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The Black Hole

Scientists making science better – an eLife experiment

The culture of scientific research desperately needs a makeover. Enter the eLife Ambassador program.


One of the common refrains on our website has been “if scientists don’t care enough to make their situation better, then nobody else is going to do it for them.” Universities won’t sign scores of tenured professors, publishers won’t give up millions of dollars, governments and the public won’t magically recognize the long-term value of scientific research, etc., etc. So, it is down to the scientists themselves (more or less) to make these changes and many throw up their hands in despair saying “how can I, one person, possibly make a difference?” Fair enough – we don’t all have the desire or ability to become a Ben Goldacre, Jenny Rohn or David Gorski.

So what can individual scientists do? We can lobby locally for things like daycare, pay rises, or mentorship programs; we can start a larger conversation around an issue of national/international importance by writing for popular media or scientific journals; we can start blogs or websites (in my field I can think of two in particular that are useful: The Niche and StemCellAssays), etc, etc… these are the standard ways and often the very hard work and dedication of these individuals gets lost in the shuffle.

In fact, even as readers of this series, you are amongst the minority of scientists who bother to search out such issues on the internet. This means that scientists are not generally unaware of efforts or ideas to make the research environment better (we are good at focusing on the task at hand after all!). How then do we maximize the benefit of the activity that is already taking place while also encouraging new efforts to drive change?

One particular efforts that piqued my curiosity is the new initiative by eLife – the eLife Ambassador program. The 150+ ambassadors are meant to develop, support and spread the good word of initiatives that change the culture of science. Things like preprint servers, reproducibility of experiments, and peer review practices – the stuff that matters when it comes to getting the science right and getting the word “out there.” I’ve joined the ambassador group to keep abreast of developing topics, to help where possible, and hopefully try to drive a project or two with the vast network of early career researchers.

In my mind, the most powerful aspect of this group is the geographical breadth of its members – when good ideas crop up, they can be immediately communicated (and maybe even adopted) across the world. As we write our book on the big ticket items affecting scientists today, Jonathan and I know all too well about the poor uptake of great ideas (including those that are free to implement!) – just like we build our scientific research off the backs of others, so to we should build our culture change.

Hopefully some of our readers will be keen to partake in the eLife Ambassador program in the future – check out progress on Twitter, the ECR blog and read the midterm update from the Ambassador program.

A couple of my favourite initiatives so far are summarized below:

Information gathering (survey of new group leaders)

Sophie Acton (UCL) undertook a survey to assess the wants/needs/mistakes/successes of new group leaders in the U.K. (#NewPI Survey) with the intention of collating useful information and resources for people and institutions for the oh-so-fun times of finding a place to begin a new lab. Stay tuned (or follow her twitter account @ActonLab) to see what comes out next!

Researching research practice (meta-research)

I’ve written about meta-research on the Black Hole before and believe this is a a fair and quantitative approach to determining which stories about scientific practice/culture have some data behind them. Anyone can find a one-off example, but Tracey Weissgerber and co. are looking to support such patterns with numbers. Their first project on the quality of reporting for images in scientific publications has now launched – let’s see what happens!

Overall message though – don’t bury your head in the sand…  the culture of scientific research desperately needs a makeover and we need to work together to create change.  And, as always, please feel free to reach out to Jonathan or I to touch base on your issue of interest or to write a guest post.

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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