Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In Spite of Myself, I Cannot Fully Engage Open Science

When I exited high school, I had no idea about my future except that it was inevitably going to involve science. During college I decided to focus on the goal of entering medical school. All young pre-med students are told ad nauseum, get good grades, volunteer, and research. Of course there are some oscillations in the manner in which this information is disseminated and stressed, but the baseline is there: one of the significant components to a competitive medical school (or graduate school) application is conducting research. And if your research gets published, you’re in. So I inundated my CV with research experiences; some hopelessly drab (counting how often a rat moves its nose by 1x1cm boxes can wear on a soul), and others fruitful and edifying. In the end I managed to find a professor who loved using cheap undergraduate labor and had a penchant for churning out papers; I was published and all was right in the world. I couldn’t care if Neurochemical Research had a small impact factor and that my PI was scraping the bottom of the barrel to get some data published, I was an author. In the end, I was accepted to medical school (albeit while the papers were in the painfully sluggish review process).

I present this brief recollection as a blanket summary of what I, and innumerable pre-med students (and really anyone trying to advance in academic science), go through when trying to make oneself a strong candidate. I should mention however that more than a year’s worth of slaving in a microscopy lab and preparing immunocytochemistry slides was threatened because of the aforementioned PI’s developing tumultuous relationship in the scientific community. He and a particular grad student spawned heated contention about ownership of data and research that seeped out into national conventions. He openly speculated that the reason he was receiving harsh critiques of his submitted papers in journals in which he had previously published with ease was due to this growing stigma. He had to shop around for journals with smaller impact factors to get this data published. Now this didn’t matter to me much at the time, I got published and impact factor was an abstract concept that meant Nature, Science, and New England Journal of Medicine were fantastic journals, my article’s journal was just okay.

Little did I know and appreciate, however, is the impetus of producing publications in high impact factor journals goes far beyond the pure aesthetic of “I'm an author” that I acclaimed. My PI was concerned about his job and possible tenure; grad students are concerned about getting good post-doc positions and post-docs are concerned about getting tenure-tracked faculty positions; today I am concerned about my future residency spot. The current system of scientific publication has a stranglehold on the scientific community because it is the only manner in which we presently esteem research (and researchers) as valuable. A researcher with a strong publishing record is more likely to get prized grants and this again affects job availability, progression, and security. It is how we grade a researcher in his or her progression through the ranks, making one’s work tangible to which accolades may be attributed (e.g. National Medal of Science, induction to the National Academy of Sciences, Nobel Prize). Academics consider the publication process with such sanctity because they have spent time developing an expertise in adroitly navigating its obfuscating terrain. It is not likely that (m)any of the founded researchers in the current culture will enact or endorse the necessary changes for Open Science to blossom.

There are far too many faults in the current publication system for me to not want to whole-heartedly pursue the goals of Open Science. The entire review process needs to become more transparent to avoid conflicts of interest as well thorough understanding of why journals will not publish articles. The retraction and revision system needs to be renovated so that it elucidates reasoning behind retractions and revisions so that it intrinsically carries fewer stigmas when honest mistakes are made. The world of science would benefit from a system permitting a “continuous stream, rather than a punctuated series of publications” as said by Ivan Oransky, executive editor at Reuters Health and co-founder of the blog Retraction Watch. Researchers today must trudge through innumerable journal articles to glean important updates instead of having a free-flowing discourse in scientific pursuits. And that free-flowing discourse is already discouraged secondary to the basic natural selection of researchers: only the strong survive. The current system disincentivizes collaboration and open commentary (see Nature’s failed trial of open commentary from 2006: http://www.nature.com/nature/peerreview/) because, in the basic ecologic model, why would I provide my direct competitor my time, energy, and resources that would be better suited for my own needs and goals?

Here is where I find myself conflicted: I like the notion of Open Science a lot but I am not in any position to make a concerted effort to forwarding the movement. Instead I must navigate the current system in all its faults because I want to make myself a strong candidate for a competitive residency spot. It’s doubtful the head of most any university department would value blogging data points to the masses as equal to the trusted standard of scientific publishing, no matter how progressive he or she was. I must continue my endeavors to receive a ‘first authorship’ and get published in the current system because I cannot choose, in the basic ecologic model, to spurn available resources because it will indirectly offer advantages to my competitors. The peer-review system is flawed, but we are ensconced in decorum not soon to change without appropriate catalysts.

Thankfully there have been some measures, including a strategy enacted by the NIH that necessitates all published NIH-funded research be made available to the public online within a particular timeline (
http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/2008/01/nih-releases-its-new-oa-policy.html). We also need to examine new manners to incentivize researchers to engage the Open Science movement. A cultural change in how research is evaluated and shared needs to occur; the sharing component confronts the already confounding issue of intellectual property rights and how authors can own knowledge. I really wish to make an impact in the Open Science movement, but I fear I will be hypocritical by investing far more time in the classic publication process. I ask the reader, how else should I act?

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