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Communications of the ACM

Economic and Business Dimensions

The Gamification of Academia

hands touching a chess piece and a symbol of three circles, illustration

Credit: Andrew Krasovitckii

In academia, the ethos is supposed to be about the unattached, relentless search for truth above all else, especially when the truth is uncomfortable. Truth or rather 'Veritas' is Harvard's motto. We idealize the martyrs of academics in history, such as Galileo Galilei,4 who discovered the scientific evidence for the Copernican theory of planetary motion and spent the rest of his life under house arrest by his inquisitors for challenging the doctrine of his time. We know how important academic integrity is, yet many are willing to cheat the system when the academic metrics are gamified and the game's mechanics are understood by the players. Gamification tactics in systems that bridge real-world work with online tools can distort the behaviors of people in any ecosystem. Academia, in particular, is susceptible to this phenomenon. Is this due to the nature of the industry, or is it simply an artifact of human nature at scale?

Yashihiro Sato, who studied the cross-section of nutrition and bone health, is considered by many in academia to be the biggest academic fraudster in scientific history. He fudged the data in myriad clinical trials and wrote papers subsequently published in peer-reviewed, high-impact journals. Some of his work made it into treatment guidelines that impacted real human lives. His falsified data was also used to support the rationale for new clinical studies. It is a sad story in academia but not an isolated one. In a meta-analysis of the problem, Daniele Fanelli found that 1.97% of academics admit to fabricating, falsifying, or modifying research data.2 Back at Harvard, a professor specializing in honesty has had her papers retracted for dishonesty.5 We have experienced this phenomenon of academics gaming systems firsthand.


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