ScienceOpen Editor, Nana Bit-Avragim, interviewed new Editorial Board Member Professor Thoralf Niendorf, a physicist who holds the chair of Experimental Ultrahigh Field Magnetic Resonance (MR) at Charité, University Hospital in Berlin, Germany and who is head of the Berlin Ultrahigh Field Facility at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC).
The research interests of Prof. Niendorf include the development of novel magnetic resonance methodology and technology to advance the diagnostic capabilities of (bio)medical imaging. The technology developed in his laboratory is dedicated to shedding light on the underlying (patho)physiological processes and biophysical mechanisms of cardio- and neurovascular diseases. This demonstrates a fully translational approach to personalized medicine capable of fostering innovation and knowledge transfer between basic research and (pre)clinical applications.
Q1. Tell us a little bit about your interest in Open Access science and your opinion about the current state of affairs in science publishing. What has been your experience?
TN: Due to many different commitments, I can read just a few publications per week. That means that I do carefully select what papers and in which journals I read. I prefer to basically work with the journal that appears to be “working” with me. I think there is massive information waste happening in traditional scientific publishing. You know, during scientific conferences every participant can openly and actively ask or comment on data presented in talks or posters. The presenter and his/her co-workers are looking for an inspiring discussion in order to advance their research. This is a beneficial process for everyone, including the general audience, the presenter and the project collaborators. Yet, the process of open information exchange has mainly disappeared from the traditional peer review system. The readers cannot recognize or follow any changes to a manuscript in the scientific discourse. However, I believe that transparent discussion of scientific results while peer review is in process, as practiced by ScienceOpen and other journals, should be offered to readers. This system highlights the very important role of scientific discourse. The vast majority of peer review recommendations and critical comments are quite helpful. In my opinion, making the information exchange between the authors of the manuscript and referees open to the public – even retrospectively – enormously improves the quality of research work, and furthermore helps to streamline the review process.
SO: That is why we decided to implement a completely open peer review process. Due to the transparence of this model, it is possible to judge whether the comments and critiques are correct, and whether or not the data presented in the manuscript is understandable.
TN: I invite my PhD students to be patient in writing peer reviews and to try to deeply understand the author’s ideas. Unfortunately, not every early career scientist always recognizes the process required for writing a good peer review. By contrast, an experienced researcher should be able to appreciate the presented data and the author’s work. It’s very important to support authors in their efforts to propel discovery as early as possible. I can give you an example. We were the first to propose a novel MRI technology and had to wait for a year to receive peer reviewer comments. In the end, the referees of our manuscript were simply asking why we used a scanner made by General Electrics and not by Siemens to test our technology, which is now used in thousands of hospitals around the world to save lives on a daily basis. If the peer review process had been transparent, our referees would have behaved differently. This shows of course that there is a cultural aspect, as well. If my manuscript goes through an excessively long or delayed peer review process, then I would be less motivated to review any articles for this journal in the future. Strategically speaking, as a referee I do not have to prove that I have been working in this particular area of research over 20 years. But I would like to support authors and emphasize the novelty, originality and applicability of their work (to clinical diagnostics, for example).
Q2: Do you think an Open Access platform like ScienceOpen has a particular usefulness for translational research?
TN: Well, let me give you an example. Recently, we designed a study on MRI induced localized hyperthermia. This was an innovative physical approach, which would require additional biochemical analysis for the proof-of-principle studies. Unfortunately, we were not able to apply that particular chemical expertise on our own. So, we decided to present our preliminary results via Open Access. And it was a big win-win situation, as we surprisingly received a lot of interest and professional support from chemists working in Australia and in the United States. This helped us tremendously to advance our initial study. Without the opportunity to publish our data Open Access, we would never have had the chance to prove and empower our novel research approach and build up new collaborations. In recent years, we have actually published about a quarter to a third of all our research results in high impact Open Access journals.
Q3: Do you think more transparency and free exchange of data could support academic freedom and foster a new scientific culture?
TN: This is a question about how we define academic freedom. As a scientist by heart, I am attracted by any research that pushes the envelope of technology and advances science. Here is a little example. In 2002-2004, I was working in Boston at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center as a senior scientist of GE’s applied science lab. There was a DAAD-organized research network composed mostly of medical doctors from Germany. One of participants in that network was a first class ophthalmologist curious about the possibility of performing MRI of the eye and orbit. We discussed this topic over and over again. Unfortunately, at that time I was not able to implement the idea because of other pressing commitments. Back in Germany I used the inspiring environment at Max Delbrück Center in Berlin to establish a collaboration with ophthalmologists and radiologists from the Universities of Rostock and Greifswald. Eventually, I did create an early diagnostic imaging tool for the assessment of subtle ocular masses and other diseases of the eye and orbit. At the moment, one of my PhD students is successfully completing her thesis on high resolution MR imaging of the eye and I am very much delighted to be part of a multi-faceted team that eventually turned an idea developed in Boston in 2002 into clinical reality.
As a principal investigator, I can choose any research area that lives up to the strategic mission of the center where I am currently working. I would say, Open Access offers academic freedom, but it also supports publicly-funded science. I appreciate that my research is supported by both internal and public funding. Obviously, more transparency in publicly-funded research will lead to higher standards in science.
Q4: Lastly, as an established researcher, what would be your advice for young scientists trying to navigate the science publishing landscape?
TN: In my research group, I normally ask my students to prepare and manage their manuscripts. Initially, to demonstrate and teach the communication culture of publishing, I monitor peer review as a corresponding author in their first publications. In their following publications, I prefer to observe how the junior scientists manage the publishing process. I believe that it helps them to learn responsibility and to develop their leadership skills. Once the work has been published, for example, in PLOS ONE, you can’t imagine how excited my students are about the publication metrics. They follow the statistics very frequently to understand the resonance of their work within the research community and to foster open exchange.
Thank you so much for the interview. You are an inspiring advocate for Open Access publishing. We wish you great success in your future research and thank you again for your support in helping to make science open.