Columns Stories from Scientists

Driving and sustaining change in academic research culture as an eLife Community Ambassador

Aalok Varma

The eLife Community Ambassadors Program aims to empower a global community of early career researchers to network and take action to create a culture that benefits both science and scientists. In this article, Aalok Varma, an Ambassador in the 2019 – 2020 cohort, shares his experiences and learnings while working on various initiatives of eLife.

E Life Ambassadors Program

Research and its outputs are for everyone. While it has historically been a rich person’s endeavour, it is now becoming a more accessible career option for everyone regardless of class, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or other personal characteristics. Despite major progress that we have made, we work in and with inherited academic systems that are flawed. These systems will certainly benefit from more openness, inclusion and integrity, which is not only morally better, but improves productivity as well as the quality of science.

For instance, publishing in academia is riddled with major flaws, biases and inequities. The more obvious problems include the association between journal impact factor and the quality of the work, as well as the high article processing fees that scientists pay to publish their work in journals. There are more insidious ones, too, like how anonymous peer review often ends up yielding destructive criticism and how fewer women are given the opportunity to peer review papers because editors tend to select reviewers of the same gender as themselves — a practice called homophily (1). These practices often go unchecked and are counterproductive for science.

Changing research culture isn’t easy. It takes a lot of human hours and, more importantly, it needs a group of driven individuals with a shared vision to combine their efforts and lead the way. This is where the eLife Community Ambassadors program comes in. Apart from being a leading publisher in the life sciences, eLife has a mission to foster change in the academic community. The Ambassadors Program is one of its initiatives that aims to empower a global community of early career researchers (ECRs) to network and take action to create a culture that benefits both science and scientists. After all, you’re never too young to fix science.

I applied for the program in its second iteration, at a time when my PhD wasn’t going so well and I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Around that time, my advisor sent out an email to the campus saying that eLife was recruiting a new cohort of Ambassadors and that it was an opportunity to participate in promoting the best practices in science. I thought it would be a good idea to take a chance and apply for the program, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what I was signing up for. Looking back, I’m glad I took the chance and I would recommend it to anyone.

The 2019 – 20 cohort of Ambassadors, which I was a part of, was a diverse group of 243 early career researchers from all over the world. These participants, along with members of eLife’s Early Career Advisory Group (ECAG), split up into group initiatives, based on common passions and goals. Here I share my experience of two projects I joined: the Meta-research initiative and the Readability initiative.

Meta-research is the science of science, i.e. a discipline that asks questions about how the scientific enterprise works, identifies areas that need strengthening and comes up with solutions to these problems.

Our meta-research team chose to address how well images are reported in published papers. Given our experience in reading papers, we knew that the answer was not always well”, but that’s not enough. We wanted to find out if it was a field-specific problem, and what kinds of problems were most common.

Along with Ambassadors from the previous cohort, we designed the study, collected and analysed the data. We found that across three disciplines — cell biology, physiology and plant sciences, less than 20% of papers followed all good reporting practices. These included basic things like having appropriate scale bars, being colour-blind friendly, describing what readers are looking at and what all the colours mean. What was interesting to note was that colours are usually well done in images, but scale bars and labels were major problems in images (2).

A meta-research project doesn’t end once we have the numbers. Having identified the problem areas, we also came up with guidelines on how to make figures to best represent image data. This was a learn-by-doing project led by the exceptional meta-researcher Tracey Weissgerber (Berlin Institute of Health at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, QUEST Center, Berlin) who was a member of the ECAG at the time. The experience taught me a lot about meta-research and how to contribute to improving science, all while working in a large team from all over the world (fun fact: our team was spread out over four continents and have never met in person!)

The second project I was a part of was the Readability initiative, which aimed at bringing academic papers into the Internet Era. We still follow the publishing style from early days of academic publishing, when journals had to produce and distribute physical copies with limited space and when printing, especially in colour, was costly. However, now we have the Internet, putting up a colour figure in an online manuscript costs far less and there is no space limitation, either. The Web also offers ample space to be more interactive and inclusive — graphs that can be toggled on and off, structures that can be viewed in all orientations instead of snapshots, larger font sizes for people with visual deficiencies, or even different fonts that make it easier for dyslexic people to read.

Furthermore, since we have been limiting the style of scientific communication, research articles have progressively become harder to read even for other scientists.

We sought to solve these problems by taking a paper published in eLife and rewriting it by incorporating many of the features of a modern, 21st century paper. Our focus was to simplify writing, add interactive graphs and definitions of keywords, among other features, to make what we called the Lucid Bio” version of the paper. This project is still nascent and I hope others will contribute to its improvement to make it ready to be better publicised.

The outputs of the eLife Community Ambassadors program were as diverse as the group itself (complete list of initiatives and their outputs here; we’ve also continued several initiatives after the program ended). For example, the Sustainability initiative aimed at raising conscientiousness among scientists as we face a climate crisis. To bring more awareness about the problem of single-use plastics in our work, they started a Twitter initiative — #LabWasteDay, where scientists across the world collect all the plastic waste they produce in a single day, weigh it and share a photo of them carrying it (read more here).

Not all initiatives were about the physical outputs of science; some were about forging support systems. For example, the Intersectionality initiative aimed at giving a safe space to all members to discuss the challenges they face as a result of who they are or where they come from. The group started a book club to discuss works (like the book Inferior” by Angela Saini) that highlight challenges that minorities face in academia and developed resources to help overcome them.

The Ambassadors program continues to grow and has recently welcomed a new group. We have learnt from the previous iterations of the program and have modified the program to make it more streamlined and now have a training and networking period for its members before the actual advocacy work begins. Furthermore, given that we only have limited spots in the Ambassadors Program, we end up having to reject many good quality applications. This doesn’t quite add up with the spirit of being inclusive, so we’ve started a pilot program called the Open Science Champions network to give everyone a chance to be associated with the network and get to know about open events, even though they didn’t get to be part of the main cohort of Ambassadors.

Change is slow, but all these projects help shape research culture to make the vision of a healthy culture a reality. After all, having this kind of support system made up of colleagues who share a vision goes a long way in driving change. I was and continue to be impressed by the enthusiasm and energy that early career researchers have to be the change they want to see in academia and look forward to the research culture of the future.

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