“It’s so very broken.” Rachael Dunlop on the state of scholarly communications

Continuing the awesome Open Science Stars series, we spoke with Dr. Rachael Dunlop about her thoughts on scholarly communications. Rachael is such an awesome scientist, she has her own Wikipedia page!

Hi Rachael! Thanks for joining us here. Could you start off by letting us know a little bit about your background?

Rachael Dunlop at QED 2013 in Manchester UK. CC BY SA 3.0 (Source)

I was a late starter in science, having worked in graphic design and advertising as my first career. I went to uni aged 26 to get a science degree and emerged 8 years later with a PhD in Cell Biology. I originally planned to become a Virologist but my Microbiology lecturer was so awful, I switched to Toxicology. Funnily enough, I’d never done any Biology in high school so in first year uni, I had to borrow my sister’s year 12 text books to teach myself the basics of Biology – and now I’m a Biologist.

When did you first hear about open access and open science? What were your initial thoughts?

I can’t really recall but it would have been around the time I first started publishing and became aware that if you paid an exorbitant fee, then people could read your papers for free. Of course, researchers never ever have a spare USD3000 to throw around on publishing so it just always seemed out of my reach. It’s a great idea if you can afford it. As for open science, ideas are currency in research so there was never any discussion about participating in an open system.

What can research communities do to help address important issues such as gender imbalance in academia?

Sigh, so much. Some unis/institutions are actually taking this seriously, but it’s such a slow process and sadly, I don’t expect to see any real changes before my career draws to a close.

You’ve spent time as a research in both the US and Australia. How different is the research ecosystem between the two? Do they have different attitudes or practices to ‘open science’?

Not that I’m aware of. Neither seem to be particularly interested in getting involved in it.

You work in the exciting field of brain chemistry! Do you find your research community quite open to sharing data and other resources?

No, not in the slightest. I think it will be a long time before this changes as long as current metrics for measuring career success remain in place. Basic science is very protective of ideas because intellectual property is currency.

How important do you think Open Access is in your field of neurodegeneration and ageing? Is it something that is developing fairly rapidly?

I’m not aware that it’s developing at all. In a traditional field such as this, there are no compelling reasons to do it, as it’s not obviously beneficial to individuals. When it comes to clinical trials, there are compelling reasons for data sharing, particularly negative results, and this is being spearheaded in the UK by Dr Ben Goldacre as part of AllTrials.net. I think it will be some time before it becomes a part of basic science.

Do you feel like it’s easier to support open science if there’s a human element to your research?

I personally do, particularly for diseases such as the one I study – ALS. There are currently no effective drugs so sharing information about therapies that might be showing efficacy – even if the effect is small – can mean the world to patients. On the other hand, we must be careful not to give false hope to people.

Have you found it fairly easy to commit to Open Access as a researcher? Or do you feel like your options are constrained?

No, because it’s too expensive. If we had a spare USD3000 to throw around we’d be spending it on consumables. As for sharing data prior to publication, intellectual property is just too valuable.

Do you think there is more that researchers communities can do, and indeed should do, to communicate their research more broadly?

Yes, they should be taking time to communicate their work to the public, stakeholders and politicians. But until this is incorporated into metrics thus creating incentive to do it, I can’t see it becoming the done thing. Which is a shame. Because we only have ourselves to blame when science gets distorted or misrepresented if we choose not to be part of the conversation.

Researchers should be taking time to communicate their work to the public, stakeholders and politicians

Where do you see the future of scholarly communication? What steps are needed to get there?

I think the academic publishing model needs to be torn down and re-built from scratch. Peer review is broken and journals are littered with predatory publishers. It used to be that if something was peer review published, you had some confidence in the quality of the work. This is not always the case anymore – it’s become much more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I think the academic publishing model needs to be torn down and re-built from scratch.

Whose responsibility do you think it is to lead this change?

Us­ researchers from all fields not just in science. It’s simply preposterous that we willingly hand over our work – some of which may have been funded by the taxpayer – to private corporations so that they may generate a profit from it. I mean, we literally raise the funds, do the experiments, write the manuscript, review colleagues’ manuscripts ALL FOR FREE then sign away our copyright to someone who then sells our work for huge profits. So then both we and whoever funded the work have to pay to read it. It’s so very broken.

It’s simply preposterous that we willingly hand over our work to private corporations so that they may generate a profit from it.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Rachael.

2 thoughts on ““It’s so very broken.” Rachael Dunlop on the state of scholarly communications”

  1. Thanks for your views on the subject of OA. I believe, it is a typical multi-level systemic arrangement we are trying to cope with. Academic institutions, industrial allignments, socio-cultural values and norms, psychological variables, to name a view. It can’t be changed easily because if you change one aspect on one level, dozens of other aspects on other levels are touched upon, and have to be changed in some way, either technically or culturally. Already thinking about the issues and consequences of leaving the system behind us will cause unwelcome feelings with those involved. Systemic change requires systemic approach.

  2. Dr. Dunlop does not mince words when she says “the academic publishing model needs to be torn down and re-built from scratch.” To understand why this is necessary, we have to examine the global scientific research infrastructure as a whole. In 2014, The Lancet published a series of papers entitled “Research: Increasing value, and reducing waste” (http://www.thelancet.com/series/research). Within this series the authors define and explore five sources of inefficiencies that result in $200b of the global $240b research budget (85%) being wasted. When you think about it, this makes sense because funders, researchers, and publishers all respond to different social, economic, and political pressures/incentives.

    A beautiful illustration of the sheer inertia large organizations involved in research science operate with was discussed in Dr. Dunlop’s interview. Gender imbalances in STEM research is a problem the entire industry is aware of and actively trying to fix. Despite these efforts, Dr. Dunlop fears she won’t see the results until after she retires. For this kind of change to occur funding, research, and publishing institutions all have to prioritize fixing gender imbalances. Because they all respond to different incentives, inherently the process has been turbulent and inefficient.

    To top it all off, the incentives each institution responds to are not 100% in the interest of efficiency. For instance, funders often have to consider the political implications of the research they fund. Dr. Dunlop mentioned the metrics by which researchers are judged, and how they dis-incentivize collaboration within her field. Finally, most journals are for-profit companies who clearly have a financial incentive that prevents scientific knowledge from being shared.

    To me, it seems clear that the current research science infrastructure is broken beyond repair. It’s foolish for us to expect these separate entities to operate synergistically to increase the efficiency of scientific spending. That’s why I created Co-Lab: Crowd-Sourced Scientific Method (www.MyCo-Laboratory.com).

    Co-Lab is an alternative to the current grant and laboratory-based research science economy. We’re currently building a virtual laboratory through which we hope to offer a viable career alternative to academia. Co-Lab does the job of collecting grants and compensates users for their contributions to the scientific method. We host an open-database and financially incentivize users to observe, question, hypothesize, propose experiments, conclude, and criticize.

    By reducing science to its most basic steps, we believe we can set up a compensation scheme that properly incentivizes the scientific community to work together to advance knowledge. In addition, it would provide an alternative to academia where scientists are judged and compensated solely by the impact of their contributions to science; not their gender, race, sexual orientation, or economic background.

    Sadly, we live in a world where private innovation is the only solution to our broken scientific economy. I am looking forward to the future as more tools like Co-Lab appear and help us reach our potential as a collective, global scientific community.

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