Reflections on culture change towards open science

I recently attended two excellent virtual metascience conferences: the Surrey Reproducibility Society & ReproducibiliTea’s on May 29th and RIOT Science Club’s on the 11th of June. One of the common themes across both conferences was how the culture of academia was changing. The focus of Anne Scheel’s talk for the first conference1 was on Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and how the culture shift was affecting them. During the second conference, Marcus Munafó talked more broadly about how open research practices fit into the current way of working, how they were helping to shift this culture, and how they can be valued. I agreed with the majority of what they (and all the other speakers) talked about. But I think there is more to be said about how ECRs are affected by this paradigm shift.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strange)

As Anne stated, ECRs are at the vanguard of the open science movement: pushing it forward, making it the new norm. But this leaves them at a disadvantage. They have to use some of their precious time to learn these new tools. This lowers their output. This work is also slower as it takes time to do things carefully and with greater rigour. To compound the issue, most scientific institutions, like universities and journals, don’t value this kind of work2. They are therefore disadvantaged in multiple ways when compared to their peers (not just ECRs) who are working within the old paradigm; quick and messy science spun to sell a story. Anne characterised ECRs as “cannon fodder”: they play a large roll in changing the culture, yet are likely to be actively punished for this in a system where publications are the ultimate currency.

In the traditional model, a scientists worth is largely determined by the number and location of publications (Buranyi, 2017). Part of the reasoning behind this, as Marcus said in his talk3, is that they are supposed to be signals of skills universities want: conscientiousness, intelligence, etc. Engaging in open science practices, such as preregistration among many others, also displays those skills. Not only that, engaging in open science more readily gives you the incentive to develop new skills, such as coding. These are highly valuable to you as a scientist and worker in general. But we return to our initial problem: many institutions don’t value scientists spending time in this way. Some even explicitly caution against this. We are in a culture change, but those at the forefront aren’t cannon fodder. They’re part of a necessary sacrifice.

Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more

Changing a culture is slow and not everyone who is at the forefront will see the benefits. There are very few jobs for a lot of scientists (Cyranoski, Gilbert, Ledford, Nayar & Yahia, 2011) and everyone is under pressure. I think all researchers should engage in more rigorous and careful science because it produces higher quality papers, tools, and teaching resources. But I am saying this from a place of privilege. I am not directly competing in the academic market as I’m on a taught Educational Psychology (EP) doctorate programme. Publications are largely irrelevant for my employment prospects. I also do not have a family to support. Whilst me learning open science practices doesn’t really benefit my EP work, there isn’t as great a cost compared with research academics. I can therefore take the time to learn open science practices and associated skills, be part of the culture change, and not have my career chances negatively impacted.

If you don’t want to or can’t be part of that paradigm shift, I won’t judge. Academia is an extremely hard world to get a job in. Many won’t. But I would gently encourage you to try and engage with some open scholarship ideas. The skills you learn are extremely valuable, whether you stay in academia or not. Leaving academia is not ‘failing’ (Kruger, 2018) and the sooner we shift this mentality the better4. Open research practices are becoming the norm, with some universities explicitly asking for open science statements and the number of journals offering Registered Reports ever increasing. It is unfair that those who take the time to learn and do better, slower science are currently punished. The only thing to do is turn the wheels of progress faster.

References

Buranyi, S. (2017, June 27). Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science? The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science

Cyranoski, D., Gilbert, N., Ledford, H., Nayar, A., & Yahia, M. (2011). Education: The PhD factory. Nature, 472(7343), 276–279. https://doi.org/10.1038/472276a

Kruger, P. (2018). Why it is not a ‘failure’ to leave academia. Nature, 560(7716), 133–134. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05838-y

1A full recording (Anne’s is at the beginning) can be found here.

2Thankfully there is a growing number of organisations and universities that do.

3A YouTube playlist with all the videos, including Marcus’, can be found here.

4Twitter accounts such as Beyond the Professoriate can help.

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