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The Black Hole

New approaches to breaking down barriers in academic science

Equal access to information, experiences and diverse viewpoints needs to be made available to the wider scientific community.


Imagine you are 12 years old and live in a small rural community in the 1970’s. Your schoolteacher assigns you the task of writing about ancient Egypt. Off you trot to the local library to see what details you might be able to extract from the four pages that the well-worn Encyclopedia Britannica has dedicated to the topic.

Now imagine you live in Bloomsbury, central London with the British Library and the British Museum pretty much right on your doorstep. You are that same 12-year-old kid, writing the same report, but the difference now is that you can cross-check facts and collect multiple viewpoints on the same subject. Moreover, you can wander over and actually see the mummies and artifacts – sometimes inspiration comes in the form of a funny looking bandage.

I’m not saying that one set of circumstances will necessarily result in a better assignment (or grade); but there is no doubt in my mind that the greater access to information, experiences, and diverse viewpoints allows for more possibilities.

Such problems are surely all behind us now in the age of the internet – right? Well not quite – not by a long shot. And while some progress is being made, there are huge barriers regarding equal access to resources in academic science. I’ve listed three of the big areas below:

1) Access to research data – one of the funny quirks about the scientific publishing system is that even though the vast majority of articles are online in some form or another, there is often a pay barrier. While this model might make sense for a fashion magazine or newspaper, it is difficult to justify denying publicly funded researchers access to publicly funded research (…but we do). Egregious as this is, the good news is that there are hordes of researchers, campaigners, and organisations fighting for access and substantial progress has been (and continues to be) made.

2) Access to researchers – while there is the obvious barrier of geography with respect to where researchers live/work, there is an additional barrier that is far more subversive – the conference circuit. Even better than the well-resourced “big city” described above, conferences are intimate and focused places where the top researchers, journal editors, companies and organizational brass all come to play. Attendance at these meetings (and the special sub-meetings that I’m only starting to hear about) is a sure-fire way of hearing what’s new and exciting, what’s respected or pooh-poohed and you find yourself at least a few months, if not years, ahead of published research articles.

(N.B. – since becoming a parent with an active role in my child’s first few years, this one has become much more apparent. Despite being in a more senior position, I miss numerous meetings that I would typically have attended during my PhD and postdoctoral training and find that I need to work much harder to keep my ear to the ground with respect to the very newest developments in my field and beyond)

3) Access to editors – career progression in academic science appears to be inextricably linked to publication record. Jobs depend on it, grants depend on it, and careers hang in the balance as top-flight journals decide which papers to publish and which to discard. Well it turns out that you don’t quite have the same circulation of editors in Rio de Janeiro or Adelaide as you do in Boston and London. Conferences are fine for this on occasion (although they present a financial barrier), but nothing beats the research hubs where scientists run into editors at local seminars, meetings, or on the daily commute. Needless to say, this doesn’t apply to everyone.

I feel that the first point (access to the research itself) is heading in the right direction and has major structural and financial support – and I am confident this will get better. The other two however are much more entrenched, intangible, and insipid – they will be much more difficult to address. Therefore, the community has a great need for creative ideas and I thought I would share a few of the more novel ones below:

1) Virtual academic meetings – to combat the financial barrier of conferences, a number of groups have attempted virtual meetings of some form or another. The most interesting one I have come across recently is the Royal Society of Chemistry’s “Twitter Poster Conference”.   The rules are simple: “During the event simply tweet an image (e.g. JPEG) which will be a digital poster summarizing your research along with #RSCPoster, the most appropriate subject area hashtag and the title of your work.” Cool stuff – but not likely to pass muster with those who currently benefit from the personal interactions that physical conferences provide.

2) Publishing reviews – journals like EMBO Journal have begun to have a fully transparent review process and Faculty of 1000 Research tries to solicit peer review(ers) in a open and prospective manner. These approaches can only help with shedding light on the smoke and mirrors surrounding editors and reviewers that we’ve written about before. Not quite a professional body governing editorial ethics, but not bad!

3) Community engagement – a newly launched project/movement that I will be involved with is the eLife Ambassador programme. After the first meeting, it was obvious that the first key ingredient is present – the group spans the globe and people are motivated to improve the current publishing system (and hopefully by extension, academic culture). One of the biggest obstacles to change in academic science is the overwhelming feeling that a single individual or institute is too small to change things. This makes change extremely difficult and, perhaps more importantly, extremely risky. Galvanizing a large group of researchers to help facilitate speedy exchange and adoption of good ideas seems a very strong step in the right direction.

Jonathan and I will always endeavor to keep people abreast of current ideas for helping to shape the future of academic research culture. And, as always, we welcome our readers’ suggestions (and guest posts!) as the Black Hole has always strived to be much more than two writers and their blinkered opinions. The wider community of scientists needs to change the system for itself – and early career researchers have the most to gain.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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