Academic publishing and scholarly communications: Good reads, June 2017

Academic publishing and scholarly communications: Good reads, June 2017

The discussions trending in the scholarly community this month revolved around a variety of interesting issues. While Trump’s policies and China’s zeal to curb research misconduct continue to create a buzz, some other insightful discourses have also generated an interest among members of the academic community. Our editors have curated an interesting bunch of stories for you to read. So go on, read the updates, share your views with us, and discuss these developments with your fellow researchers. Happy reading!

China takes extreme measures to curb research misconduct: Some time ago, we wrote about whether scientific misconduct should be considered a criminal offence. As it turns out, there have been further developments in this regard. Following the spate of cases of research misconduct from China, especially the most recent one involving the retraction of 107 research papers by Chinese scholars, the country's government has decided to come down hard upon scientists who have been guilty of flouting ethical research and/or publishing practices. Earlier this year, China's Ministry of Science and Technology announced its decision to follow a “no tolerance” policy towards research misconduct. In April, Chinese courts approved a policy allowing judges to issue a stiff prison sentence "for   researchers who fabricate data in studies that lead to drug approvals." Further, if investigations reveal that the misconduct has harmed people or would potentially harm them, the guilty researchers could even face a death penalty! In the backdrop of these developments, this post discusses whether a death sentence is the right way to punish a researcher guilty of misconduct: "we can’t support the Chinese solution. Even if we didn’t abhor the death penalty (which we do), the punishment here far outweighs the crime." This post argues the implications of this decision and what the ideal and corrective course of action should be in cases of research misconduct.

How scientific publishing has evolved into a profitable industry: In this thought-provoking article, Stephen Buranyi, looks at the much debated issue of commercialization of academic publishing. Buranyi specifically looks at the publishing giant Elsevier, which in 2011 reported a total global revenue of over 19 billion pounds and a profit margin of 36%, even higher than Apple, Google, or Amazon. At an overall level, Elsevier's business model might seem puzzling - how can a magazine publishing company manage to maintain editorial offices, pay staff salaries, hire writers, etc., and yet make this much money! But a closer look reveals the truth behind academic publishing. According to Buranyi's analysis, scientific publishers manage to evade most of the costs a typical magazine might incur. The core of a science journal, its content, is created by scientists who are paid by funders and taxpayers. Scientists give their work to publishers for free. Publishers hire scientific editors to ensure that the content they put out is of the quality they desire, "but the bulk of the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists on a volunteer basis." Moreover, publishers market and sell the finished product (published papers or bundled journal issues to academic institutions, libraries, and government funded organizations). Eventually, this will be read by scientists who will, based on what they read about latest scientific findings and developments, publish research papers of their own. This builds the commercial aspect of the publishing cycle where publishers stand to gain. And when you add the tools that publishers sell to authors and institutions, their avenues for profit only increase. The post goes on to discuss the evolution of the commercial publishing model and takes a position on where science as a global endeavor stands today against the backdrop of this model.

US Supreme court modifies Trump’s travel ban: Earlier this year, we reported US President Donald Trump's decision to suspend the issuance of visas to citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen) for 90 days. In a recent development, the US Supreme Court reinstated a limited version of this temporary order, according to which citizens from the banned countries are barred from entering the US unless they are able to prove a “bona fide” (i.e., formal and documented) connection with an individual or entity in the country, e.g., a prospective student or someone who has officially accepted a job offer from a US firm. And immigration officials now have the power to decide whether applicants from the banned countries have a bona fide relationship to the US. According to Brendan Delaney, an immigration lawyer, “Until there is some degree of certainty in how they’re going to apply this language, if I were a research scientist affected by this, I would be reticent right now.” The general reaction of the scientific community seems to be that of concern. This has led to a looming uncertainty around immigration to the US for many researchers. In fact, this might also lead to a negative perception of the US being an unwelcoming country and may have discouraged many international students and scientists from applying. The court is set to hear a legal challenge to the ban in October.

Debate around licensing of biology preprints: A large number of biologists use preprint servers to make their paper available to readers before it finds its way to publication. Recently, there has been a lot of debate on whether the researchers should license their papers on open access terms. BioRxiv, a popular preprint server, hosts more than 11,000 papers that have varying licenses on them. Some of these papers are available for free distribution and use, while others require the author’s permission before they can be used for any purpose. As a result, there is a lack of clarity on whether these articles can be text mined. As many as 29% of the authors who have hosted their preprints on the BioRxiv server do not allow any use of their manuscripts without permission. Some of the primary reasons for this, according to the authors, are that the papers are not peer reviewed and hence not completely reliable, and some journals do not accept submissions from papers that have open licenses. Jessica Polka, the director of ASAPbio, which advocates the use of preprint servers, is of the opinion that authors should allow free use of their manuscript even for commercial purposes because this would maximize the advantages of the preprint platforms. However, authors continue to be skeptical of making this move.

NIH drops plans to cap research funding: In May, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced a major change in their policy. The institute announced that it would introduce a point system to put a cap on the amount of funding a researcher can receive. This was primarily done to make it easy for early- and mid-career researchers to get grants with increased ease. However, this move was criticized by the scientific community because the new policy would have made collaborations difficult and some research projects would have suffered due to the budget constraints. As a result, NIH has dropped the policy change. NIH director Francis Collins said that, “The original plan was still a work in progress when we decided we didn’t have sufficient confidence in it.” On June 8, it was announced that a special fund of US$210 million would be created instead for early- and mid-career researchers. This initiative, called the Next Generation Researchers Initiative, will make funding available for 2,000 additional R01 grants (the most common type of grant awarded by NIH). It is possible that this change might attract backlash too since the funding from this initiative might take away some from the total budget of the institute. However, Collins states that it is their priority to ensure funding to researchers who have less experience compared to those in the later stages of their career.

Why researchers should become politically active: James Martin, a chemistry professor who is also a board member of the United States’ fifteenth-largest school system, writes from his experience about how researchers need to view politics and make it a springboard for science. He observes that science and politics have become polarized, and that researchers take an interest in politics only when research programmes are under threat. Researchers have a unique way of looking at problems, and therefore, they can provide insightful suggestions to the government, James states. He adds that, “I also continually remind myself that governance, like research, is slow and methodical.” Thus, by extending more understanding and support to the government and getting involved in politics, researchers can tap into a lot of opportunities. He encourages researchers to be more politically active both within and outside their institutions to see a change. 

A “researcher rehab” for errant scientists: Every year, the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in the US receives reports of the most serious allegations of research misconduct. However, large-scale and sometimes criminally minded deceptions are relatively rare. The more commonplace problems such as plagiarism, image doctoring, and minor manipulations of data, which are rife and are equally damaging to science’s reputation, are left to the universities to deal with. Often, the universities find it difficult to mend the ways of deviant scientists, who, even after warnings, continue to indulge in misconduct in small, sometimes imperceptible, ways. This interesting article talks about a three-day Professionalism and Integrity Workshop conducted by James DuBois’, a professor in the department of medicine at Washington University, who has, over the last decade, developed a reputation as a research ethics authority. Often nicknamed as the “researcher rehab,” The DuBois’ program tries to help errant researchers whose mistakes have been serious or frequent enough for their institutions to badly want them to change. In his workshops, the proceedings of which are kept strictly confidential, Dubois does not teach the basic rules for the responsible conduct of research. Instead, he tries to identify the obstacles keeping each scientist from following the rules and helps them learn the skills that could guide better decision-making. Since the inception of this program in 2013, DuBois’ has conducted 12 sessions, training over 52 researchers from 33 different institutions. He and his co-instructors also conduct follow-up surveys and phone calls to track whether their students report statistically significant behavioral changes. We hope to see other such initiatives to battle the problem of academic misconduct.

Have you come across something you’d like to share with other researchers or publishing professionals? We’d love to read it, too! Simply share your recommendations in the comments section below. And if you’d like to stay tuned to important happenings in the journal publishing industry, visit our Industry News section.

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