'To all graduate students: academia is broken and you need to fix it'

Dear young researchers,

We are writing to a group of highly educated people at the start of their academic career, surely anxious to get started. Many of you may be spending most of your time behind your screens. The current pandemic brings along its challenges. Following the wise words of our rector magnificus at the start of the academic year, the strength of the academic ‘community’ enables us to withstand these challenges. As much as we, editors of the Journal of Trial and Error, believe in the collaborative power of scientific practice, we want to make you aware of the deep-rooted, destructive competition that holds together this community.

We are not warning you. We want to encourage you.

Academics is difficult. The practice asks a lot—both intellectually and personally. You are supposed to be clever, well informed, able to see connections that others can’t see. You are supposed to be competitive, but not doggishly so. You’re supposed to have a sense of community obligation, but not so much that you fail to fight for your place in the enterprise.

Increasingly in the past few decades, since the advent and popularization of the Internet, the fact that the scientific enterprise is vulnerable to unethical practices is hard to ignore. The competitive nature of the modern scientific enterprise, one that prioritizes publication rates, h-index, journal metrics, over intellectual curiosity and exploration has lead many individuals to succumb to the temptation to falsify or fabricate data, to plagiarize, to sabotage. These community-level ethical failures are hard to correct, for it is the system itself that is responsible for creating an environment where such behavior is rewarded.

What we would like to address with you all here is how the community—even at Utrecht University—that we are all a part of can make it all too tempting to act unethically. We would like to draw your attention to the fact that you are going to encounter situations where in which you may feel like you have no option but to act unethically. This is not necessarily because you are a bad person, but because you have inherited a system that encourages such behavior. Further, you might find yourselves in a position where you and all of your colleagues have done your best to act ethically, but still nonetheless find yourselves in unethical situations because we are dealing with an imperfect system.

We hope that in seeing that you do not have to accept everything you’ve inherited, like we have refused to do at The Journal of Trial and Error, that you can see that you have the power to change this system. When there seems to be the option to publish or perish, there is a third option: change. Change your community; change the norms and the metrics if they seem wrong. Science is not some static, unchanging monolith, but a human made system that is thusly flawed and always in need of updating and reassessment.

You are now at the beginning of your academic career, and it is easy to feel like you are stepping into something much bigger than yourself, that has existed for much longer than you have been a part of it, and will outlive you. This is true, but it is also yours. Use your academic education, in integrity and ethics, to make changes to what is yours when that change is necessary. Your job now is not simply to be a researcher, but to be a part of a community. Do not be afraid to expect more from that community, and know that you have the power and the responsibility to improve that community.

We are speaking to you now from just a few years into our own academic career, and we can attest to the power of rallying behind idea and ideals that you believe in. You have more power than you realize, and it is up to all of us to create a better future for ourselves and for those who will follow us. So, have fun, explore, be truthful, and never waiver in your beliefs.


On behalf of the Journal of Trial and Error

Maura Burke and Martijn van der Meer