Skrivet av: rebeccamw | 2019/08/20

Open and replicable science cannot save us from academia

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P-hacking and other questionable research practices were described in the scientific literature as early as 1830 by Charles Babbage in his book “Reflections on the Decline of Science in England and on Some of Its Causes”. That was 189 years ago, and he was not the first: “That science has long been neglected and declining in England, is not an opinion originating with me, but is shared by many, and has been expressed by higher authority than mine”. Babbage wrote his impopular book because he found it absolutely necessary for academia to change in order to save science:“Of the causes which have induced me to print this volume I have little to say; my own opinion is, that it will ultimately do some service to science, and without that belief I would not have undertaken so thankless a task.”

Thanks to Babbage’s whistleblowing, academia changed and questionable research practices are today mere anecdotes we tell undergradute students during their first lessons in scientific methods.

No?

No. Academia didn’t change and science wasn’t saved. 200 years after Babbage’s book, academia remains the same, but worse: insecure employments; unhealthy hierarchies; unhealthy work-life balance; unwanted relocation to secure a position; administrative focus on quantity rather than quality; career development rather than scientific development; fear of sharing ideas, data and materials with colleagues; publish or perish. These are the things that make us employ questionable research practices. Academia might once have been created for the sake of science, but if so, that purpose was lost a very long time ago.

Babbage described the exact same problems that we are still struggling with. He worried about too few positions in academia for scientists and that there were too many scientists–especially leaders–who cared more about their career and reputation than about science. Babbage argued that science lose out when researchers need to support their leaders to protect their own positions. “The habits of […] obedience and command […] are little fitted for that perfect freedom which should reign in the councils of science”, he wrote. He described the need for open discussion, non-anonymous criticism, and the importance of scientific discussions not being competitive or about winning. He insisted that the public had a right to read and review scientific work paid by public funds, and he expressed frustration over public funds being misplaced on irrelevant administration.

Babbage also wrote about the importance for scientists to have enough time free from teaching and non-scientific responsibilities to focus on their research. This view is brought up again 67 years later by the renowned neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal in his book “Advice for a Young Investigator”. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (2016) writes about it in his book “Rest: Why you get more done when you work less” (p’s 20-21):

“[…] Santiago Ramón y Cajal warned aspiring young scientists that two major impediments would stand in their way as they tried to make new discoveries. First, science had become a source of industrial and political power, and growth of the scientific community, as well as faster communication within the community through journals, conferences, and newspapers, had made science faster and more competitive. No longer could scientists afford to “concentrate for extended periods of time on one subject” […]. One had to hurry to stay ahead of the competition. “Research is now frantic,” he warned, and this meant that fast, superficial science – and lots of it – won over slower, deeper, and more profound work.

Second, most scientists assumed that long hours were necessary to produce great work and that “an avalanche of lectures, articles, and books” would loosen some profound insight. This was one reason they willingly accepted a world of faster science: they believed it would make their own science better. But this was a style of work, Ramón y Cajal argued, that led to asking only shallow, easily answered questions rather than hard, fundamental ones. It created the appearance of profundity and feelings of productivity but did not lead to substantial discoveries. Choosing to be prolific, he contended, meant closing off the possibility of doing great work.”

To do good science, we need “cerebral polarization or sustained concentration” (p. 30), Pang reports from reading “Advice for a Young Investigator”, and we need rest (p. 31):

Diversions that are “light and promote the association of new ideas” are to be taken freely. Long walks, art, and music offer good material for a break. And if, after a period of sustained concentration, a breakthrough does not come, “yet we feel success is just around the corner, try resting for a while.” A few weeks of “relaxation and quiet in the countryside brings calmness and clarity to the mind”, and provides “intellectual refreshment.” Even getting there can provide creative stimulus: “the powerful vibration of the locomotive and the spiritual solitude of the railway car,” he says, will often “suggest ideas that are ultimately confirmed in the laboratory.”

The replicability revolution we currently see, primarily in the life and social sciences, calls for increased scientific rigor. Just like Charles Babbage did 189 years ago. What is the difference now? Why would we succeed this time?

The answer is that we now have computers and internet and that the current revolution is co-occurring with a different movement: the movement for open science.

By coincidence, the movement for open science can actually also be traced back to Charles Babbage. One of the early computer pioneers, Babbage can arguably be considered to have played at least a small role in sparking the openness movements that later emerged during the early 1980’s with software developer Richard Stallman at MIT and the free (libre) open source software movement. The openness movements have offered empirical scientists the tools we need to improve the scientific rigor of our work: open data; open code and materials; version control and digital preregistration; open and rapid access to scientific reports (e.g. preprints); open licenses (e.g. Creative Commons); unrestricted word limits in scientific publications. Today we finally have a reproducibility movement, hand in hand with the openness movements. And this is why we have such a great potential to succeed this time.

The reproducibility movement became a movement, especially in psychology, some time during 2010-2011. University of Virginia was and still is one of the epicenters for the movement through the important and hard work by scholars such as Brian Nosek, Barbara Spellman, and Jeff Spies. This year, the movement–or revolution as it is often called–has been ongoing for 9 years. Brian Nosek (2019) recently posted on Twitter about a new form that faculty members at the university must complete, including the following items:

  • Number of completed peer-reviewed publications
  • Number of unpublished/incomplete active projects
  • H-index
  • Cumulative citation count
  • Annual citation count
  • Annual patents count
  • External invited talks count
  • Books published count
  • Book chapters count

9 years at the epicenter of revolution, and this is where we are?

Academia remains the same and I fear that the only change we will accomplish within the current system is to raise the stakes; adding pressure to already stressed out researchers by telling them that they now also need to conduct science in new and additional ways.

  • Number of completed peer-reviewed publications
  • Number of completed peer-reviewed publications that are open access
  • Number of completed peer-reviewed publications that were preregistered
  • Number of completed peer-reviewed publications with open data
  • Number of unpublished/incomplete active projects
  • Number of unpublished/incomplete active preregistrations
  • Number of preprints that are not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal
  • H-index
  • Cumulative citation count
  • Annual citation count
  • Annual patents count
  • Annual open licenses count
  • Annual open badges count
  • External invited talks count
  • Books published count
  • Book chapters count

Raising the stakes at this point, in traditional academia, is not the solution we are looking for. Academics will find shortcuts to meet the new requirements for publication, just like they did with the previous requirements.

The goal of academia has for at least 200 years primarily been to make money to fund expensive and inefficient habits such as superfluous administration; buildings; subscription fees for access to scientific articles; and more recently, to fund proprietary software. I think it is pretty fair to say that academia has become counter-productive to science. The change we are longing for can thus not be found within the existent academia. Not 189 years ago. Not 9 years ago. Not today.

So what is the solution?

I believe the solution is pretty straightforward: science would be better off without academia, so why not cut the ties? Many of the great discoveries did not come from the universities, Babbage (1830) pointed out, but from scientists working for themselves. Researchers don’t need academia, we never have. We can organise ourselves in other ways or reinvent academia from scratch: less and more efficient administration; cheaper buildings or no buildings at all; open access (or Sci-Hub) instead of subscriptions; free and open source software; location independence to allow researchers, students, administrative and technical staff to work from wherever they want to or need to be; and completely flexible work hours (researchers should probably not count work hours at all).

Researchers have tried for at least 200 years to change academia and they have all failed. So would we. So let’s not do that. Let’s instead build something new, a new academia. We can create many new ways for scientists to organise themselves. Maybe something like IGDORE or Ronin. Maybe something different. Let’s try, shall we?


References

*Babbage. C. (1830). Reflections on the decline of science in England and on some of its causes. London: B. Fellowes, Ludgate Street; J. Booth, Duke Street, Portland Place.

Nosek, B. (2019). https://twitter.com/BrianNosek/status/1110946407316369413.

Pang, A. S. K. (2016). Rest: Why you get more things done when you work less. Penguin Random House UK.


*Please forgive me the sloppy Babbage references. They are based on personal notes I made while reading the book and I had not recorded the page numbers. I’m happy to help you find the page source for a particular statement should you not be able to find it yourself.


Responses

  1. Hi there! Thank you for posting your thoughts on this topic. I am a mid-career professional who is considering applying for a PhD in psychology. I like your thinking as I can clearly see that research and teaching are separate. However, many researchers need a venue to talk about their work, and students do need educators. What are your thoughts about the knowledge transfer aspect of graduate study?

    • Hi Sandy! Thank you for reading! Research and teaching are two separate things but they can both definitely occur within the same organisation. I’m not proposing to leave the students behind in traditional academia while the researchers leave for a new academia. The students also need a better work environment, etc, just like the researchers do.

  2. Very nice article, however the problem is that journals only accept articles (especially with human participants) of experiments that were approved by an ethics committee. How are you going to do research as an independent researcher as you say, when you are forced to use ethics committees by universities?

    • Thank you for your comment! Ethics review is indeed a crucial point.

      The laws on ethics review for research on humans are very different in different countries. For example in US you’ll find a number of limited companies specialised in ethical review of research conducted outside of traditional academia. Such reviews can cost the applicant about 10.000 USD or more. Sweden practices a law that only makes it possible to ethically review certain types of research with humans; completely anonymous research with adults about non-sensitive topics *can* be ethically reviewed if the researcher really wants to, but cannot receive any formal ethical approval. Yet other countries, such as Indonesia, makes it possible for individual researchers to ask the closest university if their IRB can review their research.

      Research institutes, such as IGDORE and Ronin, can also set up their own ethical review boards. Likely will such review boards in the beginning be focused on meeting the eligibility criteria in one or a few selected countries, for example the country from which they have most researchers being in need of the service. US seems to be a country that really needs competition on this area to push down the unethically(!) high prices on ethical review outside of traditional academia.


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