Saturday, October 24, 2020

Navigating the academic system. Or, will I face an evolution or a revolution?

Image from the time of the Batavian Revolution.
Img: Rijksmuseum, public domain.
When I started this blog, I was still a PhD student myself. Now, I am assistant professor ("universitair docent" in Dutch), tenured, and I've acquired funding to fund others researchers. I have not got used to this yet. I don't like this hierarchical system, but am forced to get used to this. So, when I write "new paper", this paper is no longer "mine". I'm more like a sponsor, attempting to give the researchers that work "for" me advice but also the opportunity to do their own thing.

Of course, this is complicated when the funding comes from grants, where the person I start collaborating with, is greatly reduced in their academic freedom. Talking about navigation: balancing scientific impact and project deliverables requires a good amount of flexibility and creativity.

There is a lot happening. The system is broken. Basically, there is no upper limit and as long as selection is based on volume and not quality (#blasphemy), more is better. So, what do I tell and teach the people working on my grants, those that are under my supervision? Do I teach them how to succeed in the academic system, or do I teach them how to do good research? Ideally, those would be the same. But it is not. The system is broken.

The example of this is well-known. Publishing in journals with an high impact factor. That has for at least two decades seen as a measure of quality and has therefore long been used in assessments, at many levels. Of course, the quality of any paper is not a function of the place where it gets published. It can be argued that research is done better for higher impact journals, but I still need to see the data that confirms that. But there is a far more worrying thing, that exactly proves my point that volume is not the same as quality: apparently, it is acceptable to submit inferior work to journals (with a lower impact factor). The system is broken.

The system is breaking down. People are looking for solutions. Some solutions are questionable. Some good solutions are not taken, because of being problematic in the short term. But one way or another, the system is broken and must be fixed. I hope it can go via evolution, but when then establishment is fighting the evolution, a revolution may be the only option left.

Here are some possible evolutions and some revolutions people are talking about.


  1. all research output will get recognized and rewarded
  2. people will stop using fake measures of success like the journal impact factor
  3. journal articles actually in detail describe the experiment (reproducibility)
  1. the journal will stop to exist and the venue will be the research output itself
  2. we start recognizing rewarding research output instead of researchers
  3. research no longer is a competition for funding


Now, where will either happen? In the whole discussion about, for example, cOAlition S people are hiding behind "but then ..., because in X ...". For example, they argue that careers are damaged if they do not publish in high impact journals. This argument values researchers over research (output). As if this person would not find a job without that article. As if the research itself has no value. Sadly, this is partly true. So, folliwing this reasoning, doing a PhD in The Netherlands damages your career too. You can better do it in the USA (or Oxford, Cambridge) in the first place. 

So, what better place to give this evolution or revolution shape, then in a country like the Netherlands, where the research quality (at least on average) is high and only volume is lacking to compete with the Harvards of the world. Without the billions in extra funding, that volume is not going to happen. We managed to do that, by working 60 hours/week instead of 40 hours/week. Adding another 20 hours a week is not going to happen (not without deaths; if you think that's an exaggeration, just check the facts, plz).

Fortunately, The Netherlands has a good track records with revolutions. A good track record in highly impactful research. The country has shown how strong our research is, with the National Plan Open Science, strong involvement in cOAlition S, evolution is very clearly tried. Not all solution equally well, and also with strong opposition from some. Some years ago, some believed it inconceivable that Nature would start allowing Open Access, but the change is coming. Willingly? Well, with the APC they are going to charge, I cannot really say they do so willingly. Evolution, not revolution.

The real evolution/revolution we need, however, is not about open access. It is about fair and open science.

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