Follow the Money: Does Competitive Research Funding Contribute to Questionable Research Practices

Last modified: November 8, 2018

Does competitive research funding (CRF) contribute to questionable research practices (QRP)? And if so, what are the mechanisms through which CRF causes scientists to engage in such QRP as selective deletion, modification, or addition of data after initial data-analysis or selective citing with an eye to enhancing one’s own findings or convictions?

Although anecdotal complaints about “grantsmanship” are widespread, evidence-based knowledge about the causal relations between CRF and QRP is in short supply. Our project therefore breaks new ground in examining causal relations between CRF and QRP and in developing a model specifying the mechanisms through which CRF contributes to QRP (if it does). The model will be based on the findings of multi-dimensional comparative analysis of how scientists in different countries (with different funding traditions and grant success rates), in different periods of time (before, during, and after the widespread implementation of CRF), in different disciplines (life sciences, natural sciences, and humanities), and in different age groups (junior and senior scientists) perceive causal relations between CRF and QRP.

Given limited resources, competitive research funding systems are intended to facilitate the selection of the best scientific proposals. However, in some fields competition has become fierce to the extent that it might force researchers to abandon their best ideas and pursue low-impact research with predictable outcomes, prioritize writing papers over tackling important questions, focus on short-term rather than long-term goals and to cut corners in order to be the first rather than to be right. Recent studies have particularly pointed out the struggle of young scientists in such highly competitive systems.


In this project, we investigate how the competitive research funding system influences scientific practices. We will explore underlying mechanisms, and investigate what could be effective and elegant counter-measures to (some of the) problematic research practices. The results of this project will be directly shared and discussed with relevant stakeholders, such as funding agencies, universities, and scientific academies.


We will perform a historical analysis on the discourse relating to this topic, both on a short term, a middle long term, and a long term perspective (mainly performed by postdoc II). We will also conduct (1) a literature review around the topic, (2) meet up with key stakeholders (funders, universities and scientific academies), (3) conduct in-depth interviews with active researchers, (4) conduct a series of group sessions with researchers, and (5) hold an invitational mini-conference at the end of the project (all of these five tasks will mainly be performed by postdoc I).

Single interviews and group sessions will be conducted in two different countries with different funding systems (Switzerland and the Netherlands), and with researchers from three different scientific areas (humanities, natural sciences, and medical sciences) as well as academic stages (tenured, non-tenured).

Project members:

Dr. Stephanie Meirmans, Academic Medical Center, University of Amsterdam (Postdoc I in project)
Dr. Pieter Huistra, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Art History, University of Utrecht (Postdoc II in project)
Prof. dr. Herman Paul, Associate Professor, Institute for History, University of Leiden
Dr. Gerben ter Riet, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, Academic Medical Center, University of Amsterdam
Prof. dr. Gerd Folkers, President Swiss Science and Innovation Council
Prof. dr. Peter van Hoesel, Emeritus Professor, Department Public Administration, Erasmus University Rotterdam
Dr. Jean Philippe de Jong, Senior Policy Advisor Science and Knowledge, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
Prof. Dr. Barend van der Meulen, Head of Research at Rathenau Institute
Dr. R. Pfister, Head of International Cooperation, Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences
Prof. dr. Jeannette Pols, Professor of Empirical Ethics, Academic Medical Center, University of Amsterdam



The project is funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw), within the funding programme “Fostering responsible research practices”. Duration time for the project is two years, starting in September 2017.


For more information about the project, please contact

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