The tumult and instability of the past year can make it hard to have a positive outlook on the current state of affairs, especially for scientists and academics who are just beginning their research careers. But it's not all bad news for today's early-career researchers (ECRs) - in fact, a number of movements in the scholarly community point to a bright trajectory for up-and-coming research professionals. We caught up with four such researchers to learn why the Open Science movement, more emphasis on diversity and equality, and a digital-first landscape are all reasons that now is the best time to be an ECR.
The prevalence of Open Science and Open Access (OA) research methods have steadily been increasing over the past few years. The COVID-19 pandemic was met with an overwhelming amount of international collaboration and, accordingly, there was a rush to open up the research process in order to support these efforts. Beyond digital teamwork, the benefits of OA practices continue to be seen. These include the exposure of crucial preliminary findings that can lead to breakthrough results and, for researchers just starting out, the added ability to use their early-stage findings to position themselves professionally.
Dr. Brandon Bohrer, an Assistant Professor in Computer Science from Carnegie Melon University, recently presented his research on Constructive Game Logic on the Morressier platform at the European Joint Conferences on Theory and Practice of Software 2021 (ETAPS).
On the benefits of OA practices in academia, Bohrer said: “Open Access in every form is crucial and fundamental, not just to me, but to science in general. My work is highly interdisciplinary, so it is important that a wide range of people are able to access it. As an early-career researcher, it is important that potential students can discover it easily, because they are often less familiar with how to navigate access barriers.”
The benefits of increasing accessibility to scholarly content spread beyond the academic world. As different ways to access, deliver, and use content emerge, ECRs can redefine traditional professional roles and pave their own unique career paths, under the support of OA principles.
For nutritionist Christina Hall, who runs Nourish by CH, a brand for sustainable nutrition education with a non-diet approach, Open Science works to remove the traditional barriers in place for professionals who freelance. For Hall, OA platforms allow “career changers” like herself to access reputable scholarly content while working privately or outside of academia.
“OA platforms have made it much easier to by-pass the paywall to access nutrition and health research,” Hall said. “I often find articles which may spark a conversation on my blog or social media posts, and provide the evidence to challenge health claims.”
Another positive element of being an ECR right now is the promotion of equality in research. The scientific community is now valuing and uplifting diversity, equity, and inclusion measures like never before. According to Hall, the prevalence of OA principles and digital tools help to give underrepresented minorities, like herself, a voice in STEM.
“Unless you are funded as a researcher, it can be a challenge to publish your work,” Hall said. “Aside from the cost of publishing to subscription-based journals, the number of persons who have full access to your work will be limited. For persons from underrepresented backgrounds, like the Caribbean where I am from, OA platforms can be a great opportunity to share the research conducted by and addressing the concerns of minority communities.”
When conducting her master’s dissertation, Hall encountered challenges when finding research on the amount of fruit and vegetable intake in the Barbadian population. “There were many studies from developed Western countries with similar research objectives, but not many studies representing the Caribbean at that time,” Hall said. “It is important to have more published STEM research which give a voice to our underrepresented communities and helps us shape our countries’ health, food, and nutrition policies. Open Access platforms also help me as a registered associate nutritionist to create evidence-based support for minority groups on my website.”
As virtual conference software continues to develop rapidly, opportunities for ECRs also increase. In an online setting junior researchers are given the opportunity to gain visibility and recognition from anywhere in the world, away from crowded and at times chaotic in-person conferences.
Discussing his experience at ETAPS 2021, Dr. Bohrer said: “It's important to recognize that noise and crowds are accessibility barriers for attendees who have sensory disorders. Whether in-person or online, it could be quite hard for them to participate fully in noisy environments. Indeed, even online conferences can be loud, but good technical preparation can help avoid that, and I appreciated that the Morressier conference I attended had staff on hand to help deal with any tech issues as they happened.”
Christina Hall noted a similar experience when attending the NS Winter Conference 2020. Hall said: "Morressier was great for viewing pre-recorded research presentations and accessing scientist’s work during the conference. Striking up a conversation about an interesting research piece on Twitter has also been invaluable to forming connections with people across the globe."
However, according to Bohrer: “Virtual conferences sometimes go too far in the other direction, having too little engagement rather than too large of a crowd. However, we should not give up because the benefits of virtual conferences are too large to ignore: For many of us, virtual conferences could (more than) cut our carbon impact in half and can help facilitate participation in conferences even when the organizers are far-away. As someone who works with a very global group of collaborators, those connections are essential for both in-person and online conferences.”
These sentiments were reiterated by Imperial College London researcher, Dr. Yan Liu, who presented at the virtual Joint Warren and Beilstein Symposium on Glycosciences last month.
“I think the talk went well, but it is hard to gauge in front of my own screen," Yan said. “Virtual meetings certainly have their advantages, including expanding audience reach and saving time and money. They make it so easy to know about the latest advances in the field and meet friends at the networking sessions. However, I have to say what I am really missing are the casual moments at the in-person conferences under a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere, like at wine receptions and conference dinners.”
Social media is another extremely helpful tool available to ECRs today. Networking is made easy by sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter, where researchers can share their work with peers and the general public. Maaya Ooue, who holds a PhD from the University of Tokyo, uses social media to not only spread information regarding her research, but also contact non-academic individuals to recruit research participants.
In a 2015 survey of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) scientists, 47% noted that they use social media to either discuss research or stay up to date with scientific developments. By developing followings on social media platforms, researchers can build their profiles and make their voices and discoveries heard in front of a global audience.
In addition, digital tools such as the ORCID iD persistent identifiers help to bring more transparency into the research process by connecting early-stage findings to peer-reviewed journal articles and allowing ECRs to showcase the full scope of their work.
Being an ECR amidst our fast-paced, competitive, and constantly changing world can be challenging. However, when you're feeling overwhelmed, remember the many positives of our current moment in time, including the ability to attend a conference in Prague from your living room, to access research breakthroughs at your fingertips, and interact with diverse communities and networks across the globe. These are just some of the reasons that now is the best time to be an ECR!