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Building a better scholarly communications system

May 28, 2020

Researchers Dr. Esther Ndumi Ngumbi (Assistant Professor from the Entomology Department and African American Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign) and Dr. Brian Lovett (Post-doctoral researcher in the Division of Plant and Soil Sciences at West Virginia University) are passionate about changing scholarly communications for the better. Both have written extensively on the topic, including by penning a recent Wired article on why academic conferences are stuck in the dark ages. In this interview, Dr. Ngumbi and Dr. Lovett discuss their views on what is holding back the research and higher education system and share ideas for how these challenges can be overcome.

You write a lot about higher education and scholarly communications. What inspired you to become a thought leader in these areas and agitate for improvements?

Dr. Ngumbi
: I came to the realization that generally, in our research, we write these journal articles that end up only reaching our peers. The public never get to know what's going on in the lab, what's going on in the science world. There’s this firewall that we scientists have created, and it’s because we are speaking in our scientific language and are blocking away the public, even though they are the ones that should be the end users. This realization inspired me to work on ways to ensure that my research did not just end up in manuscripts, but that I could push it further.

Also, in 2015, I joined the Aspen Institute Food Security fellowship. There, we were trained in science communications and writing and how to be a thought leader. The people that were training us explained that if only a few people speak up, then only a few people will be considered renowned experts. This leads to a big gap between who is telling the narrative versus who is actually doing the work. 

All of these factors inspired me to change my outlook. I'm unique at what I do and my research shouldn’t just end up in a manuscript that, most of the time, only one or two or, if you're lucky, seven people will reference – people that are still your peers. So you‘re still not breaking out from your circle of influence.

Dr. Lovett: I became similarly disillusioned by how science is typically communicated. In order to advance in academia, it is necessary to publish our work in venues that limits our audience using language that further limits accessibility. When there are fewer people in the room, scientific breakthroughs are also reduced. By questioning how we deliver information, I hope to inspire scientists to learn explicitly how to effectively communicate with diverse audiences. This will deepen our value as scientists and ensure our work stays connected to the communities that support us. This fundamental issue can be solved with adjustments to how we train students in science: To either be intelligent consumers of science or persuasive communicators of high-quality information.

What are some of the major challenges that you see researchers and higher education systems facing and where do you see room for improvement?

Dr. Ngumbi
: The entire academia, starting from our research, our publishing, and our conferences – there are a lot of things that need to change if we are to move on and truly tackle world challenges. Think of conferences: You’re given 10 minutes to present, but what can you present in only 10 minutes? Most likely, you’re leaving out the best of the process, the best of the data, and many, many important details.

And then, once again, you run into the problem that you're still just sharing your work with your peers. So you're not breaking the wall to get your science to a much wider audience and amplify its influence. That is what really inspired us to think about why we are doing this. What are more other creative ways to share our work and how do we reimagine the conferences of the future? Because we're also dealing with climate change, for example. People travel across the world to present for 10 minutes, if you think of the mileage that incurs, the cost, and what is the return on investment? Those are some of the things that really need rethinking. 

Dr. Lovett:
Aside from the publishing and communication issues, academia faces fundamental problems with how people and projects are supported. For most people, the opportunity to participate directly in academic research starts while pursuing an undergraduate degree. Here already, systemic inequities select for those attending college who have the free time to work for little pay as an undergraduate researcher. The bulk of work in a typical academic lab will be driven by graduate students, post-docs and, perhaps, lab technicians who work under the supervision of the principal investigator, who is appointed at their institution. In an established lab, the head of this group will have the relative security of their appointment and tenure, but they will still work tirelessly to attain external support for their research goals. In a newly established lab, everyone involved will have (relatively) low pay, no long-term financial security and will be working under enormous pressure to attain funding, publish papers and advance into their next role. This intense onslaught translates into poor mental health and a near-nomadic lifestyle for early-career researchers. Only those that can weather multiple moves and (sometimes) long periods of financial instability can participate in this process.

In a similar vein, the way that research is done – and money is rewarded – in academia is very much focused on the individual principal investigators. Working groups will bear the last name of the head of the lab, and the collective output of their group will often result in continued funding explicitly for the head of the lab. This individualized and reputational paradigm sets up incentives for scientists with the same interests to compete with one another for funding, publications and talent. It also biases the rewards of science, such as funding and speaking opportunities, toward the top of the system.

This is bizarre because the scientific process is at its core highly-collaborative. There is an opportunity to explore new ways of supporting scientists that provide much-needed stability without incentivizing competition. Far too many excellent scientists are forced out of the so-called “leaky pipeline” because our system is not oriented toward people doing science. Science would benefit from incentivizing collaborations where researchers work together to achieve their mutual goals to advance science and ultimately society, sharing credit along the way.

This is part one of a two-part interview. Part two will be published next week.

Image credit: John-Mark Smith

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