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"You should always follow your heart in research"

Jayashree Rajagopalan | Jun 21, 2016 | 3,356 views
Interview with Jon Tennant, palaeontologist and open science proponent
Jon Tennant, palaeontologist and open science proponent

This interview presents the perspectives of an early-career researcher who conducts research, publishes papers, attends academic conferences as part of his PhD, travels to different parts of the world to help educate researchers about open research and science policy, blogs actively, serves as a peer reviewer, and makes time for several other activities including this interview! Jonathan (Jon) Tennant dived head first into palaeontology research, i.e., his first love, even when it required him to change disciplines. And during this journey, he discovered his passion for all things related to scientific communication and policy, especially open science. He is among those researchers who realize the true potential of networking and utilize it to actively participate in dialogue on some of the most critical issues in academic research — all this alongside managing a demanding research schedule. I spoke to Jon about his interests both within and outside research. I particularly wanted to understand how he is able to pursue serious research as well as be involved in other activities, and learned that the primary driving force behind Jon’s work is his passion for science and the need to ensure that more and more people are informed about the most important developments in academic publishing.

Jon is currently a final year PhD (palaeontology) student at Imperial College London in the Department of Earth Science and Engineering. His research focuses on patterns of biodiversity and extinction in deep time and the biological and environmental drivers of these patterns. Jon is also passionate about science communication and strongly believes that science should be in the public domain. He takes a deep interest in following and talking about how current trends in open science impact science communication. He also maintains a blog, Green Tea and Velociraptors, and tweets actively about topics close to his heart. 

In the first of this three-part interview series, Jon talks about the importance of interdisciplinarity in research, based on his experience as a researcher. He explains how he came to develop an interest in science communication and policy, and goes on to talk about his peer review experience.

Let’s talk about your life as an early-career researcher. Why did you decide to transition between disciplines during your academic journey?

I originally started university as a planetary geologist! During my second year though, I was seduced by the dark side of science (dinosaurs) thanks to meeting Prof. Phil Manning, and switched to mainstream geology in order to take his class. After that, I was set on getting a PhD in palaeontology, but realized that a purely geological background wasn’t sufficient for much modern palaeontological research, as much of it is geared towards biological sciences. So I made the treacherous switch to the life sciences for a second masters which, combined with my affinities for rocks, formed the perfect basis to launch into palaeontology!

How easy or difficult would you say is it for researchers to change disciplines?

Hmm, that’s a good question. I think the level of difficulty would depend on why you would want to switch, how related or integrated the two disciplines are, and what sort of opportunities are available. There are no rules here, but you should always follow your heart in research. The difficulty will always be discovering what you need to do to give yourself the best opportunity to do what you love in the future, and sometimes making a big change is good for that. I would also say that a lot of it is down to your mentality. You have to be open to the possibility that you might be making a big change in your life and stepping out into the unknown. For some, this will be exciting, and others it might be scary. My advice is to embrace it the change, adapt, and excel.

More and more researchers are taking to multidisciplinarity, either by switching streams or by specializing in more than one discipline during their research. What role do you think interdisciplinarity plays in academic research today?

Research thrives on interdisciplinarity! I can’t think of anything more important than collaborating with others in order to expand your knowledge boundaries. For example, modern palaeontology includes aspects of chemistry, molecular biology, geology, zoology, ecology, and even particle physics, so it’s super integrative. These are less personal decisions though, I think. Interdisciplinarity isn’t about individual choice. It’s more about recognising what is required in order to advance the field, which we work on collectively as a research community. By isolating research fields, we neglect to learn from what others are discovering, and that isn’t helping to progress anything.

How and when did you develop an interest in science communication and policy?

After my second Masters, I was unemployed for a few months while waiting for an appropriate research opportunity to pop up. During this “down time”, I started blogging and using other social media to develop some skills in this arena. I was fortunate enough to get a job in science policy with The Geological Society of London, which was a fascinating experience and, for me, cemented the links among research, communication, and policy. Importantly, it provided me with a completely new perspective on the value of research than I’d otherwise just got at university. In particular, how research interacts more broadly with society – beyond “science for the sake of science”. I started my PhD two days after that job finished, and went into it with an entirely different perspective on research than before the position.

I always like to acknowledge my boss Nic Bilham (Director of Policy and Communications at the Geological Society), who while I was at the Society, taught me much about science policy and the value of broad and effective communications, as well as the important role of learned societies in modern research environments. The skills I learned during my time at the Society, and have continued to work on since, have been incredibly valuable to my growth as a researcher. I feel very privileged to have been granted the experience and try to encourage others to develop in these areas, too.

You are currently involved in several activities in addition to core research: writing and publishing academic research papers, blogging, interacting with people from the academic publishing industry, attending conferences, giving talks, etc. How do you make time for everything?

Honestly, it’s really ridiculously difficult, and interferes quite a lot with my personal life at times, especially when it requires travel or working in different time zones. However, I believe that the things I work on are important and I am happy to dedicate as much time as I need to them. For example, I strongly believe that science communication and working to make research more accessible are important, so I spend a lot of time blogging/freelance writing; I also think equal access to knowledge is imperative, so I spend a lot of my time working on things like open access. Things like blogging become much quicker with time as your writing skills develop, but sometimes you just have to go for them when you have time! I try simply just to do things as they come up, and it’s quite chaotic at times, but this also means I don’t get bored working on the same thing every day! If you believe something is important, then it’s worth spending time doing it and committing all you have to it.

You are also a peer reviewer for Publons; could you talk about this experience?

So Publons isn’t a peer review platform itself, it’s a place to keep a public (or not, if you choose) record of your reviewing activities. I still find it bizarre that some researchers don’t want to receive credit for their work as peer reviewers given its enormous importance, and Publons is an awesome solution to help shift that mentality. Open is never an end, but a means, and with peer review, open becomes a powerful way of increasing transparency for accountability, receiving credit, and allowing others to build on and re-use your work. A lot of researchers view peer review as part of their academic duty, and perhaps rightly so, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t receive appropriate recognition for it.

As soon as I did my first peer review, the record went up on Publons. Sadly, many journals believe that they still have authority over how researchers use their reviews, or consider it to be a privileged or private process; therefore, most often, you can’t post the actual review itself, although there is a lot of experimentation in this area at the moment. This is quite bizarre to me. How can a secretive, non-publicised, and exclusive process be considered as objective? That’s hardly the gold standard we hold “peer review” to be.

I’ve done five peer reviews during my PhD so far – I don’t know if that’s relatively high or low for this stage! As such, it doesn’t really interfere with my “schedule” too much. I’d like to think I’ve been as thorough as possible with these reviews, and they have never taken me more than a week or so to perform. All of them are on Publons, too, to the maximum extent of visibility allowed.

At this point, it’s impossible to comment on the impact that this has had so far – I do like the concept of Publons as on open record of “services” contributed to the community through peer review, as well as a sign that I’m not afraid for the content of my reviews to be seen. If I’m writing things that I don’t want others to see, then I probably shouldn’t be writing them at all. Whether or not using Publons will have a positive impact remains to be seen, as I’m still a “science noob”! My overall experience with Publons has been overwhelmingly positive, although some publishers have restrictive policies that vastly lower how we can interact with and use Publons for the good of research.

Could you tell us more about Open Glossary?

So the Open Research Glossary is an OpenCon spin off! Ross Mounce and I were giving a joint talk at an OpenCon satellite event in London about the importance of open data. Afterwards in the pub, someone mentioned that a lot of the terminology we used was new to them and it made our talk difficult to follow. Essentially, what was revealed to us was a language barrier that we had created around the “world of open.” So right then and there in the pub, we started drafting a “jargon list” of terms used in any aspect of open research. This ranged from core terms to those related to policy, and those to do with licensing and principles. We built a resource from this using Google Docs so that anyone could contribute, and a list of community definitions that we could adhere to. A while later, we had produced a fairly comprehensive resource, and the Right to Research Coalition were kind enough to host it. Anyone can still contribute to it here, and when sufficient new content has been added we will create a second version.

Thanks, Jon!

This brings us to the end of the first segment of the interview with Jon Tennant. In the next part, Jon shares his views on some critical topics in scientific publishing.

Other parts in the series

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