Academic publishing and scholarly communications: Good reads, November 2017
November is generally a busy month for all, as this month serves as a bittersweet reminder that we are nearing the end of the year. Most of you must have been rushing to finish your research, manuscript writing, submission or revisions before the festive season starts. In the midst of all these important tasks and deadlines, you may have missed out on reading about the goings-on in the scholarly circles. But worry not; our editors have curated a list of some of the most exciting discussions in the academic publishing community. This month, the discussions revolve around topics as diverse as peer review, negative results, reproducibility, public access to science, research health, Brexit, and blockchain. Hope you enjoy reading these snippets!
- Recognition for negative results and replication studies: Two research prizes, one announced earlier this month and the other started a couple of years ago, show a new and heartening trend, according to a Nature editorial. While one rewards negative results, the other recognizes replication studies, irrespective of whether they are successful or not. Both the awards take into account the quality of the study as well as the importance of the finding that is being scrutinized. It is common knowledge that journals are not very open to publishing negative results and replication studies. However, the value of such studies to the progress of science cannot be underestimated. These awards and other similar initiatives are much required to boost the publication of negative results and replication studies. A funding initiative by the Netherlands started earlier this year offering special grants for replication studies received a significant number of applications. This shows that researchers do have interest in conducting replication studies if duly supported. Such small shifts in encouragement can make the scientific community realize the value of such studies.
- Researchers’ views on Brexit and its impact on academia: This month, the results of a survey titled Brexit: Global Researchers’ Views on Opportunities and Challenges were published. The survey, jointly conducted by Elsevier and Ipsos MORI, a market research organization, captures the views of over 2,000 researchers globally on Brexit and its implications on academia. According to the survey results, Brexit will have a major negative impact on research, even as funding, free international movement for researchers, and academic collaboration continue to be the main priorities for the UK as it prepares for its exit from the European Union. Further, 90% of UK-based researchers stated that the UK government should provide funding for all cases where European support will no longer be available. A majority of UK-based researchers also want a guarantee of free movement for EU and UK researchers, and 66% of researchers globally felt that it was necessary to create collaborations with countries outside of the EU. According to Nick Fowler, Elsevier’s chief academic officer: “While it’s not surprising to see that researchers have concerns around the implications of Brexit, this study offers policy makers in academia and government, both within and outside the UK, insights into researchers’ preferences.”
- Public access to scholarly and scientific publications: A lot has been said about public access to scientific publications and how this can be achieved. Rick Anderson's article published in The Scholarly Kitchen explores public accessibility to scholarly content in a different way. According to Anderson, public access to scholarly content has three dimensions that need to be achieved: 1) free access to scholarly publications and 2) rights to reuse or repurpose scholarly content, and 3) content comprehensibility. While the first two are given significant attention in the scholarly community, the third is based on an assumption that all scholarly content can be made generally comprehensible to a lay audience without a sacrifice in meaning and content. Anderson argues against that the degree to which scholarly content can lend themselves to simplification for a lay audience can vary by discipline, study type, and context. A lot depends on whether the general public has enough background knowledge of a particular topic or discipline to comprehend advanced scholarly publications, even if they are simplified. Accordingly, the techniques that can be used to make scholarly content comprehensible, and hence truly accessible, to the general public will also vary. Thus, a generalized approach to making science accessible to the public might not work.
- Making reviews public to improve the quality of peer review: In an interesting conversation, Irene Hames, an independent research-publication, peer-review and research-integrity specialist, talks about her vision for peer review in scholarly publishing. Irene is the first recipient of the Publons Sentinel Award. She states that putting a stamp of "peer review" may no longer function as an assurance of the quality or rigor behind a manuscript, especially given the recent peer review scams. Since peer review is a subjective evaluation, the quality of peer review can be expected to change from reviewer to reviewer and field to field; this gives us a wide spectrum to look at, from poor quality or inadequate reviews to exhaustive, in-depth evaluations. One way of addressing the problem of gauging the quality of a reviewed manuscript, according to Hames, is to make review reports visible to all along with the published manuscript (and this need not involve revealing reviewer names). Read this conversation to know more about this interesting perspective.
- Need for a dedicated group to strengthen research health: In this insightful Nature article, the term “research integrity” goes beyond misconduct in research, and discusses a wider range of dimensions covering the “health” of research activity. This involves ethical, technical, psychological and social aspects, each of which can be easily overlooked. Faced with the pressure to publish and reach great heights of achievement in a relatively short span, researchers find it difficult to observe diligence in their roles. All of this creates an environment that is amenable to “shoddiness or even fraud.” The article stresses that the United States must urgently direct more efforts towards creating a Research Integrity Advisory Board (RIAB). Such a body could concretize best practices; establish standards and penalties for various forms of misconduct and much more! However, despite the strong need for such a body, no steps have been taken as yet to help the research community create one.
- Blockchain’s potential to change the research landscape: Blockchain is the innovation that’s creating a buzz everywhere. There have been some speculations in the scholarly circle about the possibility of using blockchain for research and academic publishing. A report authored by Joris van Rossum and published by Digital Science earlier this month, sheds light on how the blockchain technology has the potential to transform the scholarly communication and research landscape. The report highlights how blockchain can be used to address the challenges currently facing scholarly communication, such as transparency, trust, reproducibility and credit. Currently, academics use different - and to a large extent disconnected - systems in their research workflow. Adopting the blockchain technology would mean that whenever researchers create or interact with content in any way and at any stage of the research workflow, their interaction will be stored in a single platform. Since blockchain has universal access, critical aspects of scholarly communication such as trust, credit, universal access and even anonymity can be achieved and safeguarded in a research blockchain. The report suggests that blockchain could also change the role of publishers in the future. If manuscript writing, peer review, and the dissemination of content takes place on the blockchain, the need for publishers’ intervention would be significantly reduced. In essence, the report explains how blockchain could be a game-changer in the field of research and scholarly communication.
- Is poor statistics responsible for the reproducibility crisis? The problem of reproducibility continues to plague science, but how much of a role does statistics play in this issue? To get to the root of this, Nature asked leading statisticians about ways in which statistics can be used better. These are the observations and suggestions of the statisticians: 1) Jeff Leek mentions that little is known about how humans analyze and process data. Though there are tools that can find patterns in data, the analysis of data forms part of human behavior. Therefore, understanding how people observe and report data is vital. 2) Blakeley B. Mcshane & Andrew Gelman feel there is a need to rely less on statistical significance and embrace open-science practices. In several fields statistical significance is limiting and can lead to making overly strong claims. So they feel “researchers must accept uncertainty and embrace variation under different circumstances.” 3) David Colquhoun strongly suggests reporting false-positive risk (FPR) as it would enable the detection of results that are wrongly identified as statistically significant. He also suggests researchers “to assume, arbitrarily, a prior probability of 0.5 and calculate the minimum FPR for the observed P value” as this would help improve reproducibility. 4) Michèle B. Nuijten encourages researchers to preregister analysis plans as this adds clarity to a study and prevents researchers from changing their plans to report something they see as statistically significant. Further, data, results of all analyses, and all relevant syntax or code should be shared, she adds. 5) Steven N. Goodman says: “It is not statistics that is broken, but how it is applied to science.” He believes that all stakeholders of science need to follow good practices when designing studies and analyzing data, as this is the only way to combat the reproducibility crisis.
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