"Academics are resilient to changes in peer review" - Jon Tennant

This interview is part of a Series
This interview is part of a Series

Interview with Jon Tennant

Meet Jonathan Tennant, early career researcher (PhD in progress, palaeontologist, avid blogger, active tweeter, science communication specialist, and open science proponent ). In this interview series, Jon shares his views on interdisciplinarity in research, emerging peer review models open science, open access, research evaluation metrics, the importance of networking in academia, and the urgent need for increased focus on science policy and academic reform. Jon talks about his interests both within and outside research and shares some valuable life lessons for early-career researchers to help them manage their time well as well as succeed in their research careers. Throughout the series, Jon stresses the need for more and more people to be informed about the most important developments in academic publishing and the need for science communication enthusiasts to fill this information gap.

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"Academics are resilient to changes in peer review" - Jon Tennant

This interview presents the perspectives of an early-career researcher who conducted research, published papers, attended academic conferences as part of his PhD, traveled to different parts of the world to help educate researchers about open research and science policy, blogged actively, served as a peer reviewer, and made 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 was 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 was able to pursue serious research as well as be involved in other activities, and learned that the primary driving force behind Jon’s work was 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 Tennant completed his PhD from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London. His research focused on patterns of biodiversity and extinction in deep time and the biological and environmental drivers of these patterns. Jon was passionate about science communication and strongly believed that all science should be in the public domain. He took a deep interest in following and talking about how trends in open science impact science communication. He also maintained a blog, Green Tea and Velociraptors, and tweeted actively about topics close to his heart. 

This is the second of a three-part interview series with Jon. Here, Jon shares his views on some of the topics he is passionate about: “benefits of things like open access, open data, science communication, open peer review, and killing the impact factor!” He also explains the extent to which he is involved in fostering an exchange of ideas and information about science communication and policy. More importantly, Jon expresses concern about specific issues in academia: researchers’ lack of knowledge about open access and its implications, the misuse of the impact factor, fear of adopting new peer review systems, etc. Jon insists that researchers must think more actively about the role of science in society and about their own role as primary facilitators of scientific communication.

On your LinkedIn profile, you say that you aim to “strengthen the interaction of academic research, outreach, and policy making in Geoscience.” How do you plan to go about doing this?

I do continue to stress the importance of science communication, understanding the policy process and interaction of science, and additional aspects of the research and communication process whenever possible. So, for example, I helped to run the Science Communication Forum at Imperial College, London, where we held workshops and events about important aspects of research policy, such as developments in scholarly publishing regarding open access and open data. I take every opportunity to write about new research, as well as my experiences as a PhD student to expose some of the research process. My work in the policy domain has faltered a bit recently simply due to time constraints, but I do sit on the Geological Society’s Science Committee so am happy to help in a small way still. Most recently, my interests have more been about transparency in research, particularly regarding the ongoing development of “open science”, and I have spent the last 5 years or so trying to make sure researchers are as well-informed about this topic as possible. Towards the end of my PhD, I also took a position at ScienceOpen, an open research and publishing platform, and have been spending a lot of time communicating the benefits of things like open access, open data, science communication, open peer review, and killing the impact factor!

In a blog post, you mention that, “there are still many misconceptions that the OpenCon community need to work better at”. Could you elaborate?

Sure! This refers to open access more generally. There is often an astonishingly low level of knowledge that some researchers have about this still, which I find astounding given how clearly important this is – I mean, we’re just talking about access to the world’s core knowledge base! To that end, myself and others recently wrote a paper reviewing the evidence for open access in academia, for the economy, and for broader society. I cannot think of anything more fundamentally important than free and equal access to knowledge for everyone, and hope that this paper, as well as my other activities, are part of a small step towards that goal.

But as a couple of specific examples, the lack of understanding about self-archiving. Many researchers complain that open access is rubbish because it costs too much or the options are too few. Self-archiving is universally free (except for the hosting and maintenance), and using tools like Sherpa/Romeo it becomes easy to know what the possible constraints on it are. Another aspect is when people say that open access costs too much, they seem to forget how much we spend on the current system of providing restricted access to the financially or academically privileged, which comes in at around $8-10 billion each year. We could publish the research outputs of the world for a fraction of that cost and make it open to everyone. The more you know, the weirder scholarly publishing seems, and the weaker the arguments for retaining the current system, or against open access, become.

Other researchers still say that the general public either doesn’t want or doesn’t need access to research papers: in fact, the last person I heard say this was the Director of Public Relations at a certain major publisher (no names) at an event in Berlin. Such a perspective is arrogant, ignorant, elitist, and does extremely little to break the “ivory tower” conscience that still pervades much of research. That the “public” doesn’t need, want, or deserve access to knowledge is, in my view, a despicable and ill-informed misconception, undermines years of global research and effort, and something all of academia needs to work better at combating.

In another post, you write, “we are moving away from a system where impact factors and commercial publishers are dominating the system”, yet “Impact factors, whether we like it or not, are still used as a proxy for quality.” Could you elaborate?

The impact factor, and with it journal rank, is the bane of academia. Designed as a way for libraries to select which journals their faculty where using most, it is now used as a lazy, cheap, and rapid way to evaluate researchers and the research they do. It is blatantly ironic that researchers, the supposed seekers of knowledge and evidence, fall back on to such a weak, nonsensical, and misused metric for something so important as defining the structure of academia. Some evidence shows that it can’t even be reproduced, and is essentially “brought” through negotiations between Thomson Reuters and publishers, and that using any form of journal rank for assessment is basically poor academic practice.

More recently, I proposed a series of things researchers and institutes could do at different levels to help kill the impact factor and move to a better system of evaluation. After much discussion, it seemed that killing the impact factor simply isn’t enough; even worse, it could be risky for researchers to stop using it (or playing the “impact factor game”) when those who are evaluating them still are! Right now, all I know is this: We are losing some of our best and brightest researchers to the impact factor. These researchers start their careers with the intention of producing the best research and communicating it as widely as possible to effect real change, but become disillusioned when they realize that academia is now little more than impact factor hunting for careerism, and that it matters less about what they publish than where they publish. It’s not good for science, and it’s not good for scientists, and everyone in the scholarly ecosystem must accept at least partial responsibility for the continuing misuse and domination of the impact factor, and be accountable for not finding better structural alternatives.

Do you think the academic community is open to alternative models of peer review and publishing? And is research published using alternative systems taken as seriously as its conventionally published counterpart?

So one thing we need to recognize is that the global academic community is incredibly heterogeneous. It doesn’t act like a hive mind, but is built up of smaller communities that are about as hyper variable as can be. As such, opinions on emerging or ongoing changes to the scholarly communication process are always highly diverse, and often vigorously polarized.

10 years ago, open access publishing was laughed at. Traditional publishers said it would never work, researchers viewed it as low quality garbage, and there was relatively little funding for it. Now, we have a global system of open access policies and mandates, and those who were strongly opposed to it originally are now recognizing the vast benefits of it for various reasons. So one thing academics always want is evidence – “show me the system works.” It took open access a while to get that far — to show it could be more efficient, higher quality, cheaper, and generally better than the traditional system, and also be a sustainable business model. Now many academics publish exclusively open access, funders have mandated it on massive scales, we’re seeing increasing innovation in publishing (mostly from academics themselves), and some publishers are generating additional profits from it. But the change was slow, and agonizing, and required painstaking negotiations over many years to get there. There are still massive debates around things like “pre-prints”, effectively instantaneous publication prior to formal peer review. Some research communities like High Energy Physics and Mathematics have been largely doing this for decades (this is actually the reason the Web was invented!), but those in the Life Sciences are generally lagging behind for one reason or another. But things are slowly changing, and it seems as though some researchers are happier to experiment with new forms of publishing and communication. So yes, some are generally open I would say, but many are still conservative and it depends on a huge combination of factors from social norms and practices, to policies and option availability. The biggest problem is that often the risks associated with this can outweigh the potential benefits, and no researcher should be put in a position where they have to choose between being open and their career.

Some of my colleagues said at the beginning of my PhD, “There’s no way you can publish exclusively OA and maintain a research career” (I’ll let you know how this works out in the future.) I still remember when my first paper was published in PeerJ, a senior colleague said, “It doesn’t even have an impact factor, so it doesn’t count.” That hurt. My second was in PLOS ONE. Another senior colleague said that “It doesn’t count, it’s not even peer reviewed.” This was in 2014, so not too long ago. Both of these comments stuck with me for multiple reasons. The second, because it’s just outright wrong, and revealed a fundamental lack of understanding regarding OA. And the first because no matter how much we change the scholarly publishing system in a move towards new models based around journals, we still haven’t done anything to decouple the assessment of researchers (based largely on journal brands and impact factors) from the intrinsic quality and communication of their work. This is the real kicker, and many researchers are now coming around to the idea that it’s not enough to innovate in publishing if we don’t look at structural academic reform too. Three years after this though, all 9 of my peer reviewed papers are open access, and I was recently lucky enough to win our prestigious departmental award for that. Take that, nay-sayers!

Regarding peer review, it seems that a lot less is being discussed about this. As part of the Mozilla Global Sprint, we began drafting a paper about what some potential future models of peer review might look like if we embraced the power of the Web better. This is fairly progressive and imaginative, but generally, I think that academics are resilient to changes in peer review. Researchers in senior positions have done well from the current system of peer review and traditional publishing. That much is obvious, otherwise they wouldn’t be in those more powerful positions. Therefore, it is not surprising that those academics look unfavourably upon disruptions to that same system. The problem is that it is the more senior academics who are in the positions of power, and have the ability to influence not just larger scale changes but also hearts and minds. This becomes even more apparent when you talk about open peer review. Almost every junior researcher I speak to is terrified of it. And all for the same reason: “If I sign my name to my review, then a senior researcher might negatively respond to that, and the backlash could harm my career.” This is abuse of power dynamics, and has nothing to do with peer review models itself; it has to do with the fact that we let senior researchers control and distort a system without any accountability. So there is this constant battle between entrenchment and the status quo, on the side of those with much of the power, and those who perhaps have a better vision of peer review and scholarly communication in general. The problem is that those who have the vision for change are often those most at risk, such as students, whereas those who are entrenched in the system have little incentive to help change it because it has been beneficial to them. This is one of the main reasons for what I think a lot of people refer to as “cultural inertia” within academia.

How important is it for researchers to inform themselves of current trends in science communication and issues in science policy?

Researchers are paid to do one thing: research. This will always be their key priority, but to do so unaware of the evolving world around them is folly. I find it quite dismaying sometimes how poorly informed researchers are about things. Like at Imperial College (and further), many of my colleagues didn’t know that there is a new national open access policy in place, that we have dedicated open access funds, or even an institutional repository. Many hadn’t even thought about issues to do with publishing oligopolies, the fact that not everyone enjoyed the same privileged level of research access as they did, and the amount of money we were losing to publishers each year. The number of times people would say “Well I have access to the research I need, so what’s the problem?” was infuriating. Many wouldn’t know how the impact factor is calculated, or how or why to share their research data, and various other aspects of the changing scholarly communication ecosystem. But there was usually a willingness to learn more, which was awesome. And always people actively working to make it easier to learn, to advocate for these changes, and build communities around them – this is why I love OpenCon so much!

However, I will concede that there are several layers of failure here. Firstly, for researchers to personally equip themselves with the knowledge about various aspects of scholarly communication; secondly, for universities and research institutes not to provide any training in this (after all, it’s a complex and rapidly evolving domain); and thirdly, for research communities not to discuss these things more openly at a higher level, and to make sure that what we are doing is always in the best interests of the public and the communication and dissemination of research.

There are huge debates that affect all researchers and their work happening all the time. For example, copyright reform in the EU, along with proposals to have all EU publicly funded research open access by 2020. Many researchers I speak to don’t even realize they have no ownership of their work once they sign their copyright away to publishers. Revelation of this simple fact is often met with utter bewilderment and disbelief. And you bet publishers will be lobbying hard to make sure these systemic changes happen as much in their interests as possible, but researchers can do nothing unless they firstly equip themselves with the knowledge they need to understand these changes, and secondly have a platform to make their voices heard and affect change.

Thanks, again, Jon, for sharing your views on some critical aspects of academic research and publishing!

This was the second of a three-part interview series with Jon Tennant. In the next and last segment, Jon shares some valuable advice for early-career researchers and shares his vision about the future of scholarly publishing.

Other parts in the series

Note: In April 2020, Jon was tragically killed in an accident in Bali, Indonesia. I knew Jon as a kind and witty person and a passionate open science advocate. This interview series is a tribute to him.

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Published on: Jun 28, 2016

Passionate about scholarly publishing, always looking to have memorable conversations with researchers and industry professionals across the globe
See more from Jayashree Rajagopalan


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