Counteracting the loss of collegiality in science

By Joern Fischer

Recommendation of a new paper: Kaushal, S.S.; Jeschke, J.M. 2013. Collegiality versus competition: how metrics shape scientific communities. BioScience 63, 155-156.

(If you have access to Bioscience, download the paper here; if you don’t, I suggest you email Jonathan Jeschke and ask him to send you a PDF.)

The sustainable production of new, worthwhile insights hinges on an academic culture that fosters behaviours that we would like to see more of – and that provides disincentives for behaviours that stand in the way of true progress.

In recognition of this, Kaushal and Jeschke highlight a number of current problems, and suggest various possible solutions to move forward. Their central focus is on collegiality. They argue that some current incentives actually may lead to the loss of collegiality, rather than fostering it. Being a “good citizen” might go unrecognized in a scientific world that judges our merit largely via quantitative indicators. Invariably, some things count, while others remain uncounted. Unfortunately, many of the behaviours that remain uncounted are amongst the most important for scientific progress. For example, large new research networks require collegiality and data sharing. But not everybody’s sharing is equally selfless when the incentive structure is to contribute as little as possible to as many things as possible.

Kaushal and Jeschke make suggestions that individuals can follow and also argue for institutional changes. One key point picked up by them is that the peer review system is seriously in trouble. A key problem is that finding reviewers appears to become ever more difficult. Kaushal and Jeschke highlight that there are “bad citizens” out there who review hardly anything despite publishing a lot themselves; and there are “good citizens” who accept most invitations to review. While the decision to accept an invitation to review is complex (declining an invitation could result from too many other commitments which could be other types of services to the community), it seems true that better rewarding collegiality and “good citizenship” is important (a thought also underpinning the growing Peerage of Science initiative).

In summary, this paper is one of a growing number that asks questions – and provides solutions – regarding our current academic culture and incentive systems. The bottom line that most such papers have in common is that we are now over-relying on indicators to value individual researchers. We either need new metrics, or we need to move away from a belief that quantitative measures can actually measure the quality of an individual.

In summary: A short paper on a critically important topic that is well worth a read.

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