Have you been “Bullied into Bad Science?” How to support Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and eliminate the publish or perish mentality from our labs.

By Elizabeth McEvoy and Melissa Hogan

A group of postdocs at University of Cambridge are taking the lead in combatting academic bullying of young researchers in the world of publishing. This campaign – driven by self-branded “Early Career Researchers (ECRs)” – condemns current publishing practices and urges the scientific community to embrace more transparent and open publishing practices to better promote scientific progress. 

The Movement

The impetus for this movement? Widespread concern that ECRs are “often bullied into publishing against their ethics.” Trainees, postdocs, and young PIs are often made promises of jobs, grants, and notoriety by their supervisors in exchange for conforming their research to fit the message of big-name, old-guard journals that carry a high-impact factor.[1] A top priority for ECRs is eliminating both institutional and professional pressures to mold data into a publishable form, a reality that often leaves scientists no choice but to manipulate data to fit a preconceived hypothesis, with the latter bearing a high risk for crossing the line into research misconduct. These goals go hand-and-hand with ECRs’ desire to enhance public access to experimental data and encourage scientists to compare data and obtain reproducibly results, whatever the scientific conclusions that would be drawn from them.

Partnering with Institutions

By drawing attention to the institutional pressures bearing on ECRs, leaders of this movement are making a public pitch for academic freedom. To encourage true scientific independence, ECRs are going to institutions – too frequently where those deep-seeded pressures to conform one’s data originate – and asking them to draw attention to these and other ethical undercurrents affecting the integrity of outgoing research. By encouraging institutions to sign onto the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), a pledge that promotes full transparency in publishing practices, ECRs are partnering with academic research institutions to transform current publishing norms. This new wave in publishing replaces reputations built on prestigious journal affiliations with science-centered objectives of authenticity and data sharing. Institutions who share this goal can publicly voice their desire to put scientific integrity ahead of reputation and money and show the research community that they are on the side of science.

What else institutions can do to help

ECRs leading the campaign have published a list of actions that organizations funding research can take to help steer publishing practices away from old ideals of “getting it right” toward an open format that better protects ECRs and their work. In addition to signing DORA, institutions can promote publication in open access journals. Since the movement began, ECRs have pointed to the many benefits of publishing in open access journals rather than traditional publications. This push is backed up by a growing body of statistics that suggests that open sharing of articles, code, and data is beneficial for researchers, (such as those described in this 2016 literature review) and may improve the reproducibility of scientific data and result in increased citations, media attention, and job/funding opportunities. 

Institutions should also consider bolstering current training programs on publishing ethics and expanding the educational opportunities available to researchers seeking to publish in a research publication. Recognizing the importance of early education, ECRs are pushing for institutions to make courses on publication ethics mandatory for all faculty and students. This new wave of in-house training efforts would be designed not only to educate members but to open a candid dialogue between researchers and institutional leaders about the pressures and harsh realities imposed in scholarly publishing. A full list of their recommendation can be found here.  

Universities and research institutions would be doing themselves and the next generation of talent a great disservice by not listening to the concerns raised by ECRs – highlighting serious concerns and deficiencies in the current publishing model. If left unremedied, the scientific community risk missing critical opportunities to share research and make progress toward future breakthroughs. 

[1] For more information about the movement, please visit - http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2019/01/20/bullied-into-bad-science/#.XN1tY8hKjcs