Selling science to Nature

On Saturday 22 December, the Dutch national newspaper NRC published an interview with Hans Clevers, professor of molecular genetics and president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). The interview is the latest in a series of public performances following Clevers’ installment as president in 2012, in which he responds to current concerns about the need for revisions in the governance of science. The recent Science in Transition initiative for instance stirred quite some debate in the Netherlands, also within the Academy. One of the most hotly debated issues is that of quality control, an issue that encompasses the implications of an increasing publication pressure, purported flaws in the peer review system, impact factor manipulation, and the need for new forms of data quality management.

Clevers is currently combining the KNAW-presidency with his group leadership at the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht. In both roles he actively promotes data sharing. He told the NRC that he stimulates his own researchers to share all findings. “Everything is for the entire lab. Asians in particular sometimes need to be scolded for trying to keep things to themselves.” When it comes to publishing the findings, it is Clevers who decides who contributed most to a particular project and who deserves to be first author. “This can be a big deal for the careers of PhD students and post-docs.” The articles for ‘top journals’ like Nature or Science he always writes himself. “I know what the journals expect. It requires great precision. A title consists of 102 characters. It should be spot-on in terms of content, but it should also be exciting.”

Clevers does acknowledge some of the problems with the current governance of science — the issue of data sharing and mistrust mentioned above, but for instance also the systematic imbalance in the academic reward system when it comes to appreciation for teaching. However, he does not seem very concerned with publication pressure. He argued on numerous occasions that publishing is simply part of daily scientific life. According to him, the number of articles is not a leading criterium. In most fields, it’s the quality of the papers that matters most. With these statements Clevers clearly puts himself in the mainstream view on scientific management. But there are also dissenting opinions, and sometimes they are voiced by other prominent scientists from the same field. Last month, Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman, professor of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, declared a boycott on three top-tier journals at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm. Schekman argued that NatureCellScience and other “luxury” journals are damaging the scientific process by artificially restricting the number of papers they accept, by make improper use of the journal impact factor as a marketing tool, and by depending on editors that favor spectacular findings over soundness of the results. 

The Guardian published an article in which Schekman iterated his critique. The journal also made an inventory of the reactions of the editors-in-chief of NatureCell and Science. They washed their hands of the matter. Some even delegated the problems to the scientists themselves. Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, referred to a recent survey of the Nature Publishing Group which revealed that “[t]he research community tends towards an over-reliance in assessing research by the journal in which it appears, or the impact factor of that journal.”

In a previous blog post we paid attention to a call for an in-depth study of the editorial policies of NatureScience, and Cell by Jos Engelen, president of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). It is worth reiterating some parts of his argument. According to Engelen the reputation of these journals, published by commercial publishers, is based on ‘selling’ innovative science derived from publicly funded research. Their “extremely selective publishing policy” has turned these journals into ‘brands’ that have ‘selling’ as their primary interest, and not, for example, “promoting the best researchers.” Here we see the contours of a disagreement with Clevers. Without wanting to read too much into his statements, Clevers on more than one occasion treats the status and quality of NatureCell and Science as apparently self-evident — as the main current of thought would have it. But in the NRC interview Clevers also does something else: By explaining his policy to write the ‘top-papers’ himself he also reveals that these papers are as much the result of craft, reputation and access, as they are an ‘essential’ quality of the science behind it. Knowing how to write attractive titles is a start – but it is certainly not the only skill needed in this scientific reputation game.

The stakes are high with regard to scientific publishing  — that much is clear. Articles in ‘top’ journals can make, break or sustain careers. One possible explanation for the status of these journals is of course that researchers have become highly reliant on on external funding for the continuation of their research. And highly cited papers in high impact journals have become the main ‘currency’ in science, as theoretical physicist Jan Zaanen called it in a lecture at our institute. The fact that articles in top journals serve as de facto proxies for the quality of researchers is perhaps not problematic in itself (or is it?). But it certainly becomes tricky if these same journals increasingly treat short-term news-worthiness as an important criterion in their publishing policies, and if peer review committee work also increasingly revolves around selecting those projects that are most likely to have short-term success. Amongst others Frank Miedema (one of the initiators of Science in Transition) argues that this is the case in his booklet Science 3.0. Clearly, there is a need for thorough research into these dynamics. How prevalent are they? And what are the potential consequences for longer-term research agendas?

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The need for change in the governance of science – II

Turbulent times at the Trippenhuis, home of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Last Thursday and Friday the Academy opened its doors for the Science in Transition conference: two days of debate between representatives of science, industry, and policy-making aimed at revising some of the checks and balances of the scientific and scholarly system. We already blogged about some of the most problematic aspects of current quality control mechanisms last week. Interestingly, there was remarkable consensus among conference participants on a number of points relating to these mechanisms. Most keynotes, commentators, and members of the audience seemed to want to avoid:

  • Research agendas that are not driven by content and relevance;
  • Excessive competition and careerism;
  • A publish or perish culture that favors quantity over quality, promotes cherry picking of results and salami slicing, and discourages validation, verification and replication;
  • An ill-functioning peer review system that lacks incentives for sound quality judgment;
  • One-size-fits-all evaluation procedures;
  • Perverse allocation models and career policy mechanisms (in which for instance number of students directly affect the number of .fte spent on research and young researchers are hired on short-term contracts funded through external grants [‘PhD and Post-doc factories’).

But of course there was still a lot left to debate. As a result of the succesful media campaign and the subsequent hype around Science in Transition, some speakers felt that they needed to ‘stand up for science’. Hans Clevers, president of the KNAW, and Jos Engelen, chairman of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) were noticably unhappy about the portrayal in the media of science ‘in crisis’. Both stressed that Dutch science is doing well, judging for instance from the scores on university rankings. Both radiated their aggravation about painting an ambiguous picture of science to outsiders, because of the potential risks of feeding already existing scepticism and mistrust. At the same time it was telling that these key figures in the landscape of Dutch governance of science were supportive of the debate and the fundamental points raised by the organisers.

Like Clevers and Engelen, Lodi Nauta (dean of the faculty of philosophy in Groningen) too, argued that not everything is going astray in science. According to him there are still many inspiring examples of solid, prize-worthy, trust-worthy, interdisciplinary, societally relevant research. But Nauta also signaled that there is much ‘sloppy science’. Not all symposium participants agreed on how much, and if there is indeed a general increase. Peter Blom, CEO of Triodos Bank, made an important aside. He thought it rather arrogant that whilst basically every other sector is in crisis, science should think it could distance itself from these economic and socio-political currents. But many participants took a cautionary stance: If there is indeed such a thing as a crisis, we should not lose sight of the nuances. It is not all bad everywhere, at the same time, and for everyone. Some argued that young researchers suffer most from current governance structures and evaluation procedures; that certain fields are more resilient than others; and that compared to other countries the Dutch scientific and scholarly system is not doing that badly at all. Henk van Houten, general manager of Philips Research, on the contrary, argued that ‘university as a whole has a governance issue’: The only moment that universities have actual influence is when they appoint professors at particular chairs. However, these professors are subsequently mainly held accountable to external funders. One is left to wonder which governance model is to be preferred: this one, or models companies like Philips put in practice.

At the heart of the debate on being open about the present crisis lies a rather dated desire to leave ‘the black box of science’ unopened. Whilst Lodi Nauta for instance argued – with Kant – that an ideal-typical image of science is necessary as a ‘regulatory idea’, the Science in Transition initiators deemed it pointless to keep spreading a fairytale about ‘a perfect scientific method by individuals with high moral values without any bias or interests’. Van Houten (Philips) and Blom (Triodos) also argued that science does not take its publics seriously enough if it sticks to this myth. Letting go of this myth does not amount to ‘science bashing’ – on the contrary. It is valuable to explain how science ‘really’ works, how objective facts are made, where the uncertainties lie, which interests are involved, and how science contributes through trained judgment and highly specialized expertise.

A hotly debated matter also relates to ‘black-boxing’ science: Who gets to have a say about proper quality assessment and the shaping of research agendas? André Knottnerus, chairman of the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) pointed at ambivalence in discussions on these matters. We tend to only take criticism on performance measurement seriously if delivered by researchers that score high on these same measures. There were also differences of opinion about the role of industry in defining research agendas. (i.e. detrimental effects of pharmaceutical companies on clinical research. Obviously Philips was invited to serve as a counter-example of positive bonds between (bio-medical) research and commercial partners). And what about society at large? Who speaks for science and to whom are we to be held accountable, Sheila Jasanoff asked? (How) should researchers pay more attention to mobilizing new publics and participatory mechanisms, and productive democratisation of the politics of science?

Most speakers were of the opinion that we should move away from narrow impact measurement towards contextually sensitive evaluation systems. Systems that reward mission oriented research, collaboration and interdisciplinarity, which not only accommodate short-term production but also the generation of deep knowledge. These (ideal-typical?) systems should allow for diversification in talent selection, and grant academic prestige through balanced reward mechanisms and ‘meaningful metrics’. Though the symposium did a lot of the groundwork, how to arrive at such systems is of course the biggest challenge (see also Miedema’s ‘toolbox for Science in Transition’ for concrete suggestions). This is assuming it is possible at all. But perhaps we need this ideal-typical image as a ‘regulatory idea’.

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