All Things SciComm

Gareth O’Neill on Open Science and Early Career Researchers

July 19, 2022 ScienceTalks Season 2 Episode 3
All Things SciComm
Gareth O’Neill on Open Science and Early Career Researchers
Show Notes Transcript

In today’s episode, Nikesh Gosalia and Gareth O’Neill chat about the recent shift toward open science. They start by discussing Gareth's early days as a linguistic lecturer, his foray into open access, and his activism on behalf of researchers at the European Union, as well as his work with open science projects Eurodoc, FOSTER, and DRC. Gareth shares his observations on the stalled progress toward open access in recent decades and the factors that affect this, including different business models, cOAlition S, and the shift in power from publishers to researchers. Nikesh and Gareth then talk about how early career researchers can be supported, from open research to mental health. Gareth emphasizes the need to reevaluate the purpose of a PhD and reduce unnecessary activities to keep weekly hours manageable. He also addresses a major flaw in the current research assessment system — the excessive focus on publication — and talks about the need for a more well-rounded reward system.

Gareth O'Neill is the Principal Consultant on Open Science at the Technopolis Group as well as a doctoral candidate for theoretical linguistics at Leiden University. As the Former President of the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, Gareth is a renowned expert on open science for the Dutch Government and the European Commission. Reach him on Twitter

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All Things SciComm! What does the future of science look like? What's happening in science communication? Here's your host, Nikesh Gosalia. Hi, everyone. Welcome to All Things SciComm. All Things SciComm is a weekly podcast brought to you by ScienceTalks, a media platform that aims to make science accessible to everyone. All things SciComm! Today’s innovator. Knock, knock. Today's guest is the principal consultant on open science at the Technopolis Group and a huge advocate for improving the implementation and skills training of open science across Europe. He's an ambassador for open access and 'Plan S' under 'cOAlition S' as well as a doctoral candidate in linguistics at Leiden University. He was the Former President of the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers and is a renowned expert on open science for the Dutch Government and the European Commission. Everyone please welcome today's guest, Gareth O'Neill. Thank you, Gareth, for joining us today. Hi Nikesh, it's nice to join. So, let's start with a little bit about yourself and your background. According to your work history, you started your career as a lecturer at different universities in the Netherlands. Tell us a bit about those early stages as a lecturer. Yes, so my background is in linguistics, general and theoretical linguistics. And I was lecturing, well, in the early days, I guess, in English linguistics and in English language teaching, which then developed into linguistics, more theoretical side of it, let's say, and that's where I first started hitting the topics of open access. I don't think the words that we were using back then were open science but more about open access, right, so open access to research publications. And the issue at the time was, and still is, researchers or even citizens, but especially researchers were sometimes or often unable to get access to research publications that they would need for directional research. And at the time, and I think even now, for many researchers, it's not always clear why that is because many researchers don't go into the details of how publishing system actually works. Their role in this is to write an article on their research, send it for submission, peer review, with the grace of God maybe get actually accepted and reviewed and published, right. So, that's the kind of workflow for them. But they typically don't know what's behind the scene to set up a lot of the agreements in place to run the publishing, right. So, my background, it's in, I guess, teaching and linguistics. And I think there is also with a lot of students where we were trying to give them access to articles, and that they may not get access to articles through the library, we might come to that a bit later. So, they would have to find alternative means to get access to literature, which we would need or use in our course, you know. And I always felt that shouldn't be the case that we would have to decide on what literature to use, based on its availability, whether you would have to pay for it or not. You should be able to get access to all research out there, at least that's funded by the public purse by the taxpayer. Research that's been funded by commercial entities, that's their prerogative and their choice. I have no issue with that. And I agree with you Gareth. And because you mentioned open access, I know that there are a lot of numbers being thrown these days in terms of we've made tremendous progress. Almost every publisher, every academic society is moving very aggressively towards open access, but just from your perspective, do you think we've made enough progress? Do you think it's still a lot of work to be done? Just any thoughts on that? Absolutely not. The drive towards opening up research publications I think was 25 to 30 years ago where some initiatives started, right, to publish preprints so that you could put out an early version of your article and get comments from your communities. And then of course ultimately that would get published. But the final version typically was not open, so to speak, right. So, a preprint version, or an earlier version of it might be open. Now, what's happened there I think over the years is that it's essentially stalled. And I don't know who is to blame for that, but gradually with the idea of open access – so maybe just to be very clear what I mean by open access, right, so we have subscription publishing, which is essentially to put that very short where a publisher will sign an agreement with, for instance, a library, typically a university library, and the agreement there is that the publisher, depending on how big they are, will offer a selection of their journals for access to that library. So, the library pays a subscription fee on a collection of journals, typically not all of the journals. That gets bundled. And what that means then is that I as a researcher affiliated with that library and having an account at that university, right, so a login account, I can gain access to all the articles published in those journals because they fall under the agreement. What that means is I as a researcher don't have to pay, and I have typically a single sign on, I log into my university account, and then I can browse through my catalog, and I can see the journals, and I can click access, right, and that works quite efficiently. The problem there, however, is twofold. Directly for the researcher, they can only get access to the articles that their library has subscribed to, meaning I can't get access to all articles, right, and I have to go find alternative means to do that. And the second issue, which is less relevant or even interesting for researchers, but is more relevant for the university and the taxpayer, for publicly funded researchers, is how much do we actually spend on such agreements. And I know from the Netherlands, for instance, that many of the universities have non-disclosure agreements with publishers where they don't disclose the amounts that are actually paid to publishers, because the publishers in some cases want to be able to negotiate better deals. I won't say good deals, I would say better deals, right. If one university doesn't know what the other is paying and can't talk about it, then you don't really know where the price fixing is, right. And of course, the bundling of articles is different so it's hard to compare. What you really want us to know, what am I paying exactly for that journal per year and why, and how is that cost calculated. So, that's what I mean by subscription publishing. The idea of then open access publishing is essentially that all researchers and all citizens can gain access to an article regardless of if you are affiliated with the university or not, regardless of if you have a subscription or not, right. So, the article itself, we move away in a away from the journal, the article in itself unpublished, being published becomes open or often with a delay as in the past. So, over the last 25 years we've seen a move towards open access. But there's been lots of different models to do that, right. So, we're trying to move, let's say, from a subscription model to an open access model. Note, I've not talked about finance yet, just opening it up immediately for everybody. And there's been different business models or forms in that process. And one of the forms which has not proved effective has been what's called ‘hybrid publishing.’ And this is essentially where a publisher deploys a mix of subscription access on specific journals and open access on specific journals or, let's say, literal to subscription journals where some articles are open. And that's been – initially, I think, the idea was that this would be an incentive to publishers to find business models to move to this other model that we want, right. But that's not happened. So, essentially, this hybrid model has become more popular. It has been a very good business model for publishers. There's been cases of double dipping, where they get paid for, and the subscription access, and the open access sometimes on the same journals, let's say. And I think this is the reason why several years ago, cOAlition S came together and developed what's called Plan S. So, for those who don't know, cOAlition S was and is a collection of research funding bodies, typically national funding bodies, or private funding bodies that fund research and, of course, have a stake in what happens with the research publications. And they were predominantly directed between the European Commission. That was Robert-Jan Smits, Director General of the Directorate for Research and Innovation at the time, together with I think the President of Science Europe, a collection of European funding bodies, Marc Schiltz, and then with a collection of these funding bodies, not all of them but a large collection which has been growing ever since. And their response shows you where we've come. And what they demanded with this Plan S was essentially all articles funded by those funding bodies that were linked to cOAlition S would make sure that their publications were open immediately on publication, no more locked behind a subscription, no more delays in publishing, right, because sometimes you might have an article in subscription for 6 months, 12 months, 24 months, and then be opened. The reason being that the publishers always argued that they needed to make a profit from that article and typically after 1 year to 2 years the profit would go down, right, as it becomes less relevant or less modern. And so, their goals were essentially to make all articles that they fund immediately open, and that the copyright would remain with researchers-institutions. That can be complicated, who wants the copyright, but that it would remain. Why that request was that in many cases publishers asked or demanded even, which may not be fully legal in some places, that authors would transfer the copyright on the article to the publisher with multiple reasons from their side. Like we want to be able to support you if there's any legal battles, which I've never heard happened. But in any case, that was the argument. So, they demanded open access, immediate open access they call it, and a couple of other, let's say, requirements from their side like on the type of licensing that you should use, on how you should be opening up access to the articles. But I think the fact that this body came together with such stringent demands shows you that over the last 25-30 years we have not achieved what we wanted to achieve. And the response from publishers and senior researchers, I might add, was quite aggressive, negative, and unconstructive. So, it showed you that this is a very touchy topic to talk about with publishers, which I find unusual because ultimately publishers are service providing organizations. They provide services for a market and thus the consumers, in this case the funding bodies and the researchers, determine what they will pay and the conditions in many cases how that will go, right, because otherwise they lose their business model. What's exceptional here is that it's the other way around, that the publishers in many cases have been setting the agendas, have been deciding the limits, the rules, and the researchers and the funding bodies have been just going along with it saying, no, that's the way it is, that's the status quo. So, that was a long way to answer your question to say, I do think we are now moving towards open access. It's been very slow over the last few decades. Now with the launch of cOAlition S and specifically Plan S, and a lot of awareness raising from the European Commission side from since 2016, an uptake in some key Western countries, I think we are moving towards it but we are definitely not there. Thank you so much, Gareth, I think that was really informative, what prompted you to move to the European Commission, what did you do in your capacity there. So, just to be clear, I didn't move in the sense of employed by them. My history even before that was always I was very much involved in activism for researchers, and representing, let's say, the needs and the interests of specifically early career researchers wherever I was. And that was from different universities. I was at specifically then in Leiden University at different levels, where I would represent researchers in Leiden, or I would represent researchers at the national level in the Netherlands. There is a national body that represents researchers there. And by extension then other bodies in Europe. We've mentioned it already, Eurodoc, it represents researchers at a European level. So, I was always, let's say, representing researchers at different levels. In the Netherlands, I was involved in open access and providing input to the Dutch government/the Dutch funder and WO on how researchers can move towards open access. And in that respect, I was then also invited at a European level to join the European Commission as an expert to provide input on open science. So, you see the bigger word, right, versus open access, so open science incorporating a lot more than just open access to research publications, but also things such as fair data, open data, open source code, open education, open lab notes, so there's a whole stream of different practices that fall under the open science umbrella. So, in that role I was asked then to give advice, let's say, from the researcher perspective on the movement towards open science. And note that in many of those conversations even today, typically the conversations are between key stakeholders in the research and innovation ecosystem. That could be universities or representatives of universities, that could be funding bodies, that could be the commission or that could be the national governments. But in many cases the researchers themselves are not there, not providing input on where these policies should be going. And that's, I think, often twofold. That's because researchers are up to their eyeballs doing research and lecturing and supporting students, so they don't have a lot of time to do this type of work, which is typically unpaid. And then also, I think it's a lack of foresight or oversight from these organizations that are leading research and innovation, where they set policies, and rather than pull researchers in at an early stage and at an intermediate stage to shape the policies in the right direction, they produce policies, and then afterwards ad hoc release them. And then of course problems arise because researchers in practice have issues with some of the policies, right. So, I was brought in, in this case to talk to researchers as well as some other colleagues. And it just continued. So, I've been doing this for many years, let's say, let's say, providing advice from the researcher side, or from the citizens side even on policies, or researcher’s policies for research policies for open science. You briefly mentioned Eurodoc, so you currently serve as a member of the advisory board for FOSTER as well as the president of Eurodoc. So, maybe starting with FOSTER, I think it would be a good idea to explain what exactly FOSTER is for the listeners? Okay, so let me set the record straight here. So, I stopped Eurodoc several years ago. I was in the advisory board just briefly as the outgoing president, let's say, and then I said goodbye to them and let them move forward. Because every 2 years the whole, let's say, representative group there changes as it should because it consists of Ph.D. candidates and postdocs, right. So, they typically have short contracts, they move too quickly. So, just this typically has short spans of generations. Now FOSTER was a project originally funded under the European Commission to develop skills and a tool for researchers to learn and use open science. That project ended several years ago. It was extended into another follow-on project in a way, an extension called FOSTER Plus. And in FOSTER Plus, I was advising, let's say, in the board, again, to shape the work coming out of the project to provide the perspective of researchers on what way that they would develop the tool. So, you can still go to the website. The website is still up, FOSTER Open Science. And the idea with FOSTER was to have an interactive online website, a tool where you can log in to what's called an LMS, a Learning Management System and you can see different courses on open science, the different aspects and basically use those courses and try to learn open science. That was twofold in that sense. There are some general courses there on open science, so you can learn about the high-level practices. And then there are some specific courses from community members on their actual discipline, and how you could use some open science practices or tools for that specific discipline. So, that project is still there, it's online. In the meantime, there's been a lot of other projects from the European Commission on open science. That continues on. If you are interested, we can go back to that later how that works. So, for instance, I am also advising on a couple of other projects. One, I will namedrop is DRC. And that is a project building on, let’s say, the likes of projects at FOSTER, to develop skills, training for open science and researchers. And there’s a couple of others. There's actually quite a lot of good projects being funded now under the European Commission to help universities develop what open science is and then get that learning to their researchers and help them do it. While you explain FOSTER and I know briefly we've mentioned Eurodoc, understand what Eurodoc is and maybe you can explain it in your own words. Yeah, we can tell them although it's more – it will be more factual about what the organization actually is. It's called the European Council for Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers. This is a nonprofit organization based in Brussels. And the whole point of this organization, which is I think now 20 years of age was an organization set up by and for early career researchers at a European level, right. So, at a national level, you typically have organizations representing researchers. Sometimes there can be multiple representing research, depending on the level that they are, right, so Ph.D.’s, postdocs, or even senior. And the idea was to bring them together and look across Europe to see what they could learn from each other, and how they could take best practices and with a common voice, let’s say, speak for researchers across Europe, not just nationally but also then to key European bodies like the European Commission, or the European University Association, or Science Europe. So, that is their essential mandate. And to give you an example of key topics, we're talking about Ph.D. candidates being actual employees at universities and not students, where they have no salary, to get a fixed stipend, they don't get all the benefits that would be given to an actual paid employed researcher, right? So, in Ireland, for instance, we have Ph.D. students that get a fixed stipend. It's not counted as work. They don't have all rights that you would expect for people doing such work. Whereas in the Netherlands, Ph.D.’s are fully paid full-time employees at universities. And in that respect, they are paid a salary, they pay tax, they are entitled to holiday pay, they are entitled to bonus months at the end of the year, they get their insurance covered, and they get a lot of social benefits like pension payments, and sick leave, maternity-paternity leave, and so forth. So, that would be a key, let’s say, issue for this organization, to try and equalize that across Europe, where some countries, Ph.D.’s are barely recognized as students and have very low salaries and in others they are paid very well and are treated almost like full research staff at the university, right. And this organization is bottom up, so their members at a national level have members, which can be either direct or they can be organizations at university level. They elect people to apply for Eurodoc, then the group altogether selects who should be in the board and the administration and that runs year by year. So, every year you have a board that has specific focus and aims to discuss with key stakeholders how to achieve that focus. You've mentioned early career researchers quite a few times. And in our organization as well, we have worked with them over the last 20 years, mainly from non-native countries like Japan, Korea, China. And we really see and understand their pain. What do you think we as a community, we as an industry can do? Let me check what you mean by their interests because they have many interests, right.? They have their key interest is research. So, to support them to do their research, right. Then, we have policy priorities such as they have to do open science. So, we don't just have to support them to do research, we have to support them to do research in an open manner, right. But then researchers themselves of course also have to do other activities like teach, like supervise students, like go to conferences, publish articles, publish datasets, peer review other articles, or datasets. So, it's supporting researchers in all of these activities that they need to do. But on top of that, researchers of course, there's a psychological side to researchers, right. So, looking at all these different activities they do, the publish or perish mentality, the high competition in academia, we see a lot of talk of toxic environments now, unfortunately. And then of course the fact that many researchers want to stay in academia. We know this from surveys over the years, it's very high, somewhat three-quarters who wants to stay in academia. But in reality most cannot stay, and those that stay, all cannot become assistant, associate, full professors, right. So, there's a pyramid in academia, and statistically most researchers can't stay, and they certainly can't climb to the top. So, there's a lot of stress there. There's a psychological element to it as well where we have to support them. And of course the big question then is, if we train these people over 4 to 5 years, sometimes 3, depends on where they are, to become researchers, do we have an obligation to then help them do research in academia or outside, right? So, many people want to stay in academia, as I said, they need to leave. And the fact is that they are not prepared to leave because the focus has always been on academia. They have no concept of what's out there in the real world, right, in industry. And I think the support there is to help them be aware of the chances that they have to stay, and how they could actually transition to a fulfilling career outside of academia in industry. So, there's a lot of different support points there, I'll let you pick which one you find most relevant. Yeah, I think I mean all of those are really relevant. To be honest, Gareth, we've seen similar trends. I think when we ran a survey, I think, 2 to 2-1/2 years back, what really came up was the amount of mental pressure that the researchers would face. And there was I mean no forum really, no platform to discuss some of those issues. We've also seen in our experience, just there is so much pressure to get it published, like you correctly said, and even when we offer some of the support services, it could be in finding the right journal, or it could be translating the paper or editing a paper, the amount of gratitude that a researcher from a non-native country would show would be amazing. And yes, on one side we would feel a lot of satisfaction seeing that, but at the same time just seeing the pain that they go through. And I guess my main question was around Gareth that if they were to focus on just doing the research, which is essentially the foundation of what they need to do, where are we right now, where do we start? Are we doing enough as a community? I mean I think the answer is clearly no. But what more can we do? I'll take the mental health side, just briefly, because I don't want to focus on that. And then I’ll come back to the support activities. Many years ago, in the Netherlands, we were pushing as representatives of early career researchers that universities needed to pay more attention to the mental health issues and start dealing with it. And the problem was at the time, and it still is, that it just wasn't recognized. Working an 80-hour week was considered normal and good work if you were a researcher. It showed you were dedicated, and it was expected in many cases without question. So, we were pushing this to a large extent in the Netherlands. But it was really hard because it wasn't seen as a serious topic, or it was just brushed under the carpet. Then a bombshell article came out, I think, around 2017, by a colleague, Katia Levecque, at Ghent University in Belgium, where she did an actual systematic study of early career researchers, Ph.D.’s and their stress levels and compared it to the general highly educated population, and I think, specifically in Flanders. And what turned out was that the results were quite shocking, that early career researchers in academia there were suffering high levels of mental health problems. And this paper was one of the most cited papers in the world at the time, but it didn't change a lot. It was still ignored even with the facts. And I remember the discussions at the time where they questioned the research, they questioned the researcher, they questioned everything except the fact that researchers were telling them there's a problem here. We did the same study in the Netherlands, specifically in Leiden. And now granted, it's a much smaller population. The results were the same, if not worse. And I am not pinpointing Leiden for mentally abusing their researchers. It's just a fact of the research life where they have so many activities to do, the pressure is high to perform, the expectations are very high that everybody becomes excellent, which they can't of course, right. That's not the nature of competition. And the fact that many of them don't know where their next job will be and they may need to leave academia, which they don't want to do, right. And I'm not even getting into the gender aspect where many female researchers will delay having children, delay having families, or just outright postpone it so that they can climb that academic ladder, hoping to get a better career. So, I mean, the mental health part is there. That has thankfully recently come into focus. And we see now that it's becoming much more important. It's been taken seriously. At Leiden University where I worked, we came forward with a plan with the executive board at the time, our chair or president, if you will, Carel Stolker took it seriously and said, ‘Okay, how can we deal with this?’ And he let the policy be turned around. He asked the researchers to come forward with proposals, which we did. They've been slow to implement it, I know, but they are taking it seriously, they are implementing it. So, I think my answer there is, pull the researchers in at an early stage, get them involved, take them seriously. And build policies that work. That's the policy side. Now, the specific side I think what we need to do is to reevaluate number one, what is the goal of a Ph.D. Previously, it was to become a researcher. I'll rephrase that. It was to become a researcher at an academic institution. Given the increasing numbers of Ph.D.’s these days, that's not realistic any more. So, we need to reevaluate what the Ph.D. is for. It is not for doing research in academia. It's for doing research, meaning, you can do it in academia, or you can leave academia and do it outside, or you don't have to do research at all, but then you should be helping these people who you've trained for many years, find their career paths. I'm not saying you have to find them a job but give them the tools they need to go look and get that job, which will satisfy them in their future careers. On top of that, I think we need to have a look carefully at the activities researchers are doing, cut it down to the core activities, and make sure that they are indeed not doing 60-80 hour weeks, if not needed. Sometimes that's needed if you're running a lab, if you need to do certain experiments or tests, right, but that shouldn't be the norm every week. And I think this also ties back with how we are actually evaluated in research. And a key driver to change the system. And indeed, if we don't achieve this, it will never change is the research assessment system in academia. So, right now, researchers are almost singularly rewarded for publishing, essentially publications, but not any publication, peer-reviewed publications in High Impact Factor journals and branded journals. And there I mean the journals that we all know, the Springer Nature journals, the Elsevier journals, and we can all list them I think in our own fields. We all know the top journals. That's where researchers aim to publish. That's what they are rewarded on. I can give an anecdote of a colleague who, I won't say where this lady worked. But in her own words, she was a good researcher, hadn't published at a high enough level, her contract was coming to a close, and she had no idea what to do with her future. And then she got her article accepted in Nature, one article, suddenly she got offered a full-time permanent position at a top research university in Europe. Not long after that she achieved a European Research Council grant, this is an excellent grant from the European Commission, highly prestigious, and she was then asked to join a National Academy of Science. And she puts all of this and that phenomenal career trajectory on the acceptance of one article in one journal. And that was the power that that brand of Nature had for the academic community and for this person, particularly, so one article. There are researchers that publish ten, if not hundreds of articles per year, and they would never get that because they don't have it in that correct journal, or the correct prestige, right. So, I think what we need to do here, and that's been coming, and a lot of the change has been driven in the Netherlands again, and I'll call out Utrecht University specifically has been doing a great amount of work there, especially at the Utrecht Medical Center. And they've been trying to change how we assess and reward researchers. So, no more looking at just the publications, but looking at other research activities. So, for instance, looking at the publishing of datasets or making a dataset fair, I'll come back to that, but that's essentially making a dataset machine actionable. So, somebody can find it and do something with it, or a machine can do something with it. And other activities like, for instance, Citizen Science, or teaching or even public engagement. So, the idea is that instead of only focusing or hyper focusing on where did you publish, and how much did you publish, what have you done as a researcher, right? So, what have you done in terms of publishing? Have you opened your data? Have you engaged citizens, for instance, in science communication? Have you engaged citizens in research? Or have you done other activities that are very relevant for the daily work of the university, not just the publications? So, this is happening. It's also happening at a European level. There is a huge drive now towards changing the assessment system. And part of that now is how you include open science activity. So, not just that you do these activities, you publish an article, you publish a dataset, you engage citizens, but that you publish an article in an open journal, that you publish a dataset in an open manner, or in a machine readable manner, or that you engage citizens in a public manner and open up your activities, right. So, this concept of openness is creeping in. It's been driven to a large extent by open science. And I think that's the way forward. I'm not saying that you get only rewarded for openness. The whole goal here is that we talk now of open science because it's clearly not, but 10 years, probably 20 years from now we don't call it open any more, it's just the status quo. There's been a lot of resistance from senior researchers, but that's understandable. They grew up in a closed system. That's how they got to the ranks that they're at. That's the system they know best. That's the system they tell their researchers because they want the researchers to also do well, and they push back against this system, because they see it in a way as a threat to the status quo, or they see it something new. And the irony there, of course, is that where most people would consider researchers as progressive and innovative, academia and researchers are highly conservative. And open science, this is the new player in the game that everybody looks at somewhat skeptically, you know. Thank you so much Gareth. That's all the time we have today. Catch more of this episode in the next part with your host, Nikesh Gosalia. See you soon.