Too much of modern peer review feels like tit-for-tat gatekeeping - Dr. Ben Britton

Too much of modern peer review feels like tit-for-tat gatekeeping - Dr. Ben Britton

I am in conversation with Dr. Ben Britton, who leads the Experimental Micromechanics Group of postdoctoral researchers, PhD and masters students, and academic visitors at Imperial College London. Dr. Britton’s focus is on developing new microscopy techniques and understanding the metals used in extreme environments, such as nuclear power, aerospace and oil and gas. He is also a Chartered Engineer, Chartered Scientist, and Fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining. Dr. Britton actively tweets (as @bmatb) about issues such as equality, diversity and inclusion, the academic research landscape, and materials science and engineering. In his own words, “As an academic, I split my time between three major activities: research, teaching, and administration (service). Trying to keep these balanced and striving to excel – across the board – is a bit tricky at times. I’ll confess that some bits of my life are going reasonably well, but the pressure often keeps me awake at night.”

In this conversation, tells us more about his work, the dynamics of working in a lab, and his experiences as a Principal Investigator (PI). He also talks about some of the pressures he has to deal with as an academic. Given his passion for academic research and communication, he throws in some great publication tips for researchers and talks about the strengths and weaknesses of the scholarly publishing system as well as shares his thoughts about quality in peer review, the theme of this year’s Peer Review Week.

Could you tell us more about your work?

I lead a group of researchers who try to understand how materials deform, why they fail and develop new tools to characterize their performance. We use computation and experimental techniques to understand deformation at the nm to mm length scales; and use these to inform how we should use materials in aerospace, oil & gas, and nuclear power applications. I really enjoy the range of our work and at the moment I’m excited about our applications of “big data” approaches to understand diffraction patterns and the individual components of a metal structure.

How did you come about having your own research group? What has your experience been like?

I didn’t mean to lead a research group (though I enjoy my current role!) – towards the end of my Undergraduate degree, I had a place in law school and was due to take a year off to ski and have a break. My masters project supervisor, Prof Angus Wilkinson, won a grant to develop our understanding of titanium for aerospace applications and asked if I would like to do a PhD. Serendipity has continued from there, and I’ve made the most of the opportunities that have come my way (and brushed all the many failures under the carpet). I made the move to Imperial College London in 2012 and started building a research group from there. The group is currently a collaboration between myself, 3 post docs, and around 15 PhD and Masters level students. It’s a fair bit of work to keep things on track, and to try to develop some ideas of where we might head in the future, but it’s a whole lot of fun to work with the great people in the team.

Lab dynamics are a common topic of discussion among early career researchers? Do you have any tips for researchers about working in a lab?

I spend most of my time thinking about how I can support people individually and help the group support each other. We have a Code of Conduction which provides some clear ground rules, and new members are asked to adhere to it from day one. I’m keen to recruit people from a diverse range of backgrounds and make everyone feel included. This happens through a range of social activities, group projects, and shared responsibility for different aspects of the lab. We also communicate in person, via email, engage with each other on social media, and run an active slack group. In all of this, I also recognize that each member of the team is an individual with different needs (and these needs change with time). At the end of each calendar year, I meet with each member individually to discuss ‘non-technical stuff’ such as their career development, life in the lab, and give them the space to provide me feedback on how to make the lab a better place for everyone. We don’t always get things right, but we do get better with more practice!

What are some of your own learnings as a PI? And based on those, what would your nuggets of advice to other PIs be?

As much as it scares me, people look at up to and emulate my behavior, so I have to lead by example. This is really important when it comes to providing safe spaces for people to learn and get involved in research. A lot of my life is very public facing (I tweet as @bmatb, and am known to be out spoken on a variety of issues, including LGBTQ+ issues, as well as more widely within equality, diversity and inclusion). I know I’m privileged (white-cis-western-able-bodied-male) and I’ve had a fairly linear career path (straight from undergraduate to PhD to post doc to faculty), which has been great as the opportunities appeared when they did and I made the most of them. However, lots of people do things differently for reasons in and out of their control. I’m trying to get better to be able to cater for others with a range of different needs, and to help right the balance more widely within my profession. This means I’m spending more time to actively sponsor and advocate for individuals from underrepresented groups. More personally, as I move from “early” towards “mid” career status, I find myself reflecting more on how to make this career sustainable – it is far too easy to become too self-absorbed in the unimportant things in life.

How can universities support researchers and help them advance personally and professionally?

Academia can be unforgiving on your personal life, especially in terms of the ‘expectation’ of hours worked, fast turnaround on deadlines, the never-ending sea of rejections and setbacks, academic nomad life aka the conference circuit, and the culture of moving for each career step. We need to get better to work out what we really value from each of these ‘cookie cutter’ processes and find ways to make them less taxing on a human level. Across the sector, I can see that Universities also tend to be increasing in administrative burden and sorting out the “little things” (like expense claims, over metrification and evaluation, and email overload) will make academics feel more valued and more productive, and also make the career viable for a more diverse range of people.

A majority of our global readers are researchers who are at different stages of their academic journey. But publishing successfully is a common pain point, as is the need to get published fast. Do you have any publication related tips or advice for our readers?

Consider what the value in a publication is. Metrics are distracting and can be a naval gazing exercise. The quality of a journal is in the value it brings to your publication, typically through editorial quality, dissemination of the work, or the curation of a readership. With overlay journals, preprints, open access, Plan S, and alternative dissemination venues (e.g. video journals) being explored we can see that the landscape is changing. Now that I am in a faculty position with a reasonable number of ‘recognized’ publications behind me, the ‘benefit’ for each publication is different for me as compared to those within my team. This means I let them guide the process, with my advice and support, in terms of venue decision and approaches to getting the most of their publications. With the fallibility of the peer review system in plain sight, I find myself embracing preprint servers to control release of our publications for wider dissemination, and I also sign my peer reviews as a matter of course.

What is the best aspect/process of the scholarly publishing system? In contrast, what is the one aspect or process that needs urgent attention today?

We have built a system of ‘trust’ and a way to enhance the visibility of scholarship, where the good journals curate an interested readership. As new ‘mega journals’ enter this space, there is a risk we erode this and we will likely see that curation of collections and increased use of topic sensitive search alerts guiding us in what to read. I find conference proceedings archaic, and hope that we move towards a culture of preprints with curated collections, where the work can be accessed by a wider community than those who can afford due to what passport they hold or their financial security, to see the latest research being conducted.

A personal one now. What is the most unforgettable moment of your life as a researcher?

I was lucky to attend an awards ceremony in the moat of the Tower of London, during a rainstorm, the day of the Brexit referendum. I invited my mentor and close friend, Professor Fionn Dunne. Both of us had landed that morning from a conference in Baltimore. It was an eclectic evening, with much good cheer, and on reflection, I realize that 15 year old me would never have dreamed that this was how his life would turn out.

Since we are talking about quality in peer review as part of Peer Review Week,  I wanted to get your thoughts on this. What does “quality peer review” mean to you?

Peer review is a system to add value to archival scholarship. I am excited when I receive peer review comments that feel like the reviewers are willing our work to join the permanent academic record, and the reviewers want to make it better because they enjoy what we’ve done and the ideas we are trying to communicate.

Do you think we (authors and/or journal editors) can make peer review better? How so?

Too much of modern peer review feels like tit-for-tat gatekeeping and sniping beyond the anonymous guise of peer review, where many editors are farming out decision making and editorial curation of their journals to the haphazard whims of the reviewers. I would like to see more peer review documents (reviewer comments and response to reviewer comments) published alongside the journal article. In our group’s journal club, we’ve discussed these a few times when they were made available and it massively enhanced our learning of the work. Ultimately, if we view journal papers as a firmament of academia then we need these documents made public to increase transparency and also to enable us to teach our peers and students how the processes work, and how ideas are generated and improved.

Where do you think peer review is headed?

The volume of papers being written is outstripping the willingness of reviewers to engage sensibly with review, especially when the incentives are not there to recognize the time and effort that peer review takes. This is combined with the increasing range of techniques, approaches, and the rise of interdisciplinary research. Furthermore, with the pressure of open access and Plan S, we are likely at a tipping point in how scholarship is evaluated and disseminated. Peer review was not always the “gold mark”, though admittedly those times were also when science was only conducted by gentlemen. I see an increase our collective use and valuing of preprints, a movement from traditional journals towards curation of collections via overlay journals, and more open peer review that is shared with the readership of journals. While some of us have the privilege to sign our reviews, we also must recognize that many do not and there are very real negative consequences for vulnerable individuals, and yet we should engineer a system that weeds out bad behavior (i.e. unfair punishment from professional, but negative, peer review) and enables people to be more open and honest in their evaluation of the work to move the field forwards.

Thank you, Dr. Britton! That was a fantastic conversation!

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