"What I cannot create, I do not understand." – R. Feynman
Jonas Kubilius, Pieter Moors, Lee H. de-Wit

Occupy science until it bursts open

Shortly before passing away, Richard Gregory (FRS) gave an after-dinner speech, where he said that if he were to be born again, he would become a banker so that he could put their house in order. Rightly so. After a few decades of deregulation and an almost religious faith in the free market competition as the solution to everything, it seems as if the free hand of the corporate capitalism is trying to slap itself in the face.

Science is however far from free of the unhealthy trends seen in the banking sector and economy more generally. Principle amongst these is the value placed on that which can be easily measured in the short term. In corporations, this principle is reflected in chasing bonuses and dividends from last quarter’s profits despite the potential long term costs. In governments, it manifests in a primary focus on increasing a measure (growth to GDP) that displays a questionable relationship (in developed countries) with the things we truly value (see ‘The Spirit Level’). In academia, this short-term value and reward structure leads to a focus on publications. Having a clearly defined goal and reward structure can be useful and important; however, we need to reflect upon whether we are really measuring (and rewarding) the things we truly value. It is our fear that we are simply coming to value things we can easily measure, and that this is distorting and detracting from the real aims of scientific research.

The potential distortion caused by our narrowly focused reward structure is becoming ever more pertinent as failures (e.g., Wicherts, 2011) to the peer review process and the closed nature of research raise doubts as to whether we are dealing with a few bad apples or a rotten system. Indeed, given advances in technology that open new means to share, publish, and review empirical work, it is the right time to ask if science might make more progress over the next few years if we were to focus on making some long term changes to the nature of publishing, reviewing, and sharing data rather than focusing on the short term production of publications. Informally the flaws in peer review system, the lack of openness and the ‘publish or perish’ mentality are nearly unanimously agreed upon by the academics we have spoken to. Yet the academic community at large seems to suffer from a kind of learned helplessness in terms of doing anything about the system that it bemoans, but yet perpetuates. Why is this change to open practices in science not happening? Would we not benefit from encouraging world’s best minds to work together in sharing ideas, programming code and data? While reasonable and desirable, the change in the system, it seems, is largely hindered by the system itself, or rather its reward structure.

Our current reward model is clearly biased towards a focus on impact factors and numbers of publications, even though it is not clear that such a narrowly-focused reward structure is optimal for the genuine advancement of scientific knowledge, or for addressing the needs of society. This pressure starts early, skewing the education of young scientists. From the start of a doctoral program, students are thinking in terms of the publications they need to get a postdoc, rather than how they can make a truly novel, interesting and genuine contribution to their field. In turn, supervisors must leverage student supervision in order to keep building their own publication list rather than focusing on how they can best mentor and educate the next generation with the skills and knowledge they will need to take their subject forward. A clear case in point here is computer programming in psychology: whilst developing this skill should constitute a significant portion of a junior scientist’s time, training opportunities in this area are seriously neglected or more often simply non-existent.

The authors of this post are all researchers at early stages of their careers who feel frustrated with the direction science is going. So we occupy our professors’ offices until they agree to consider free and open source software alternatives, and explain the benefits of sharing code in facilitating collaborations, and believe in the potential for a grassroots change to the culture of science. We attempt to ‘be the change we want to see’. When we apply for our next job however, our contributions to science will only count if they are easily measurable in publications and their citations. Much like in the occupy movements, the real changes in policy must come from those senior to us, the ones who are established enough not to have to chase after short term job security and who hold the keys to our next job and our next grant.