and the science world recognizes this hopefully rational thinking will begin to employed in science. Why is it that acquiring a publication in a “glamour” magazine makes someone a better professor or a better scientist over the others who were not chosen? This issue is the pursuit of prestige in science and it is an interconnected cycle that can only be dismantled when these stigmas of one’s worth are dismantled. Prestige plays a role in three major areas in science; institutions (academia, publications (studies/papers), and funding (to conduct research).

What would lead a young man with a great future ahead of him so early in his science career to commit a form of fraud and risk ruining his reputation in the science community? The answer is simply that money is scarce for researchers. In the first area of this chapter, we will discuss the role that funding plays in the pursuit of prestige. According to Howard & Laird, two contributing authors and scientists at Issues Magazine, funding in science at universities is in a crisis as “government funding will remain limited, and competition for grants will remain high” (2013 ). Programs by organizations such as National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) are at “historical lows” as funding from the government decreased after federal budget cuts. The situation is so dire that there is a worry that the situation is so overwhelming “that individuals of great promise will be driven from the field” (2013). Howard & Grant believe that people have to contend with the fact that there will not be a greater amount of funds awarded from the government and build resolution from this reality. The problem is simply, “the demand for research money greatly exceeds the supply.” This reality puts a lot of pressure on scientists and their proposals to receive funding. This is one layer of the ingredients in the pressure cooker that most likely contributed to LaCour’s misdoings in his research methods. Further research into the receipt of grants conducted by Bloch, Graversen, & Pederson, found that “the probability of obtaining a full professorship for grant recipients is almost double that for rejected applicants, 16 percent compared to 9 percent.” Not only are grants rare to come by but they are closely tied to expanding a scientists career in academia. In this cycle, where publications impact grants, and grants impact professorship some scientists are in a no win situation enacting a monopoly of opportunity in science.

In academia, prestige plays a substantial role in a scientist acquiring tenure at a university. The numbers and correlations shown in education as it relates to science are far starker then in the acquisition of grants. According to an article from New York magazine, “the top schools generate far more professors than even just slightly less prestigious schools” (Warner & Clauset, 2015). This is a result of schemas and scripts developed by institutions who are enacting the hiring at these universities and the system is simply not rational. A schema or script is a mental generalization about people, which often times lead to stereotypes which as we all know it are not always accurate. There is a schema for who can become tenure track professors and it is simply not fair, as it eliminates all candidates from all the other thousands of colleges and universities. Not only are the top universities defining this system but smaller universities are perpetuating this stigma in their hiring as well. When universities have to hire they “have to guess about lifelong productivity based on just a few years of experience” which makes it “natural to go with what seems like a safe choice: an applicant trained at a high prestige school” (Warner & Clauset, 2015). While I understand this train of thought, I also think that all the other ways of evaluating a candidate such as their work ethic, their recommendations, their passion, and their ability to connect with people are factors that are just as important. The current hiring process leaves a lot of deserving candidates out of jobs because of external factors such as where they received their diplomas from. In the “network” shown below, created by Ana Ritz, writer for the blog Ritz Bits, ultimately shows the that hiring amongst the top schools is concentrated amongst themselves in another monopoly.

Figure 1. University prestige network

Figure 1. University prestige network

In this network, “the nodes are universities, and the edge widths convey the percentage of graduates from that university that obtain a faculty position at the university it points to” (Ritz, 2015). This is what is contributing to the crisis that competition for grants, jobs, and eventually what will be discussed in this chapter, publication in closed access journals is the cycle that is disrupting the role of science. The limitations placed on science are only available to a small portion of all the capable scientists which is why there it is discouraging for people who may want to go out and pursue an education in science, they do not fit the schema. Being limited by university admission is what leads perfectly respectable students to be deceptive in their research.

A marker of scientist’s achievement beyond receiving a highly regarded award is a publication in the fields top journals, including Science, Nature, and Cell (amongst others). As we saw with Michael LaCour, scientists are desperate to go through any lengths they can to be published in ‘glamour magazines.’ Unlike in the case of grants and academia, publications are a direct connection to consumer culture  in the United States. Scientists want their work to be soaked up by the masses and to do this they have to make ground breaking discoveries. According to Schekman, a writer for the guardian, “the biggest rewards often follow the flashiest work, not the best” (2013). This is a problem that without a doubt will compromise the how the general public is able to interpret science. Schekman goes on to say, “while [glamour] magazines publish many outstanding papers, they do not publish only outstanding papers” (2013). Glamour magazines play up their highly regarded status utilizing a classic consumer strategy, “scarcity stokes demand, so they artificially restrict the number of papers  they accept.” By doing this it does not result in the quality of work from researchers, it results in them cutting corners to get the desirable results that consumers want to see. Unlike the typical apparel companies, science is a fundamental part of understanding the world we live in. When this job is taken for granted to be in the acquisition to be the equivalent of high selling sneaker is simply disappointing and ultimately discrediting to the field of science. But now there is an alternative option to glamour journals and they are in open access journals on the internet that everyone can see which is in some ways a threat to the dominance of glamour journals in science (Wilke, 2014). Open access journals  still may not be as highly regarded, in the growing globalized world that we live in they are increasingly becoming a good option for the general public and all the scientists operating in this skewed system.

As the integrity of science increasingly becomes a concern in the chase to acquire rank, it becomes up to the general public to help change the cycle. This is where the questions come, how can the public help? Is it in not subscribing to closed access journals at all? Is it in equally regarding open access journals and closed access journals as they both contain good quality and bad quality work? I think that this question is almost impossible to answer as the general public may not be equipped to be able to decipher quality science versus not so good quality science. However, I think that the general public is capable of not holding the perception, schemas, and scripts that hinder the progress of science today. Quality science is not necessarily correlated with Ivy League science or glamour journal science, quality science is simply; thorough research and proper methodologies that can be replicated that any great scientists can achieve. The public must lead with caution and be aware that science is about testing ideas at its most basic level and an idea is not always law even if it can not be disproven. I do not think the answer is in not subscribing to closed access journals as they can be a great source of work, I think it begins with understanding that they are not the only source of great work and once this is understood, grant dispersal, hiring processes in academia, the public consumption, and the all encompassing world of science can move forward.


Carey, B. (2015, May 29). Study using gay canvassers erred in methods, not results, author says. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/30/science/michael-lacour-gay-marriage-science-study-retraction.html?_r=0

Eisen, M. (2012, February 4). The widely held notion that high-impact publications determine who gets academic jobs, grants and tenure is wrong. stop using it as an excuse. [Blog post]. Retrieved from it is not junk website: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=911

Howard, D. J., & Laird, F. N. (2013). The new normal in funding university science. Issues in Science and Technology. Retrieved from http://issues.org/30-1/the-new-normal-in-funding-university-science/

Ritz, A. (2015, March 9). The “influence of prestige” in academia [Blog post]. Retrieved from Ritz Bits website: https://annamritz.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/the-influence-of-prestige-in-academia/

Schekman, R. (2013, December 9). How journals like nature, cell and science are damaging science. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/09/how-journals-nature-science-cell-damage-science

Singal, J. (2015, June 22). Princeton University has rescinded its employment offer to Michael LaCour. Science of Us. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/06/princeton-rescinded-its-offer-to-michael-lacour.html#

Warner, J., & Clauset, A. (2015, February 23). The academy’s dirty secret: An astonishingly small number of elite universities produce an overwhelming number of america’s professors. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2015/02/university_hiring_if_you_didn_t_get_your_ph_d_at_an_elite_university_good.html

Wilke, C. (2014, January 14). How glamour journals rose to prominence, and why they may not be needed anymore [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://serialmentor.com/blog/2014/1/4/how-glamour-journals-rose-to-prominence-and-why-they-may-not-be-needed-anymore/