A thoroughly British interview with Matthew Partridge

Cup of tea, anyone?
Continuing our amazing Open Science Stars series, we’re going a little closer towards my own routes today. We spoke with Matthew Partridge, a biochemist at Cranfield University in the UK about his experiences and thoughts on all things academia and open science. Caution: this post contains sarcasm.
Hi Matt! Thanks for joining us. Could you tell us a bit about your background?
No problem, happy to be here! And by here I mean ‘at my laptop 2 months after you sent me these questions, and several more weeks before it’s published’…
I’m not sure what to tell you about my background really (your next question deals with the ‘scientist’ bit) so I guess I could fill you in on the non-science part of my backstory. I’m British and in my mid 30’s and I currently work at Cranfield University – which is pretty much slap bang in the dead centre of England. My first degree is in BioChemistry, after which I spent 6 years toiling away in industrial medical device research. I then rejoined academia to do a PhD and have stayed ever since.
Matt assures me this a realistic representation of him..
Matt assures me this a realistic representation of him..
When did you first realise you wanted to be scientist? What was it that turned you?
I don’t think there was a time when I didn’t want to be a scientist. At various points in my life I’ve wanted to be various kinds of scientist – at one point even a pathologist. Both my parents were pharmacists so I was raised in a pretty pro-science house and it just appealed to me really. Although I did question it once when my science teacher wrote in final report (before moving to a bigger school) “Matthew should consider any career except science”. Since finding this out a few years ago, I have strongly resisted the urge to mail him 1,000 copies of my PhD thesis.

When did you first hear about Open Access and Open Science? What did you first think?
It was when I was working in industry and had a huge need for open access. I survived on borrowed university accounts and e-mailing authors to get papers. Once I actually traveled to the British library just to get a paper we needed. It was a massive pain. Although, other than being annoyed and frustrated, I wasn’t really aware of Open Access or Open Science as campaigns, more just ideas that seemed neat and that there were people arguing for it but little actual progress.
I survived on borrowed university accounts and e-mailing authors to get papers.
Since returning to academia, I’ve always been a big proponent of openness and sharing of data and information. I published all the data from my PhD online, and always publish any data set that I use in either a paper or presentation so that it’s available to anyone when they see my work.
What do you think the biggest problem with the current scholarly publishing system is?
I think the biggest problem is that there are two problems. There is also the third problem of people deliberately bending questions to their own ends but that’s more a problem with this interviewee rather than publishing.
1 – Big publishers are for-profit companies that have found a near perfect business model to print money and are cranking the handle for all their worth. The nature of journals and their prestige means that they are effective mini-monopolies that can do basically whatever they like. There is no Methadone for profit addiction. The model for publishing started out pretty balanced but there is zero regulation beyond ‘the market’ and it’s just not working for anyone but the publishers and their investors. They are changing, but very, very slowly and it’s not going to speed up unless someone discovers a way that they can make huge profits from making everything they do free.
2. n+1 solutions and more publishing ‘competition’ are creating different problems. We are moving to OA, it’s going to happen. But how we do that and where we exactly end up is still up for grabs – and boy, are people grabbing. There is a great XKCD cartoon about why there are so many ’standards’ all spawned from people trying to ’solve’ the previous standard. The same is true in publishing. The current system is changing and it has opened up a hole for companies to start trying their own brand of publishing and open access.
So what you're saying is we need more standards in publishing? (Source)
So what you’re saying is we need more standards in publishing? (Source)
This is great because competition is exactly what the big profit-making journals need but with every passing year there are more and more alternative metrics, peer review systems and publishing models. I know many academics who are giving up on trying a more OA approach simply because they are utterly baffled by the plethora of people claiming that ‘THIS’ is the next thing. I’m a pretty keen early-adopter and I love trying new things and even I’m getting a bit burnt out on open access ‘solutions’.
I’m also not convinced that these new players aren’t just little baby profit-addicted publishing companies in the making. They are just riding the current trend on their way to the big league of profit cranking.
As a researcher, what barriers have you faced in your work? And how have you overcome them?
I live a charmed life, the barriers to my work are relatively small and mainly just funding, finding sympathetic people willing to let me try new things. I have a crippling allergy to doing things because “that’s the way we’ve always done them” so I spend a lot of time annoying people in meetings by insisting that we rethink about procedures they’ve been doing their way for decades. So I’m going to say my biggest barrier is myself being argumentative.
What do you think the biggest system-wide barriers to the different aspects of open science are?
Money. Your research has value to the publishers. They can charge for it because people will pay. Unless someone can cure publishers of their crippling addition to regular infusions of cold hard cash that is never going to change. Although, they are mindful (at least a little) to their public image and I suspect that they’ll find away to keep up the addiction and slowly move to Open Access, as many have already done. Different funders and employers also add their own particular brand of complications.
Your research has value to the publishers. They can charge for it because people will pay.
Do you think this differs between UK institutes and others around the world?
Obviously the biggest impact on OA is government policy and how much impact policy has on institutions. This varies hugely between countries and institutions. The issue of journals being money addicts is world wide (as are the publishers) but in many other countries there are other barriers even before getting to the evil tentacle like profit fuelled influence of the publishers.
What do you think about Open Access policies in the UK, such as the new HEFCE policy to deposit author-accepted manuscripts within 3 months of publication?
A good idea that in essence I don’t think many people would disagree with. There are some issues about exactly how it works and some technicalities but basically it’s all good.
Why do you think the UK also seems to have a preference towards ‘Gold Open Access’ along with using institutional repositories?
Gold is of course the err gold standard. I think public opinion has persuaded the political powers that if the UK public are footing the bill the UK public should get to read the papers. Anything else might have been seen as a bit of a cop out by the research council. Also there’s not always a huge fee difference between green and gold and so it would be little grant saving. Journals have of course embraced this as it means they were suddenly getting lots of sweet government money to make all these paper gold with exorbitant fees.
How has blogging influenced your career as a scientist?
I’ve posted a ~800 word blog post every Wednesday for 3 years now and every single one of those blog posts has had an impact on my career in terms of what I do and how I work. The conversations with other scientists, members of the public and even my students around my blog has been highly influential to my methods. On top of that I’ve got funding, papers, collaborations and even students simply because I blog.
I’ve posted a ~800 word blog post every Wednesday for 3 years now and every single one of those blog posts has had an impact on my career in terms of what I do and how I work.
Do you feel that social media in general has been useful in learning about ‘the world of open’?
Yes and no. It’s helped me find people that can help me be more open, and it’s been fantastic for finding open science tools. However, like any online argument/campaign Open Access has proponents that are as unpalatable to listen to as the profit pumping journals themselves.
I’ve seen Open Access advocates publicly insult and berate new young researchers because they are publishing in the ‘wrong’ journal. I myself have been told that I am ‘part of the problem’ as I have published in some mainstream journals (all paid to be gold). People feel very strongly about Open Access which is clear but like any passionate community, some people can go too far. And social media amplifies those voices brilliantly.
People feel very strongly about Open Access which is clear but like any passionate community, some people can go too far
Social media is very important and there are some very supportive people out there. My advice is to focus on them, and try to steer clear of anyone who starts discussing getting an Open Access tattoo and possible changing their name to CC-BY.
Do you think that engagement through social media should be factored into scholarly evaluation systems?
Yes and no.
Yes, social media is becoming even more important in the way scientists communicate and the connections and work they do. And I think the work scientists do to publicly disseminate their research should be rewarded.
But no, because it’s practically impossible. If you were to ask me to look at my Twitter timeline and rate each month and give it some kind of value I wouldn’t even know where to start. There is no sensible way to look objectively at that content and say what is good and bad and what is productive for future assessment. From time to time, there are things that are significant to point at and say “that thing there, that did X which led to Y which led to £££” but those are both rarely that simple and just plain rare.
However, I should point out that a system of sorts does actually already exist. REF includes the much loved ‘impact’ statements. While it’s certainly not common, I have talked to scientists who have included impact via social media as part of one of these statements. Also, in research council grants there is a specific need for engagement and public dissemination and I myself have used a blog as the proposed vehicle (something which was praised by the RC in question).
So to some extent it really already exists in some form, and will get better as more people take advantage of it.
What impact do you think open science has had on evaluation? What impact do you think it could have in the future?
I don’t think OA has had much impact on evaluation of research. Mostly evaluation happens within the University system and so access was there already. OA isn’t really about evaluation it’s about reaching people who aren’t inside that system.
Where do you see the future of scholarly publishing? And what steps do we need to take to get there?
I don’t know. I really don’t.
Open Access is going to happen slowly but surely and it’s a fight that the publishers will loose. However, there’s still the question of the data used in papers, which has a LOT more implementation issues than Open Access but is also something that needs to happen.
I hope that we move to more public funded publishing. I’d love to see a journal of “EPSRC”, “NERC” or “Wellcome” where all the research done on grants from those bodies is published OA. Then, instead of journals being a collection of papers they published, they could be curated aggregations of papers in fields which are published in large mixed OA repositories. But that is a serious change and would require a massive shift in the way people read and disseminate papers.
If you could give one piece of advice to a student wishing to start a research career, what would it be?
If you believe in open access and open data don’t be beaten down by the system. Keep trying and keep asking. But realise that you are one voice and the best you can do is to always ask. Not every paper will end up where you want it, and that’s okay. Don’t give up, but also don’t martyr your career for the sake of a single publication. If you don’t get to publish it Open Access then ask again next time and the next time and the next time.
Thank you for your advice and perspectives, Matthew – we all greatly appreciate it!