A science revolution… within our lifetime?

By Joern Fischer

Scientific research is fun. Or it should be anyway.

But more and more often, we see discussion about the various ills of the way we now conduct science. There are some wonderfully cynical statements on this — here are a couple of I’ve heard before:

“When a colleague published a paper, we used to discuss what it was about — now we discuss which journal it went into …”

“I’m too busy to read! Because I have far too much writing to do …”

I have, together with my wonderful colleagues Euan and Jan (did the tongue-twister ever occur to you? Joern, Jan and Euan?), been an outspoken critic of much about what modern science is like. And what I’ve found amazing is that our little public outburst on “academia’s obsession with quantity” got huge amounts of attention around the world. It was recommended multiple times by different members of the Faculty of 1000, and we got more “thank you” emails from people who don’t know us than for anything else any of us had ever written before.

Basically, our little paper alluded to the likely fact that things can’t go on like this. That some kind of change is needed. And it seems that this resonated with many, many scientists, around the world.

This really got me thinking. Will we see a science revolution within my (expected…) lifetime, say, the next few decades? If so, how? What will it entail?

It’s interesting to note that lots of things are already changing. Here is a random list of things that are changing already, some positive, some negative, and for some it depends on how you see it:

  1. Open access is becoming more common. There are reputable open-access journals now, as well as more and more journals giving an open-access option. I recently heard from someone that a major British funding agency now demands that all work it funds is published open-access (I can’t prove this, but so I’m told).
  2. Peer review is broken. In recognition of this, new initiatives are starting, such as peerage of science or Faculty of 1000 research reports. Why is peer review broken? Because we can’t keep up. Many reasonably well known researchers are now drowned in review requests. We spend less time on reviews than we used to. They are, probably, of a lower quality. Editors reject more papers without review. We like what’s sexy, not what’s deep. We don’t even read entire papers anymore, and anyway, most papers seem to contain ever fancier analyses on ever more trivial problems (to paraphrase Paul Ehrlich).
  3. There is rapid growth in the number of journals, and the number of papers published.
  4. We speed-read more, and read fewer papers in depth.
  5. Articles are getting shorter.
  6. Funding models are changing, e.g. crowd funding is growing.
  7. We need inter- and transdisciplinarity, but existing systems are failing to (adequately) support alternative modes of (non-disciplinary) science.
  8. We get professionally rewarded for having many papers, many students, many completed theses. Whether these are good, or have real world impact, is usually secondary.
  9. Overall, it seems that being a good citizen is only moderately helpful for most academics’ careers — being aggressive and selfish, by contrast, seems to work quite regularly. (Lots of work has suggested, for example, that this is one of the reasons why women do worse in academia than men — they are, on average, less likely to self-promote aggressively.)
  10. Blogs are increasing …
  11. …. anything else? Probably! Add your own changes that you’ve noticed below …!

The big question: what does all this mean? The above includes trends that try to seek a “solution” in greater efficiency (smarter models, shorter papers, more power to editors, etc); and then there are trends that suggest “revolution” instead of marginal changes (e.g. crowd funding, peerage of science).

What kind of an academia will we end up with in a few decades? Faster or wiser? Or both? Or is that  an oxymoron ….

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