Category: Guest Blog

Is science a strong-link problem and peer review counterproductive? A pledge for community-driven evaluation of research quality and impact

Is science a strong-link problem and peer review counterproductive? A pledge for community-driven evaluation of research quality and impact

In a thought-provoking blog post, Adam Mastroianni (Columbia Business School) recently stated: “There are two kinds of problems in the world: strong-link problems and weak-link problems.” For weak-link problems, ” the overall quality depends on how good the worst stuff is”. (1) To fix them, we need to eliminate the weakest links or make them stronger. That’s why we have strict quality standards for food. Nobody wants to die because they picked the wrong tuna sandwich off the shelf!

Science, on the other hand, is a strong-link problem, Mastroianni argues: “In the long run, the best stuff is all that matters. The bad stuff doesn’t matter at all.”

In this guest blog, Sebastian Alers debates and analyzes some recent attitudes on science and peer review, in an attempt to call and draw attention to the importance of community-driven evaluation of research quality and impact.

In:  Guest Blog  

Guest post: Strings of an open data ‘code’

This is a guest post, translated from Spanish on Forbes Mexico, by Nina V. Tscheke

At ScienceOpen, we would like to extend our thanks and gratitude to Forbes Mexico for mentioning us in a really great post of theirs about how open data and sharing can accelerate the research process. The timing for this is perfect in due to the recent launch of SciELO on our platform. A special thank you to Alfredo Taborga for writing the piece, the original version of which can be found here.

Here is the full reproduced article, with permission:

Open data can change the way we do research, shorten the time needed to find cures to illnesses, and encourage the coexistence in a world with fewer walls and more freedom.

If those who read my articles are more or less my age, they should remember the acclaimed novel The Da Vinci Code. I remember how I devoured it. I couldn’t stop reading. I also remember friends of mine who took it as an accurate account of reality within which the church tries hard to obscure the great miracles of the world. It is not their fault; they simply fell victim to the positivistic education that is imparted in this country.

If the plot was written now, Brown would have a different ending and a radical change of story in it:

A murder in the Louvre and some clues in Da Vinci’s pictures lead to the discovery of a mystery that had been protected by a secret society for more than 2000 years. It is suspected that this discovery could bring down the pillars of Christianity. Robert Langdon tries to get into the Vatican Library to gain access to ancient manuscripts that would support his theory… Sophie Neveu, who would probably be part of the millennial generation, laughs, takes out her smartphone and types Vatican Library into Google. (The first line on the page reads “Digitalize to Disclose”.) Two pages open from the top section of the page (the Vatican people did a good job with the search engine marketing).

Dear reader, this is open data… The concept isn’t new, but its formal definition is. Although I have friends who would criticize me for using Wikipedia as a source, I will take the liberty of just doing that. Because the access to open and unrestricted information is paramount, especially to this entry of my blog.

Wikipedia defines open data as “any piece of information that is free to be used, reused and distributed, subject to the sole requirement of crediting the author”.

Open data can refer to maps, information about the genome, about science or biodiversity. This brings it into conflict with restrictions of patent rights, copyrights, licenses, etc.—whereas its greatest defenders assert that these very restrictions conflict with the common good.

Let’s move away from this discussion possible to become byzantine; it is true that open data could not better be represented than with the words by Luciano Ammenti, CIO of the Vatican Library, as ushered in an interview he gave my friend Leandro Africano for the Revista Pulso in Argentina: “The documents inside the Vatican Library are not the Vatican’s, but the people’s.”

He refers to texts of Christianity just as well as, among others, to incunabula by Homer, Sophocles, Dante, and the first edition of the bible. Anyone can now consult the more than 80,000 manuscripts and 8,900 documents, going way beyond the capacity of 200 persons that the baroque hall has. Visit @vaticanlibrary for more information, because surely the Vatican is totally “social media savvy”.

I would also like to share another project that is a GREAT example for open data: it is called and was fathered by a great friend of mine who thinks that we all can do something to make this world a better place.

ScienceOpen is a huge data repository providing open access to scientific publications. It offers almost 13 million articles by more than 9 million authors, extensively classified and searchable by relevance and context.

In a world with global threats like the previous pandemics this is something that cannot be underrated. Science Open transforms into a potential to share global solutions to these problems.

The very World Health Organization links Science Open as a platform to share research about the Zika virus. You ask yourself who shares their information? Well, it comes from everyone: institutions, scientists, Nobel Prize winners; what’s more, while I am writing these lines, they are incorporating gigantic collections such as SciELO’s — a great example of scientific open data in Latin America.

“Information is power” is a phrase quite overused; however, if access to information can change the plot of a novel so radically, I absolutely think that this accessibility can change the way we do research, shorten the time needed to find cures to illnesses, and thus encouraging a coexistence in a world with fewer borders, fewer walls, fewer prejudices, and more freedom.

Peer Review Around the World – researchers speak #peerrevwk15

This guest post was created by the founding partners of the first ever Peer Review Week (#peerrevwk15), namely ORCIDScienceOpen, and Wiley, with support from Sense About Science.

We talk a lot about peer review in the scholarly communications world. Many of us – and our organizations – are working to improve both the process and the experience for researchers, which has led to a significant increase in the range of options available, especially – but not exclusively – for reviewing journal articles.  From double blind to completely open review, pre- and/or post-publication, and even transferrable peer review, not to mention the work being done on peer review recognition and validation by organizations like Publons and PRE, there’s a plethora of new approaches and services to choose from.

Image credit: Listen Up by woodleywonderworks, Flickr, CC BY

But what do researchers make of all this? What are their experiences of peer review? How and why do they review themselves, and what do they get from reviews of their own work? In this reflection from researchers around the world, we asked some of them to tell us about their views of peer review.

By and large, their feedback was very positive, with good experiences outweighing bad and universal agreement that peer review is, as Elizabeth Briody of Cultural Keys, USA, says: “a critically important process for evaluating the merit, content, relevance, and usefulness of scholarly publications” – or as Hugh Jarvis, Cybrarian, University at Buffalo, USA, describes it: “Peer review is the glue of academic publishing.”  Saurabh Sinha, Executive Dean, Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment, University of Johannesburg, South Africa agrees that: “it positions our work with respect to the body of already published knowledge. The approach also helps to ensure, as far as possible, the correctness of the work, elimination of potential blind spots, and validity of assumptions for a practical world.”

Image credit: AJ Cann/Flickr, CC BY-SA
Image credit: AJ Cann/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Pretty much everyone noted the importance of peer review – both as reviewer and author – to them personally as well as professionally. For example, Professor Yongcheng Hu, a medical researcher in China commented that: “Peer review is an essential arbiter of scientific quality, no doubt, it has a great impact on scientific communication and is of great value in determining academic papers’ suitability for publication, while for me, via personal experience, it is also an process of exploration and sublimation.” Erik Ingelson, Professor of Molecular Epidemiology at Uppsala University in Sweden, currently Visiting Professor at Stanford University, USA adds: “Mostly, my experiences of being a reviewer have been positive; I get to think critically about study design and methods and learn new things on the way. Similarly, most of the time the review process is positive also as the author, since you get valuable input and the paper that comes out is often better than the original submission.” Anna Cupani, a Belgian researcher, agrees: “Having someone reading and commenting on your research is beneficial for several reasons: it validates your work, it confirms what you are doing is meaningful not only for you but for a wider scientific audience and it helps you focus and improve your research. You never grasp the meaning of something as deeply as when you have to explain it to someone else!” And Lee Pooi See, Associate Chair (Research), School of Materials Science and Engineering, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore adds: “My personal experience of being reviewed has been interesting; especially in receiving scientific viewpoints from different reviewers on emerging topics. Peer review also steers us to identify those unaddressed aspects of the related research topics.

Several people also commented that there are upsides and downsides to peer review.  Janine Milbradt, who is currently working on her PhD at the Institute for Human Genetics, University of Cologne, Germany, says: “You never know what is going to happen! All you can be sure about is that you will have to put another 3-6 months of work into your paper. Having a paper reviewed is a nerve-stretching process, filled with hopes and dreams about the reviewers actually liking your research. On a more serious note, the review process is a very important tool to find incomprehensible or knowledge lacking parts of your research to improve your paper.”  Professor Wong Limsoon, KITHCT Professor of Computer Science, National University of Singapore comments: “I appreciate very much constructive reviews that gave me really useful suggestions on my work.  I am sometimes annoyed by uninformed comments, but fortunately these are few.”

Logo: download
Logo: download

So what improvements to peer review would our group of researchers like to see? To quote Professor Sinha again: “Scholarly peer-review has…the opportunity to improve beyond the past, where today, coupled with data, crowd-sourced reviews/discussion, newer open-access technologies could play a dynamic role of developing credibility of research-work and at the same time increasing competition!” Hugh Jarvis likewise has “great hopes that peer review will develop a much more expanded role in the future, and provide input before and after publication, similar to the role the comments serve in Current Anthropology and the product ratings in sites like” And Joao Bosco Pesquero, Professor, Federal University of Sao Paulo, Brazil would also like to see a more open approach: “The more openly we produce science and expose our work to criticism, the more it helps to improve what we do.”

Perhaps the best summary of why researchers continue to value peer review – both as authors and as reviewers – comes from PhD student, Grace Pold of UMass – Amherst, USA, who told us: “Although I have had the opportunity to formally review only four or five papers, reviewing papers is one of my favorite things to do. First off, it is a good reminder that not all papers are born perfect, and when I am struggling to try and finish my own work and the prospect of a well-polished manuscript seems too far in the distance, it gives me hope. Second, is there a better opportunity to see what your colleagues are working on and thinking about than by reviewing their work? Third, the idea of being able to help shape the information released into the public sphere is a very enticing. Fourth, it is a great excuse to really think about the assumptions you and others make in your research…when you review, it is your responsibility to stop and think about why this is the way things are done. Fifth, thinking up alternative interpretations and then filtering through the data presented in the paper to determine the robustness of the conclusions is a rewarding challenge. Finally, reviewing papers provides an opportunity to slow-down and formulate a full, well-rounded opinion on something, something which happens unfortunately rarely in the life of the frantic modern scientist stuck in with the nitty gritty details of doing experiments. And I think that from a personal perspective, that final point of generating a sense of accomplishment in doing a good job in thinking things through to the end is probably the greatest motivation for me to review papers.”




In:  Guest Blog  

Why OA is important to students – and why they are important to OA!

Green cars outside Berlin by Michael Caven, Flickr, CC BY

Yesterday, we were delighted to welcome student Peter Grabitz as an intern to the Berlin office. Peter is a former project coordinator at the European Students Conference (ESC) organized for 26 years by Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, which attracts 400 students annually.  A warm welcome to Peter and his first blog post which offers his perspective on the importance of Open Access (OA) to students. As Peter says at the end of his post:

The responsibility for OA education lies with the younger generation. None of us has ever had the experience of sitting down with our grandparents while they explain the significance of Twitter or Facebook! When it comes to innovations and new technologies it is most often the younger generation that is the driving force to change. And so it is up to us to sit down with our professors and explain the groundbreaking advantages of new communication methods in scientific publishing. We grew up with this stuff, they did not.

A few Fridays ago I met Ruben on a friend’s birthday party. Currently doing a PhD and with a looming deadline, he was only there to say hello and leave a gift. He wouldn’t have been on such a tight schedule, if there was an easy and affordable way to access all the articles he needed. His University is quite small and doesn’t offer many journal subscriptions so he was hitting paywall after paywall, He nearly gave up before he really began.

The solution? He asked a friend who studies in a bigger University in the same city for his library password and finally he had the access he needed.

But… is this really the solution and what lies at the heart of this problem?

The current scientific publishing system made sense back in the time of Descartes at the beginning of the Enlightment when research began and findings needed to be shared publically instead of via letter. Interesting results were bundled and published regularly and the very first journals arrived. Publishers created a way to bring research to the people.

With the amount of submitted articles rising, publishers asked the most renowned researchers in the field to give their opinion on the relevance and methodology of the articles to decide which ones to publish which today we know as Peer Review.

The first difficulties became apparent in the late 20th century in what was called the “Serial Crisis”, Libraries and Universities couldn’t afford subscriptions to the ever growing number of crucial journals. Journal price inflation outpaced library subscription budgets and cuts in institutional funding. The only remedy: less serial subscriptions to balance the budget.

Publishing was shaken up again when Sir Tim Berners-Lee thought it would be great to start a global network connecting millions of computers – the internet. Spreading information became as easy as one click. One of the only fields that was slow to adopt to the internet was scientific publishing. With a margin of up to 36%, publishers continue to drain money out of the research system and are use draconian copyright restrictions and paywalls to block society from reading and using research results.

In 2001 a group of people dedicated to change this system met in Budapest and signed the Budapest Open Access Initiative. So why do I care about it?

  1. Ruben’s story is not the only one like this. All around the world, there are students not gaining access to the latest results in their field of study. And it is not only students. It is also their professors. How can you teach something you are not even able to read? Open Access gives equal opportunities to every student, regardless of whether he or she is affiliated to a small or big, British, German, Gambian, Malaysian or no university at all! Open Access empowers everyone!
  2. It is good for you and for your research. Because, as Björn Brembs puts it: “Glamour is nothing if nobody reads you.” By now it has been scientifically proven: publishing your research OA gives you more citations. More people read you. Your impact is higher, even without the dreaded Impact Factor.
  3. The importance of OA goes even further. It directly translates into better patient care by ensuring a medical education that reflects the current results of research and the state of the art. OA makes information on drug safety and treatment effectiveness available to literally anyone. It brings the latest results in research directly to the patients’ bedside.

The importance is clear. But: what can we do to support OA as students?

  • Read, read, read the OA literature. Encourage others to do so too.
  • Join the OA community. For example, the Right to Research Coalition are seriously amazing! Anyone can learn a lot from their experience by going to one of their Conferences
  • Be a role Model. Publish OA yourself! If you do it with ScienceOpen, or any of the newer OA venues, it’s quick, easy and more affordable than ever
  • Become an ambassador. Ask your professor and coworkers in the lab to publish OA. Articles, Data and Software. Even though you might receive negative answers, like these, don’t give up and be persistent
  • Become an advocate. Ask yourself, is there a Repository at your university? What OA strategy has your university adopted? Is there one? Who is responsible for it?
  • Educate and raise awareness. There are many opportunities to raise the topic of Open Science. For example, start an event during OA-Week!

The big question isn’t IF Open Access will take over, but WHEN it will do so. As Alexander Grossmann, co-founder of ScienceOpen, puts it: “both the visibility and acceptance of OA concepts among the scholarly community worldwide needs to be increased”

If not students…who else?

The responsibility for educating about OA lies with the younger generation. None of us has ever had the experience of sitting down with our grandparents while they explain the significance of Twitter or Facebook! When it comes to innovations and new technologies it is most often the younger generation that is the driving force to change. And so it is up to us to sit down with our professors and explain the groundbreaking advantages of new communication methods in scientific publishing. We grew up with this stuff, they did not.

It is our responsibility to find a better solution to the problem than Ruben did. It is our responsibility to shape a new publishing system in scientific research that will be effective, innovative and most certainly: open.


In:  Guest Blog  

Drowning in information? Throw me a recommendation life ring!

Image credit: Peace by OC Always, Flickr. CC BY
Image credit: Peace by OC Always, Flickr. CC BY

Here at ScienceOpen, we like to showcase new technologies that may improve the efficiency of research, especially those that focus on speeding up access to information, preferably of the open kind!

We were alerted to the scientific recommendation engine called Sparrho, by a tweet from John Wilbanks (great admiration for this chap). We invited Qingzhi Fan, who has a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Cambridge and has worked in finance and as a consultant, to explain what Sparrho does and why it of benefit to researchers. Now over to Qingzhi…

Scientists, this is good news and bad news. Whether we like it or not, scientific information has been transformed by the digital age – this means quicker traffic to a greater volume of content than ever before. The challenge of sharing ideas with a broader audience used to be its dissemination; but today, it’s how to grab the right attention, in the right way.

From a scientist’s perspective and as a scientist myself, staying up-to-date with the latest research in my field is as important as working hard in the lab. The wealth of information available today helps speed up breakthroughs, but at the same time confuses, distracts and overwhelms us. There are two issues here: where to find the relevant information and how to do it quickly.

As Richard Van Noorden pointed out in Nature, scientists may be reaching a peak in reading habits. We are adapting: moving away from library and traditional paper prints to read online, moving away from verbose articles to prefer short succinct ones, moving away from reading articles in full and in detail to power-browsing. Yet, reading time itself is often not the real frustration, but the time wasted before finding any relevant information.

The recent emergence of various recommendation services that help researchers stem the rising tide of literature is well described by Elizabeth Gibney in Nature.  The idea of using these tools is to be presented with the relevant information without having to look for it, then our job becomes to read and interpret it, even to share it with others.

For example, our scientific discovery platform aggregates and distills information based on user preferences and makes personalised suggestions. The algorithms are designed to learn user needs and go beyond linear keyword search in what can be described as a three-pronged approach:

1) Data-data analysis: using techniques like natural language processing to pull the most relevant research based on the data users provide (keywords, subject area analysis, etc).

2) User-data analysis: every time users interact with the site by indicating what information is ‘relevant’ or ‘irrelevant’ to them, the engine can build up an article-to-field level of understanding in terms of users’ interests.

3) User-user interactions: users act as the intelligent curators of the recommendations; technology is merely the enabler. Individual user interactions not only improve their own recommendation profile, but also help the whole user community with similar interests.

A good recommendation tool can go beyond scientific articles and act as a one-stop shop for researchers. It will recommend relevant talks, seminars, conferences, posters, patents, grants etc and aggregate all categories of the latest news with filtering functionality. Users can set up automatic newsfeed and not worry about searching and missing the latest information; at the same time, these services often provides opportunity for serendipitous discoveries hidden in places users never normally look.

To every problem there is a solution. For content recommendation, the solution may not be initially perfect since it only gets better with more user interaction, but it may be the life ring you need to stay afloat.



In:  Guest Blog  

What has ruffled the Open Access feathers of Brazilian Science Editors?

Latin American Birds by Deni Williams, Flickr, CC BY
Latin American Birds by Deni Williams, Flickr, CC BY

We are delighted to welcome Germana Barata, a science communicator at State University of Campinas (Unicamp), editor of Ciência e Cultura magazine – a publication of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science – to our guest blog. We’ve covered a few other stories about Brazilian Scientists on our blog so we’re delighted to carry another one.

The Brazilian science editors’ community was surprised on Oct. 29 when the Coordination of Improvement of Personnel in Higher Education (CAPES) announced that it will launch two tenders to “internationalize” 100 Brazilian journals through an agreement with a Non Brazilian publisher. The proposal was announced during a meeting attended by few invited Brazilian editors and five huge global for profit publishers (Elsevier, Emerald, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley). Neither members of the Brazilian Association of Science Editors (ABEC) nor SciELO – the largest Open Access repository of science publications in the country and one of the largest in the world – were informed about the meeting.

Last week, the community of science editors met up at the VIII Workshop on Scientific Publishing in Campos do Jordão, São Paulo State, and decided to publish an open letter directed to CAPES. Although the Brazilian community of science editors view the CAPES proposal as a positive effort to internationalize, provide visibility and professionalize Brazilian journals, they want the process to be transparent and to be heard during it.

The open letter (published on Nov. 20), signed by Sigmar Rode de Melo, the president of ABEC, and Abel Packer, the coordinator of SciELO/Fapesp coordinator, requests that the tenders are suspended and reformulated.

Among the priority items listed in the letter is the matter of why international publishers were consulted before those in Brazil. The letter states that any tender must be done in a transparent and competitive context that considers – in a fair way – “the interest and priority of research and advances of science communication in Brazil, as it has been happening”. The letter concludes thus:

Based on these considerations, we propose that the resources announced by CAPES become available to pay article processing charge of papers by authors who are members of Brazilian institutions and that are published in high quality journals published in the country.  This way, the resources will be applied in a transparent way by researchers that will give priority to use the funding in the communication of their research in Brazilian journals with better performance. These resources from CAPES can be implemented  by contributions from other agencies and research institutions in Brazil in a move to establish a national fund to ensure rational, effective and sustainable funding for Open Access publication of quality journals from Brazil. ABEC Brazil and SciELO have an interest in contributing to this movement and the development of the national fund. Thus, Brazil will hold a groundbreaking and innovative breakthrough in science communication through Open Access.

Improved research communication

Importantly, ABEC and SciELO are not convinced that simply handing over their national publications to one of these international and traditional for-profit publisher’s will bring the twin desired results of increased visibility for Brazilian science on the world stage and the publication of more work. They believe that a better way forward would be to support Brazilian journals so that Brazil can strengthen, adopt and develop national capacities and infrastructure through greater understanding of the international policies and practices of publishing. They also wish to ensure that Brazilian editors keep autonomy over editing and publication process under an international publisher; and if these Brazilian journals will be able to be financially sustainable after meeting the new standards set by the international publisher, since the editing costs will increase. And of course, they wish to ensure that access to the articles contained in Brazilian publications remains as open as possible.

Investment estimated at $10mm

CAPES has not officially announced the investment amount. Yet, members of Brazilian publishers and science editors at the Workshop have estimated investments around US$ 10 million (25 million Brazilian Reais) directed to just one publisher. For comparative purposes, the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation – through the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) – made a public call last November 7 (CNPq n.25 / 2014) of R$6 million (US$2,4 million) to support the domestic editing and publication of science journals.

Scientific publishing in Brazil

Brazil publishes around 2,7% of the world’s scientific papers and around 97% of all Brazilian journals are Open Access. Last January, SciELO made all its journals available at Web of Science in a move to improve international visibility. Government funding agencies cover the editing costs for Brazilian journals. The sustainability of this model, however, has been questioned due to rising costs of Brazilian journals, particularly with new criteria established by SciELO, such as converting files to XML (Extensible Markup Language Generic), which becomes mandatory from January 2015. Other criteria are planned to start in 2016, such as the need to include a greater percentage of papers in English (the majority is still published in Portuguese) and foreign peer-review referees.

Around 10% of Brazilian journals offer Gold Open Access which makes content freely and immediately available. Publication fees are levied to generate revenue to the journal. The Revista de Saúde Pública (Journal of Public Health) of São Paulo University (USP), indexed in SciELO, charges from R$1,500 (US$600) for original paper, review and comments to R$1,000 (US$400) for brief communications, while the Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, also in SciELO, charges R$2,200 (US$880).

Recent experience

According to Antonio Martins Figueiredo Neto, editor of the Brazilian Journal of Physics (BJP) – who left SciELO in 2011 went it transferred to Springer – the process of submission, review and professional production has completely changed since then. The result, he says, “has increased the journal’ visibility, and increased the number of paper submissions”. On the other hand, today BJP can be read either by payment of US$39,95 per paper or a subscription fee. Figueiredo Neto informed me that the cost of R$20,000 (US$8,000) per issue is funded by CNPq. “There is, however, an expectation that after the journal gets royalties from Springer, from the sale of subscriptions, that it will be self-sustainable in a few years”.

Climb down

Following pressure from the science editors, the Ministry of Education (that hosts CAPES) announced (Nov. 21) that there is no budget definition nor a tender model under development. And that the Brazilian editors will choose if they want an international publisher and that the publisher chosen will only host and provide visibility, full editorial responsibility will remain national.

What we can take from this experience is that CAPES’ move to internationalize the top 100 Brazilian journal has already guaranteed an increase in the visibility and impact of the community of national editors and publishers and issues pertaining to Brazilian Science Communication and Open Access.

Source: This post is based on the news originally published at ComCiência Magazine, news, 17th November 2014.


The times they are a changing – improving the postdoc experience

We are delighted to welcome Benjamin Cain (@BenCainPhD), a Postdoctoral Researcher in Astrophysics at UC Davis, CA, USA and member of the UC Postdoc Union, UAW 5810, to our guest blog. We’ve covered a few other stories about Earlier Career Reseachers and some from Post Docs on our blog, so we’re delighted to carry another one. And, just as a reminder, co-founder Alexander Grossmann, waived fees for Earlier Career Researchers for Open Access Week 2014, offer expires end of Nov 2014. Now, over to Ben.

I have a job proposition for you.

You’ll be making less than $4000 per month, time off and sick leave aren’t guaranteed, you’ll probably have to pay for your own healthcare, and, let’s be honest, you’ll probably be working well over 40 hours a week (meaning you’ll probably be earning less than $20/hour).  You need to be innovative, at the cutting edge of scientific research, be a leader in your field, train your junior co-workers, and you’ll probably have to do this for at least 5 years before you can even think about moving up the ladder, which may or may not be an option.  And did we mention that you’ll need a PhD?

Image credit: walking out the door. woodley wonder works, Flickr, CC BY
Image credit: walking out the door. woodley wonder works, Flickr, CC BY

Sorry, where did you go, are you still interested?

If this sounds like your life, you’re probably one of the 60,000 or so postdoctoral researchers at numerous institutions across the US.  And if it sounds like a bad deal, you’re not alone. The right to stable benefits, well-defined minimum salaries, guaranteed annual pay raises, discrimination protections, sick leave and paid time off, a fair and transparent system for resolving grievances, were among the many reasons that postdocs at the University of California began building a union in 2005. And while scientists probably aren’t the first thing people think of when they think of union workers, UC postdocs join a long tradition in the labor movement of academics coming together collectively to improve their working conditions.

Since ratifying their first contract in 2010, myself and other members of the UC postdocs union, UAW 5810, have made significant improvements to the postdoc experience at UC.  Not only has the average salary for a UC postdoc risen by 14% to ~$47,800 over the past four years, postdocs are guaranteed health insurance for themselves and their partners/dependents or term life insurance quotes without a medical exam, are guaranteed access to career development resources, have increased paid time off and better job security than ever before.  In addition to these direct gains, having a union has increased UC postdocs’ ability to advocate for the interests of postdocs and scientists in California and across the country.  We’ve met with legislators at both the federal and state levels to advocate on issues like increased science funding, comprehensive immigration reform, and gender equity in the workplace, among others.  We’ve also communicated directly with funding agencies like the NIH to make sure that the postdoc voice is heard.  With our union we’ve been able to marshall a much stronger collective voice than would have been possible otherwise.

It’s clear that we’ve made significant progress for UC postdocs through our union. But taking a step back, it’s clear that there is a lot more work to be done. Though salaries have increased, the fact is that postdocs are still significantly underpaid relative to similarly qualified workers in a variety of industries. The University of California takes in over five billion dollars (yes, that’s a “B”) in federal research funds every year, and postdocs are involved in the majority of the research work that represents. Postdocs do research, train undergraduate and graduate students, maintain lab equipment, help apply for funding, and keep the science enterprise rolling. Postdocs are an essential component of the scientific research workforce, but are not compensated to match.

These economic issues have important implications for academia more broadly. The low level of postdoc salaries relative to other opportunities can have the effect of pushing postdocs with families, and women in particular, out of science research careers. As the amount of time to get a PhD has risen, this is affecting a larger and larger portion of the postdoc pool. For international postdocs, which is well over half of postdocs at UC, this is a particular concern since some visas do not allow spouses to work and therefore require many postdoc families to survive on a single income.  The lack of childcare benefits puts additional pressure on postdocs, and again especially women, to drop out of research careers because of the strain of balancing work alongside parenting responsibilities. This is exacerbated by the fact that most of the UC campuses are located in the most expensive cities in California, where housing and childcare are increasingly unaffordable on postdoc salaries.

In the context of the open access publishing movement that has exploded in the past few years, these economic issues highlight an important misalignment of priorities. Consider what might be achieved if the funds spent on for-profit publishing were instead invested in the labor that goes into producing scientific results. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars inflating the profit margins of a few publishing companies, we could be funding new areas of research, making sure that the researchers who did the work were better paid, and overall improving the diversity and vibrancy of our academic community.

So where do we go from here? We’ve made important gains but postdoc working conditions need further progress that reflects our contributions to UC’s research. At the end of September, 2015 the first contract for the postdoc union, UAW 5810, will expire, so next year we will going back to the bargaining table with UC.  What we’ll be fighting for goes beyond just what is good for postdocs at UC.  We don’t accept the status quo in academia as good enough for postdocs at any institution, and we’ll be standing up for a change in how postdocs are viewed across the US.  We’re an essential part of the research workforce, and by standing together we will make sure that our voice is heard and improve the lives of postdocs at UC and across the country.

Want to know more about the UAW 5810 story and how postdocs have benefitted from building a union?  Check out our Point of View piece in eLife. Also, Plant Scientist Benjamin Schwessinger (@schwessinger) has posted a blog at the ASPB entitled How UC postdocs benefit from building their own union! (Who’s next?)

Postdocs are doing it for themselves

Image credit:, CC BY-SA

Image credit: Open, CC BY-SA

Postdocs must make Science more open to have their voice – and get it heard.

Gary McDowell, Tufts University and Future of Research Symposium

We’re delighted to welcome Gary McDowell, a post-doc working on left-right development in frogs (his Twitter handle is appropriately named @biophysicalfrog) and involved in the Future of Research Symposium starting on Thursday of this week (check out the speakers) as our second guest blogger. That we have decided to cover issues of importance to junior faculty in this post is a deliberate choice because we want to encourage their participation in the scientific conversation and Open Access. For a flavor of our activities with this group, including our first ever students awards at the European Students Conference in September, check out the Earlier Career channel on our blog.

Now over to Gary…

Recently, Liz Allen from ScienceOpen and I discussed her blog post entitled “How to make science more open, 7 ideas for early career researchers“. Our conversation gave me some pause for thought about the role of postdocs in facilitating the scientific endeavor.  I also am a firm advocate of “post-docs doing it for themselves”.  I’ve been involved in the organization of The Future of Research Symposium, a two-day event for graduate students and postdocs in the Boston area to come together and discuss the issues facing young researchers at present, under the groupings of training, structure of the workforce, funding, and metrics of assessment.  One measure of the success of a scientist is through the science they produce, reflected in the papers that they publish.  At present, we are at a point in scientific publishing where there is a strong movement towards “open access”: science available to all.  This means freely available to read and re-use: no paywalls, no subscriptions, simply science that is freely available to the public.

There are many good reasons for publishing open access which even its detractors can itemize as pointed out in a recent tweet by Joseph McArthur (@Mcarthur_Joe) who highlighted this section of an assessment by analysts from Bernstein Research which was shared by the independent journalist Richard Poynder (@RickyPo)

“Stepping back to take in the big picture, we would be hard pressed, having spent six years networking extensively in the academic publishing and OA communities, even to articulate what problem is OA trying to accomplish. Ask a librarian, and you will be told that OA is meant to address the serial cost crisis (the rising cost of journal subscriptions and the impact this has on their capacity to fulfil the other missions of academic libraries). Ask a researcher, and you will be told that OA will allow more researchers to read their articles, leading to more citations and – ultimately – to better dissemination of knowledge. Ask an economist, and you will be told that OA will allow small and medium sized companies which do not have access to the latest research to do so, furthering the growth of the economy and job creation. Ask some activists, and you will be told that OA is meant to deflate the margins of capitalist exploitation of public spending. Ask an activist from emerging countries: you will be told that OA is meant to allow researchers and doctors in poor countries to have access to leading research. This lack of clarity on which problem OA is trying to solve, in turn, means that it is difficult to achieve any of these goals.”

There are clearly many noble goals to the endeavor of publishing Open Access.  However there are concerns, particularly amongst young researchers, about publishing outside of the “high impact factor” set of journals that are traditionally viewed as grant- and job-winners.  These issues were recently highlighted in a blog by Alexander Grossman, a co-founder of ScienceOpen. Major difficulties that postdocs face in Open Access include not having the final say on where their papers are published, or even when.  Many of us have smaller sets of work; or negative data; or data that aims to reproduce other’s work, which are all good pieces of science but are often not viewed as being worthy of publication.  In my own experience, I have been very fortunate to always work with principal investigators who are (reasonably) happy to publish smaller datasets or less exciting (but still novel) stories.

However my own experience with Open Access has been somewhat limited.  Changes to requirements for funding from Research Councils in the UK, and NIH funding in the US, have led to my research becoming gradually more open, most recently graduating from being behind a paywall for one year to being immediately open to the public.  As part of the preparations for the Future of Research Symposium, we have published an open letter to Science in the Winnower and an article in the Journal of Postdoctoral Research.  Both publications have then been rapidly disseminated on social media, for example through our @FORsymp handle to our target audience, for free and open discussion.  The experiences I have had with these publications, plus investigating other avenues for publishing open access, reinforce my own view that in the modern era, when people search less in particular journals and more on particular topics, that a paper being available rapidly and openly is more important than the competitiveness of getting into the journal.  Good work is good work, and recent controversies over paper retractions how that the Impact Factor of a journal is not necessarily a direct correlation with the rigor of the peer review of the science.  In fact, many of the controversies that arose from the STAP saga may have been avoided in formats with Open Peer Review, with people able to directly comment and review on the paper, rather than the initial concerns having to be raised indirectly on other media.

Postdocs need to make themselves heard and Open Access publishing provides a medium to do this.  A free exchange of ideas is encouraged not only by postdocs publishing in places where their papers are accessible to all; but by postdocs participating in the review process.  Whenever possible, I sign my reviews to make it clear that I am not hiding behind anonymity in the comments that I make, and so I am therefore careful to make sure they are fair and critical in a constructive manner.   ScienceOpen is one example of a progression from the typical reviewing process, using Post-Publication Peer Review to facilitate open and fair discussion and criticism of scientific work.  Not only is embarking upon peer review a great contribution to the scientific community, this is an excellent opportunity for postdocs to get experience in reviewing papers and also in providing reflection on how to write their own papers.

In her post, Liz advocates getting involved in journal clubs and conferences.  I would agree with this, and in particular we are keen for people to get involved with the Future of Research Symposium not only this week, when the symposium will be held, but carrying our findings forwards: we view this not as a one-off event, but a continuing endeavor.  I would extend Liz’s call-to-arms and suggest that postdocs get involved in scientific societies: many societies are now actively soliciting postdoctoral involvement at the very highest levels.  For example, the Genetics Society of America has posts on all committees – and its executive board – for trainees. The American Society for Cell Biology has an extensive network of postdoctoral volunteers, COMPASS. Many learned societies are engaging upon connecting with younger researchers who are, after all, aspiring to be their future members as established academics.

Finally, the most important reason for postdocs to get involved and raise their voices is to make themselves be heard.  There has been a call, in the most recent meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for younger scientists to respond to the alarm raised by senior academics, in particular about the state of biomedical research in the US:

The voices that are missing so far, [are] the young voices and we need to get them into the mix.”

Shirley Tilghman, PCAST, September 19th 2014

That is the aim of the Future of Research Symposium, to try to initiate a unified voice on how graduate students and postdocs feel about the issues important to science and how it is carried out.  Our aim is then the continuation of these meetings, both locally and hopefully to inspire others nationally, to produce a voice which is ever louder.  The voices of young researchers are not, in the main, being heard.  Recently, an open letter was sent to the AAAS journal Science regarding concerns over its new widely-advertised open access journal, Science Advances, written mostly (but not exclusively) by young researchers. The response of AAAS so far has been to send the authors some Frequently Asked Questions. Likewise, a similar group has sent a similar open letter to the Society for Neuroscience over its new open access journal eNeuroThe response was another email that did not address or attempt to answer any of our queries (but was a step up from the AAAS response).  In one particular case the term “riff-raff” has been used by Steven McKnight in his capacity as President of the ASBMB, to describe those “who never would have survived as scientists in the 1960s and 1970s”. There is a lot of support at the highest levels of academia, but clearly a lot of work needs to be done by our community to have our concerns taken seriously.

Postdocs have a lot of support in academia and beyond from those willing to speak out in our favor.  However, without the postdoc community engaging, raising their voice and making clear that they are present and essential to the scientific endeavor, there is only so much that can be done to change the system.  So I join with the call-to-arms to postdocs to engage in making science more open, and raising aloud their voices.

In:  Guest Blog  

Promoting Openness and Transparency in Social Science Research

Image credit: Transparency, Fay Ratta, Flickr, CC BY
Image credit: Transparency, Fay Ratta, Flickr, CC BY

We’re delighted to welcome Guillaume Kroll, Program Manager at the Center for Effective Global Action, California’s leading research institute on global development and poverty alleviation, as our first ever guest blogger.

That we have chosen to highlight the social sciences in this first guest post is not by accident! Over the last few months, we’ve been thinking carefully about how to achieve one of our goals which is “to broaden Open Access beyond the sciences”. You can read more about our research project here.

Now over to Guillaume…

In recent years, there have been significant efforts to enhance the rigor and quality of evidence in the social sciences. Most notably, there is a widespread shift toward field experiments that test policy interventions using randomized treatment and control groups, in a manner similar to medical trials. This approach, advanced in part by development economists, has increased our ability to identify causal relationships between interventions and their social impacts, yielding information that is useful for policy-makers, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector alike.

However, it is not clear that more rigorous research methods have directly translated into better policy, or into programs that improve people’s lives. In practice, social science remain highly susceptible to bias, over-inference, lack of transparency, and even fraud. Researchers argue that these failures result from distorted incentives and weaknesses in the institutions that govern social science. These constraints make it difficult for scholars to assess the validity of prior work, establish scientific consensus, and definitively answer questions of broad importance.

Failures in the integrity of social science research are especially problematic when study results are used for policy design, since a single policy can affect millions of people, over many years.

To address these problems, a group of social science researchers established the Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences (BITSS). BITSS is a network of economists, political scientists, and psychologists committed to increase the standards of rigor and integrity across social science disciplines. Since its inception, BITSS has supported collaboration among academic researchers, graduate students, journal editors, and policy-makers interested in improving the quality of evidence for decision-making. Central to BITSS efforts is the identification of useful strategies and tools for maintaining research transparency, including the use of study registries, pre-analysis plans, data sharing, and replication.

On December 11-12, 2014, BITSS will be holding a Research Transparency Forum at the University of California, Berkeley. The two-day conference will bring together academic leaders, scholarly publishers, and policy-makers to discuss recent innovations in journal practices, academic training, data sharing, and evidence-based policy in light of the push for increased transparency. BITSS is currently accepting the submission of papers to be presented and discussed at the conference.

Increasing the reliability and accuracy of scientific evidence requires well-defined standards of methodological rigor. At the same time, new tools and strategies to increase transparency must be integrated into existing research workflows to facilitate adoption. As the social sciences reinvent their practices around data, it is absolutely the right moment to build new channels of collaboration, cross-learning, and dissemination for innovative, open research practices.

To register to the Research Transparency Forum, please visit the BITSS Annual Meeting page.

In:  Guest Blog  

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